The Overstory: The secret life of trees

The Overstory by Richard Powers The Overstory: The secret life of treesThe Overstory by Richard Powers

… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

The Overstory (2018) is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy: how humans relentlessly annihilate these priceless resources, and what drives some people to eco-terrorism.

The Overstory is brilliantly organized in a form that reflects an actual tree. It begins with a section aptly titled “Roots,” a set of eight apparently unconnected stories in which we meet nine disparate characters: An artist whose family home in Iowa boasts one of the last healthy American chestnut trees. The engineer daughter of a Chinese immigrant. An odd, unmotivated teenager inspired by a book about human behavior and psychology. An intellectual property attorney who falls in love with an unconventional stenographer. A Vietnam veteran who stumbles into a job planting seedlings to replace mature trees that have been cut down. A brilliant computer programmer, permanently disabled by a fall from a tree. A postdoc, hearing- and speech-impaired woman who studies trees, discovering that they communicate with each other, and is ridiculed for her conclusions. And a beautiful, careless college undergrad who dies from an accidental electrocution and returns to life with a vision and a purpose. And all of these characters have been deeply affected by trees, in one way or another.

Richard Powers traces the lives of these nine people ― often back to their childhood or even their ancestors ― to explore how they have developed into the people they are. These introductory stories of their lives are excellent and insightful; good enough that they could stand alone as individual short stories. But Powers is just getting started.

In the next section, “Trunk,” their lives come together and begin to affect each other. Four of them become eco-warriors, part of the tree-hugging movement whose proponents will do almost anything to stop the logging and stripping of irreplaceable mature redwoods and old-growth forests. “Trunk” culminates in a terrible, unexpected event that will change their lives forever. And so we proceed to “Crown” and then the shorter, final section, “Seeds.”

The Overstory is a little bit magical realism, with messages being shared with some of the characters by some mystical source, and a little bit science fiction, as the genius computer programmer develops video games that turn into a type of artificial intelligence. But mostly Richard Powers is trying to convince us, as readers, of the wondrous nature of trees, and to treat trees, and our world generally, with deeper respect. The novel shifts its focus somewhat in the final section, with a somewhat cryptic hint that trees may well outlast humanity.

Parts of The Overstory rate five stars, easily, but personally I hit a bit of a wall with the lengthy middle section, “Trunk.” As brilliantly written as the book is, it’s also sometimes slow-paced, repetitious and didactic, as Powers delves into the evils of the corporations and groups who are indiscriminately cutting down trees and eliminating forests, and the worst of the tactics they use against those who try to oppose them. I think this novel would have benefited by being edited down by about a hundred pages and by being less overtly preachy. But Powers is clearly angry, and wants us to share that anger and be moved to take action. It may be message fiction, but this is potent stuff. Also, as Powers points out more than once, trees live very slowly compared to humans, and that is echoed in the deliberate pacing of The Overstory.

For readers already of the view that humans are doing profound damage to the ecology of our world, The Overstory will give you additional arguments and inspiration. For those more skeptical, it may cause you to reexamine some of your views. The Overstory isn’t an easy read, but it’s a powerful and persuasive work of art.

Published in April 2018. New York Times Bestseller. Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. One of the Washington Post‘s 10 Best Books of 2018 and Time‘s 10 Best Fiction Books of 2018. A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018. A monumental novel about trees and people by one of our most “prodigiously talented” (The New York Times Book Review) novelists.An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers—each summoned in different ways by trees—are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. It sounds wonderful (if draggy and long-winded). I think he does well with introducing disparate characters and linking them thematically.

    • I was thinking you and Bill were really likely to love this book, Marion. Personally I can forgive a lot of long-windedness when the writing is so wonderful.

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