The Overstory by Richard Powers

Review by Peter Reason

This is a novel about the place of humans in the living world. Too serious, too philosophical, you might say? But this is also a gripping adventure story in which the lives of nine human protagonists are entwined with each other in dramatic action to prevent the destruction of ancient forests. Richard Powers has written an ecological novel that is hugely entertaining while addressing issues of great contemporary significance.

The eight chapters of the first part, subtitled Roots, are almost stand-alone short stories, portraying the early lives of nine diverse Americans, including a sculptor descended from a line of Norwegian immigrant farmers; an engineer, one of three sisters born of a refugee from Maoist China and his wife from a Southern plantation family; a veteran, badly wounded over Laos, now a dropout; and an Indian American computer whizz-kid and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, paraplegic since he fell from a tree as a young teenager. The thread that links these individual stories is an association with a tree—the chestnut grown from seed by an ancestor, the tree planted for them as a child, the mulberry in the backyard, the banyan that broke the vet’s fall from his damaged plane, the tree they walked past every day without noticing it.

As we follow these stories, the salience of trees develops. At first, they seem incidental, then intriguing, until the reader realises they are integral to the story, even intentional protagonists. This is first made explicit in the story of Patricia Westerfield, a hearing- and speech-impaired scientist: she learned to appreciate trees and forests on long expeditions with her father, and in her early professional career discovers that trees within forests communicate with each other. This view was seen as impossibly foolish in the 1980s, and it costs her her academic reputation; today it is increasingly accepted. But are the trees in some ways communicating with humans as well?

In the second part of the novel, Trunk, the lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other and with the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. Some of the protagonists meet and collaborate; others are indirectly or quite tangentially involved. During this second part, the trees themselves, and the forests of which they are a part, increasingly become personalities in the drama, personalities with whom some of the human actors feel they are communicating directly. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes that make the book difficult to put down: the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences. The third part, Crown, recounts the lives of the human actors after the protests. According to their character and circumstance, some retreat into obscurity, some continue their activism in new forms, others carry on their everyday lives: there is tragedy, betrayal, new initiatives, and the enigma of ‘unsuicide’. It is evident that the task of protecting these ancient, sentient beings that inhabit the planet alongside humans is far from finished. Then in the last few pages of the final part, Seeds, we realise that while the work of the humans may be over, trees, life, continues.

I recommend this book because the writing is precise and elegant without intruding on the narrative; and because one grows to care about the characters — human and arboreal; the descriptions of places and events are compelling. After my first reading, as I return to the book to make notes for this review, I find myself drawn back in to a second close read. I see details I missed, make new connections, and find myself deeply appreciating the quality of writing, the imagination, and the extensive research. Yet the novel is not beyond criticism. At 502 pages it is very long, and there are extended passages of detail that seem tangential. One critic suggests that some of the characters could be edited out without loss. Readers may feel, with the Irish Times critic, that ‘This high-octane earnestness is self-defeating’; others may prefer The Guardian’s view that it is ‘high-minded but never precious’. I found, since the human characters are introduced in separate stories in the first eight chapters, the first third of the book felt rather fragmented, and it was not always easy to remember who was who as their lives became intertwined.

The Overstory is more than an epic read. It is also a novel that addresses the challenges of our times, the ecological catastrophe that some call the Anthropocene, when collective human actions are having debilitating impacts on life on earth and on the integrity of the larger ecosystems that make life as we know it possible. The author’s focus is on the way we humans treat trees and sentient forest as no more than so many cubic feet of lumber; but the message can be taken further to address loss of animal species, acidification of oceans, and climate change. Coincidentally, as I write this review, I read of the population crash of seabirds on Sumberg Head in Shetland, described by conservationists as ‘apocalyptic’, directly attributed to anthropogenic climate change.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, the author Richard Powers speaks of his desire to challenge human exceptionalism, arguing that it is hard for humans to feel at home in the world; he aims to help ‘to close the gap between people and other living things.’ What would it be like if we knew—really knew, not just as scientific abstraction—that trees communicate with each other? That forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms? What would it mean if we took on board that they can, in their own way, communicate with us? How would this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? Of course, this worldview is not so unexpected for some people. My colleague, Donna Ladkin, remembers walks in the woods near Washington DC she took as a child with her grandfather, a man of Black and Native American ancestry she called Pepere. On these walks, Pepere taught her to talk with trees; not only talk, but to listen to them. He would tell her to walk quietly, and say, “See if you can hear the trees talkin’ to one another.”
One of the great achievements of this novel is the way it draws the reader into adopting such a view. I have been drafting this review in the days following my mother-in-law’s death. The family has been reflecting on her long and full life, her loves and laughs, her grief and suffering, her kindness and her stubbornness. Richard Powers draws the reader into a story through which we are able, in a similar way, to reflect on and value the qualities of ancient trees, indeed of whole forests; how they have grown in complexity and interconnection of many beings, develop their own unique character, so that they are an integral part of life on Earth. ‘Mimas’ in particular, the huge ancient redwood up which ‘Watchman’ and ‘Maidenhair’ live for weeks as part of the protest against logging, is a being they live with as much as on. Yet maybe we can also learn from Patricia’s deep appreciation of a fallen tree trunk, gradually rotting, and as it does, providing sustenance for myriad creatures.

There are huge challenges involved in writing a successful ecological novel. In his book The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh asks why the ecological catastrophe of our times, and climate change in particular, is so rarely addressed in literary fiction: there is even less attention to ecological matters in literary fiction than there is in contemporary public discourse. Ghosh and others put this down to the predominance of what might be called ‘the bourgeois novel’ which aims to set a human psychological drama within a taken-for-granted context from which extra-ordinary, improbable events are excluded. Novels that address climate change tend to be classed as science fiction or fantasy rather than as literary fiction.

Powers refers obliquely to the bourgeois novel, perhaps self-consciously, when one of the characters attempts to return to normality after the drama of direct action: ‘He tries to read a novel, something about privileged people having trouble getting along with each other in exotic locations. He throws it against the wall’. The Overstory is not such a bourgeois novel, even though it is one that includes loves and lives, the bravery and cowardice, of characters with whom the reader can identify as they live through their choices and the consequences that arise. Powers arguably employs some of the tropes of the bourgeois novel but takes us beyond the stories of the human protagonists, so that we come to identify with the trees and the forests and to experience directly their predicament.

As Powers says in the LARB interview,

If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees! But such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers…. My compromise was to tell a story about nine very different human beings who, for wildly varying reasons, come to take trees seriously. Between them, they learn to invest trees with the same sacred value that humans typically invest only in themselves. And in doing so, they violate one of individual-centered capitalism’s greatest taboos.

It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.

Further Reading:

  • Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books, 2015.
  • Ladkin, Donna. Talking with Trees: Remembering the Language of HomeReVision 23, no. 4 (2001): 40-43.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicogo and London: Chicago University Press, 2016.

BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. (William Heinemann, 2018).  978-1785151644, 512pp., hardback.

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, and on Twitter @peterreason

2 thoughts on “The Overstory by Richard Powers

  1. I have been infinite this book since I first heard about it and was sorry not to get the e-galley. This review is fantastic. I’ll be buying the book for sure.

  2. Love this review Peter, especially with all the additional context you bring to it. I bought myself this book after another friend recommended it. I must make the time to read it. Thank you.

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