Imagine that the planet was born at midnight and that its coming-of-age is measured in the course of a 24-hour day. The first few hours are populated only by cooling gasses and asteroids. Single-cell life appears at about 4 am, and doesn’t begin to differentiate into the precursors of plants and animals until late afternoon. By 9 pm there are jellyfish and worms, and dinosaurs show up at 11 pm. By 11:59 pm, animals begin to organize and remember, to learn and then find ways to communicate what they know. Modern man comes onto the scene during the last few seconds before midnight, and almost immediately begins to pull the whole amazing structure of the day down around our ears.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a novel that explores the enormous question of what it is to be an individual in an expanding global community, and to be the relative newcomers to an ancient, complex, and doggedly fascinating natural world. The story spans several cultures and multiple generations to show us how recent and temporary humans really are against billions of years of natural history, and what an enormous threat we’ve so quickly proven to be to it and to ourselves. We are the unruly guests on a planet that was doing just fine without us, and The Overstory beautifully gives voice to a natural world that can only stand in mute horror at our behaviour.
The term 'overstory' is a botanical term for the highest layers of vegetation in a forest, mainly the canopy created by the treetops. The 'understory,' then, is everything happening beneath that canopy — all of the plants and animals that can live and thrive thanks to the environment that the overstory makes possible. The plot of Richard Powers’ novel mirrors that symbiotic structure, with its action and energy largely propelled by the unlikely catalyst of trees.
As a reader who came to this book knowing next to nothing about trees, I wondered how interesting a whole book about them could really be? What I found were six storylines across several decades and locations, and each one left me fascinated and unsettled.
A narcissistic college party-girl comes back from the dead and realizes that trees can talk.
Two eco-warriors spend 10 months living 200 feet up, in a thousands-of-year-old redwood to prevent it from being cut down.
A man travels across the United States performing acts of guerilla art in a campaign against deforestation.
A volatile and claustrophobic marriage is brought back from ruin by a dog-eared guide to local trees.
A stoic PHD student is made complicit in acts of domestic terrorism and ultimately murder while studying the psychological traits of environmentalists.
And peppered throughout these riveting personal stories, is the miraculous evidence of how fundamental trees are to every event on earth.
At one point, a character says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” In The Overstory, Richard Powers gives us a modern fable that is a beautiful and often heartbreaking appeal to rethink our relationship with the world around us, if only to save ourselves. The result is a very odd and compelling thing: a story whose plot is driven by its landscapes.
The Overstory has nine main characters, each with their own motivations, tragedies and triumphs.
Nick is an affable but rudderless artist from a family of Norwegian farmers. Mimi is an overachieving engineer, following in the footsteps of her Chinese immigrant father.
Adam is a PhD student of psychology, falling somewhere on the autism spectrum and far more comfortable studying people than being among them.
Douglas is a gentle, damaged Vietnam veteran drifitng across the USA doing odd jobs and reading ancient epics to the animals in his care.
Neelay is a coding genius, achieving massive wealth and near-complete isolation as he creates new gaming universes from his wheelchair.
Patricia is a paradigm-shifting botanist, introverted and uniquely positioned to witness the miracles of the natural world through her complete immersion in it.
Olivia is a reckless, selfish college student who wakes up from a near-death experience with a calling to save the planet.
Ray and Dorothy are a mismatched lawyer and stenographer, amateur actors living out the drama of a miserably failing marriage.
And while the novel absolutely requires these characters to move it forward, they are really just the understory in a central fable where trees are the protagonists. Redwoods, banyans, maples, firs and countless other trees populate every page of this book, and Powers affords them all a startling agency and intelligence. Their power doesn’t come just from their vital relationship to humans, in which they “call the shots, make the weather, feed creation, and create the very air”.
Powers proves, through scientific facts that read like poetry, that trees have rich lives of their own. He describes how trees in a forest are connected through their root systems, redirecting their own resources to the trees that are too sick or too young to survive on their own. These trees will communicate with each other to warn of insect infestations, giving other trees the chance to release natural insecticides to protects themselves and the trees around them. They know when to intensify the scent of their flowers to entice animals nearer to them, animals who will then carry away their seeds in their fur or their stomachs to deposit elsewhere, widening the breadth of the forest.
With these and so many other examples, Powers shows the reader that trees have a sense of self-protection, community, adaptability and awareness: that trees have intent. We are left caring deeply about their well-being and survival, far beyond their utility to us.
Like everything else in The Overstory, the themes that run throughout the novel are thought-provoking and intertwined. Interconnectedness itself emerges as one of the central themes of the book, as Powers uses an overarching environmental message to illustrate our vital connection to everything around us. This theme is reflected in the story’s structure, which is organized into chapters titled, “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds,” with the nine main characters acting as the branches of the narrative tree. Each section is distinct but dependent on all of the others to function properly, mirroring Powers’ assertion that there are “no separate trees in the forest.” From the legacies of family and culture, to the vast and exponential network of the internet, to the tiny accidents of evolution that have such enormous global influence. Powers shows us a planet where everything depends on everything else.
And hand in hand, with that dependency is the responsibility to keep that symbiotic relationship thriving. Unchecked growth inside of a finite system inevitably leads to collapse, and we keep growing as though our resources will last forever. It is estimated that when humans first appeared on the planet, Earth had 6 trillion trees. Only half of those remain today, and scientists forecast that another half, again, will disappear in the next hundred years, if we don’t rethink our relationship with the natural world. In one of my favourite lines from the book, Powers writes that allowing entire species of trees to vanish is like “burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records.” Our behaviour is having devastating effects, and if we don’t stop there won’t be a single one of us left to regret what we’ve lost.
The Overstory explores what rights and responsibilities an individual has in the face of a larger, communal threat. The novel highlights the apathy that many feel towards environmental issues, and their unwillingness to curb their behaviour to defend against a looming danger. It’s very easy to draw parallels between environmental concerns like conservation and climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve now been struggling with for the better part of a year. Both issues are global in scale, potentially affecting every one of us. Both rely heavily on science and expert knowledge to accurately convey both the scope of the threats, and the ways we can protect against them. Both exist on a large-scale timeline, with no definitive “solution” in sight, just the best ways of adapting in order to reduce the risk for now. It’s difficult to appreciate the enormity and urgency of either issue until you are among the unfortunate people who have been directly impacted. Both issues ultimately hinge on the actions of the individual to keep the community safe.
Maybe the most interesting similarity between the environmental movement and the pandemic is the startling divisiveness they’ve given rise to. When the enormous danger of something like mass deforestation — or mass gatherings — has been so clearly demonstrated, it seems mind-boggling that some people would decide not to believe that the risks are important, or even real. But part of the challenge, and the beauty, of being part of a society is that there will always be differing views. When asked who on earth wouldn’t support environmental protection efforts, a character answers, “Lumberjacks. Libertarians. People who believe in human destiny. People who need decks and shingles.” There will always be different perspectives and evolving knowledge, and the best we can do is adapt to new information in ways that keep the most people safe.
No matter what your politics, your interest in natural history, or your position on environmental activism might be, it’s impossible not to find at least one truly fascinating thing in The Overstory. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to jot down every new idea it offers you, so you can Google the hell out of it all and find out more. It’s a big story that covers a lot of ground, and it makes for a unique kind of reading experience. With so many characters and settings and storylines, you can’t approach this book as you would a typical novel. It is, after all, a modern fable, and the point of a fable is to teach a fundamental, universal lesson in an engaging way. Expect to come away entertained, curious, and thinking a bit differently about your relationship to the planet, and to everything on it.
And if that isn’t intriguing enough, read The Overstory just to find out how trees are responsible for our ability to see colours, why we are all prone to a tendency called pareidolia, and what exactly The Doctrine of Signatures means — I promise you it’s worth the read. Then scrounge up a natural field guide to anything and start paying attention, because it’s all so extraordinary, and so terribly fragile.
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