The Overstory

A simple description of The Overstory by Richard Powers is that it’s a novel about nine people and their relationships with trees.

Sounds weird, right? Well, The Overstory is definitely an unusual novel. But it’s much more, and much stranger than any simple description can convey. It’s a multi-storied book in both senses of the word: multiple narratives and multiple levels.

Cover of The Overstory

The Overstory
By Richard Powers
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018

At one level, the book is about nine people, about how their life stories evolve, twist, and branch, about how some of them intersect and become entwined with each other both heroically and tragically. And it is about how each of them develop relationships with trees over the course of their lives.

At another level, it’s about the trees themselves: chestnut, mulberry, elm, gingko, Douglas fir, and especially California redwood. These trees are also central characters in the novel. It’s about their lives, their histories, and their relationships with each other and with us.

I think Powers is trying to do something really important and wonderful with this book. He’s trying to broaden our understanding of story to be about more than just humans in conflict. He’s trying to include the natural world – represented here by trees – as integral characters in the story.

“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” [p. 383]

Powers has written a compelling novel about the contest for the world. The outcome is by no means certain.

If there’s a unifying theme to the novel, an over-story if you will, it is about how we all – humans and trees – fit together. We exist within the natural world. We are part of it. We depend on it. The natural world is just as important a character in our stories and our lives as the other humans we interact with, struggle with, and fall in love with.

Why has he written this? Well, here I’m speculating, but I suspect that Powers, like many of us, has come to realize that we’ve pushed the environment to the brink of destruction, and we need to think and act differently if we are to save it and save ourselves.

Powers is saying that we must stop looking at the environment solely in terms of how it might be useful to humans. “Useful is the catastrophe,” one of the characters says to herself.

Instead of looking at a tree or a forest as just so many square feet of lumber to be cut down, we should see it as a complex ecosystem that we only dimly understand; one that supports millions of species of plants, animals, fungus, and bacteria, that produces oxygen, sequesters carbon, filters water, and could be a source of food and medicines.

As a novelist, a storyteller, Powers seems to understand that people won’t be convinced to change their ways by facts and figures or by reason alone because “… reason is what’s turning all the forests of the world into rectangles.” Something else is needed.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” [p. 488]

That’s what Powers has written.

The Overstory was partly inspired by the work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, whose pioneering research has uncovered how trees interact and communicate with each other. You will definitely learn a lot about trees and forest ecosystems from this book.

It certainly is a novel of environmentalism, of ecology, of dendrology – the study of trees – but it’s not preachy or didactic. The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, is beautifully written: rich, dense, matted, interconnected.

Powers spreads the vocabulary of trees throughout the book like wind-blown pollen: burl, bole and bract, phloem, xylem and cambium, involucres, petiole, and hypha. You might want to keep a dictionary nearby.

Here’s his description of how a couple of the characters, driving west, first encounter the California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, the ever-living Sequoia:

“The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-swooping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved, Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns and moss-swarmed floor—straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.”  [p. 211]

The idea of seeing ourselves as a part of the environment, rather than separate from it, is not new. I think indigenous peoples around the world have always understood this. But for us Westerners, we so-called moderns, it’s an idea we must re-learn, and quickly. 

The Overstory might be a new kind of novel, one fit for our time, a powerful story that helps us reintegrate ourselves into the world before it’s too late.

Several times in the book, characters ask,

“What wouldn’t a person do, to help the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation?” [p. 345]

It’s never entirely clear if those “most wondrous products” are trees or humans or both. Either way, I think Powers has helped us all by writing The Overstory.

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