W.W. Nortong & Company, Publisher, 2018
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that uniquely includes trees among its many characters. The narrative follows the lives of the human characters all sharing unique relationships with trees. The cast includes a scientist whose research on trees is attacked and discredited by her peers (inspired by the real-life and work of forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard), a video game entrepreneur who becomes paralyzed after falling out of a tree as a child, a college student accidentally electrocuted into a metaphysical connection with trees, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who inherits a relationship with trees from her father, a Vietnam war veteran saved by a tree that spends his time planting trees, and so on; a remarkably diverse array of characters all with a unique story. And then there’s Mimas, one of the few remaining of the giant redwoods, of which less than 3% of the original stock remain, trees that can grow to over 300 feet tall and live for thousands of years. And a chestnut tree that survives through generations of a family before succumbing to a blight that destroyed the great chestnut forests that once populated the eastern United States.
Each character possesses an elaborate story and plots abound as some of the stories intersect. The predominant theme is revealed as each character has a memorable encounter with a tree. My favorite is Nick Hoel’s experience with a chestnut tree on his family’s Midwest farm. His great-great-great grandfather planted the tree, carrying the seed in his pocket as he migrated from the east coast, and started a habit of recording its growth by taking photographs each month, a habit that was passed on through generations. The Hoel chestnut tree survived a blight starting in the 1890s that wiped out the great chestnut forests from Maine to Mississippi and Florida, killing billions of trees. Chestnut trees were considered the redwoods of the east coast. They were special because they provided edible nuts that could be roasted or used in baking, their leaves were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, and the wood itself was the wood of choice for log cabins and furniture. When the blight erupted, it became clear that the species was endangered and only then did people sit up and take notice. The response was to clear-cut the forests to save the timber.
Patricia Westerford, the forest ecologist, is another interesting character in the novel. Her research supported the notion that trees communicated with each other. Her research is ridiculed at first, only to have it redeemed later in her life. Patricia starts a seed bank with her husband in the hopes that many of the species that will be lost due to deforestation can be replanted. Her dedication to the trees enables her to work in a positive way to preserve the natural world. As I was reading about Patricia, I thought of Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forrest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia that was the inspiration for the character. Simard is best known for her research on the underground networks of forests characterized by fungi and roots and the way trees and plants communicate and interact in the ecosystem. (Check out the documentary Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us for a truly fascinating look at this phenomenal universe.)
By far the most graphic scene in The Overstory is the experience Olivia and Nick share living in a giant redwood named Mimas. Originally planned as a two-week stay to protest deforestation, their stay extends through a year and more, during which time they watch as the forest around them is clear-cut. They live 200 feet up in a surprising unique ecology populated by pools of water, other plants, salamanders and other forest creatures. Nick and Olivia are ultimately forced down from the tree and arrested, and Mimas felled. The experience evoked by Powers of living in a giant redwood tree over the span of a year took my breath away! I was heart-broken when Mimas was felled, as I am when I think of all the giant redwoods that have been sacrificed in the pursuit of progress and profits. Through his storytelling, Powers makes a compelling case that trees are at least as important as humanity, that, in fact, humanity cannot exist without trees and that we have no right to treat them as mere property and destroy them for our own use.
The (apparent) primary plot involves the eventual intersection of five characters as environmental activists intent on protecting the forests. They are ultimately radicalized as police grow weary of their ongoing demonstrations and resort to physical force to end the protests. This escalates the response of the activists who retaliate by setting fire to a construction site. As with most violent events, death and destruction follow—taking the public’s attention away from the environmental issues and redirecting it to the crimes committed.
I ended up thoroughly enjoying the book, but I did have some issues as I read through it. The many subplots are convoluted and extended, presented in entwined chapters that can make them challenging to follow. Some seem to diverge in fantastical ways that can leave the reader trying to remember just what book they are reading, or how the current subplot relates to rest of the novel’s narrative. The reading takes patience and some trust that the author will ultimately establish the relevance of the subplot and integrate it back into the main narrative. It can be dicey in parts, but Powers generally pulls it off and some of the many seemingly fanciful digressions can be quite entertaining in themselves.
If you are not already in awe of trees, The Overstory will very likely take you there. I would argue that trees have as much right to exist as does humanity. The truth is that we must face the environmental impacts of overbuilding the planet and the resulting loss of our natural environment and learn to live in harmony with natural systems and the many other diverse life forms with which we share this earth, our home. The book may be fiction, but the issues it brings to the forefront are very real and quite profound.
W.W. Nortong & Company, Publisher, 2018
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