I finished this monumental novel last year, and felt overwhelmed by it. I read it slowly, though easily, savouring each page. I’d never read anything like it, but with every page turned, I already knew that I would offer it as a gift, and, because it’s a big, beautiful book that should be read in its hardcover version if possible—it’s gorgeous and the font is perfect—I then tried to figure out who would love it as much as I did.
Then, in early 2019, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I felt like saying to everyone I had spoken to about the book: You see?! You see?!
This won’t be a review of Richard Powers’ book. The best review you could possibly read is Barbara Kingsolver’s, in the New York Times (April 9th, 2018). But it will express my appreciation of the book, and leave it up to you to get your hands on a copy, and read it too.
In biological terms, the overstory is the layer of foliage in a forest canopy, and the trees contributing to that canopy; and the understory is the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover. Defined this way, both terms relate perfectly to the novel. But what gives the latter its grandeur, is that in it, they also function as perfect metaphors, because though nine human characters populate Powers’ narrative, it’s the trees—especially old growth forests—that are the overarching protagonists: the tragic heroes, rising into the sky, perhaps looking down at humans, disconsolate.
In the opening paragraph of her review of the book, Barbara Kingsolver writes:
“Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighbourhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”
It’s a perfect summary of everything that makes trees wondrous, and it’s all true. It is documented and recounted beautifully in Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, What They Feel, How They Communicate. It isn’t news, it’s accepted science—though the latter has only begun to fathom its mysteries—and it’s perhaps the grandest, most important, ignored story in the world.
It’s while teaching in Palo Alto, California, that Powers first encountered a giant redwood in an old growth forest, an experience that he says shook him. And it’s the great realm of the trees, and humankind’s relationship with them—which can perhaps be described as ignorant, fickle, yet utterly dependent—that Richard Powers has taken on in The Overstory.
The novel is set in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s. The first part of the book introduces us to eight of the nine disparate characters we will be following throughout the rest of the narrative. In ways unique to each of them, trees have played a (sometimes catastrophic) part in shaping their paths. It’s in the last three chapters, titled simply: Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, that their paths intersect, and the novel reaches a climax inspired by the Redwood Summer of 1990: a three-month movement of environmental activism aimed at protecting old-growth redwood trees from logging by northern California timber companies.
The Overstory isn’t a perfect book. Though its characters are finely drawn and their journeys are compelling, Powers floods the reader with entreaties to wake up to the environmental catastrophe that humankind is inflicting upon the natural world, and more specifically, its lungs: the forests. But the magic of his writing is that it also saturates the reader with the sights, smells, sounds, humidity, verticality, density, beauty, majesty and heterogeneity of the forest and successfully evokes a sense of awe and urgency.
Powers himself, in interviews, uses the terms environmentalism and activism, which are certainly themes in the novel, but I also think that the book encourages the reader to reflect upon the conditions that can lead to radicalization—a direction several of the novel’s characters follow.
In 2019, we find a new generation carrying that same torch, in movements like Extinction Rebellion, which is still growing. The literature is all there, accessible to most of us, but there seems to be no way to awaken us to the urgency of the environmental message of which trees are the most eloquent example: that all life is interdependent, and that we are running out of time.
“The modern human assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are “just property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species problem. ‘Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.'”- Richard Powers, from a Guardian interview