A Novel About Waking up to Trees: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Oddly, this most wonderful book about trees, The Overstory, is not in the nature section or non-fiction section of your local bookstore; it is in the fiction section. If one book could be in all sections, I guess I’d put it there; since the characters are fictional, and the events, as they relate to the fictional characters are fictional, it goes in fiction. Richard Powers, while having an amazing talent to write in elegant and beautiful prose; is, nevertheless, a meticulous researcher who offers the reader a world of trees that we humans have forgotten.

Have I said this is a beautiful novel about trees and also about the surprisingly human way that humans transform? I fell in love with the characters, all nine of them, and learned a lot about trees.  Most important, it was not just information about trees that was brilliant; it was the way in which the author wisely led me, sometimes by the hand, through the forest.  Not just through the forest of trees, but through the forest of thoughts I had internalized and memories I had forgotten. You know how you love trees, but you keep it in check because after all it is just a tree and if it needs to be taken out, oh well, plant another and another one? Do you know that feeling? Of course you know that feeling; you have learned to feel that way: Yes, I love trees, but I want my house right there… where?… there, where all those old trees are… yes, I love trees. Cut them down.  

After I finished The Overstory I felt as though I had been given permission to think again about the gorgeous red maples and giant cottonwoods that stand so still around my neighborhood. They were always things I wanted to learn how to identify, but now, after reading The Overstory, they are beings.

I had for a long time felt that I was in good company when I was around trees. I could stare at a tree and know that if I could only become as still as a tree I might just learn something. Even knowing I could learn something from a tree, it never stopped me from thinking of them as something to serve me. Whether as an ornament for the yard or as the thing that helps us breathe air, the tree had become in my mind, movable, pliable, and flexible for my needs. Then The Overstory blew my mind.  We are all in this together.  I could definitely believe in our collective future or annihilation, but it was still human dominant. We were going to make trees (and everything else) do what we wanted; all we needed to do was to preserve enough of them and then we could continue living as we want: buying, taking, playing and reminding ourselves that we are the main goal of evolution.  We have confused or have fused evolution with the end game for capitalism, which is at odds with survival itself.  Capitalism’s end game is dictatorship. We all know this now. One person gets everything. 

Richard Powers brings another way of thinking about life with trees into the foreground. We are in a relationship. We have a responsibility.  What Powers is writing is nothing new. We have just forgotten. Here is a taste of his novel:

“It’s Indiana, 1990. Here, five years is a generation, fifty is archaeology, and anything older shades off into legend. And yet, places remember what people forget. The parking lot she sleeps in was once an orchard, its trees planted by a gentle, crazed Swedenborgian who wandered through these parts in rags and a tin pot cap, preaching the New Heaven and extinguishing campfires to keep from killing bugs. A crackpot saint who practiced abstinence while supplying four states with enough fermentable apple mash to keep every pioneer American from nine to ninety half crocked for decades.

“All day long, she has followed Johnny Appleseed’s path into the interior. Olivia read about the man once, in a comic her father gave her. The comic made him a superhero, with the power to make things spring up from the dirt. It said nothing about the philanthropist with a shrewd sense of property, the tramp who’d die owning twelve hundred acres of the richest land in the country. She always thought he was just myth.  She must still discover that myths are basic truths twisted into mnemonics, instructions posted from the past, memories to become predictions.

“Here’s the thing about an apple: it sticks to the throat. It’s a package deal: lust and understanding. Immortality and death. Sweet pulp with cyanide seeds. It’s a bang on the head that births up whole sciences. A golden delicious discord, the kind of gift chucked into a wedding feast that leads to endless war. It’s the fruit that keeps the gods alive. The first, worst crime, but a fortunate windfall. Blessed be the time that apple taken was” (pg. 161-162).

The author has done a very gracious thing, that is, inspire branching out rather than turning back to read more Richard Powers. He makes you want to read about trees, and about everything that you might have forgotten. What is under your feet?  I think, too, after reading this book, even if you held a great fondness for trees, you will wake up to the living tree; the giving tree; it will not be their beauty or how much we get from them, like clean air, that astounds you, but that trees are alive — even though you have known this forever, how else could they suck carbon out of the air and give us oxygen? but, you will begin to think of a tree being alive as you being alive, which means you will begin to think of a tree as a neighbor you must love as you love yourself.

Throughout his novel, Powers confronts U.S. exceptionalism (or just plain old human exceptionalism). We humans are not the only ones who count here on Earth. I would say with his pen Powers makes trees come to life, but he would not have such ability if it were not already so. Really, what Powers is doing is saying what should be obvious to us, but sadly is no longer held as truth. Trees have come to life long ago. They are not individual objects in the forest. In fact, trees communicate with other trees and form communities.  There is a whole underground network that has been referred to, after Suzanne Simard’s research, as the Wood-Wide Web.  People love that analogy of the web. They think internet. If we can be comfortable with thinking the internet as a brain or AI as a brain, why is it so difficult to acknowledge something that is alive as having a brain? It seems to me we have to be a little more imaginative when we think about what makes a brain. It might not be one squishy weird looking thing inside a skull — at least not for everyone.  Maybe it is under our feet. Maybe it is an entire hive. Maybe a whole lot of ants!

We must ask ourselves why we do not want to understand trees to be living in the same way as we live? 

Richard Powers has said he is unabashedly anthropomorphic. Indeed, he has been accused of anthropomorphism, which is a word that is just a nuisance to pronounce. It is a mouthful of /o/ sounds.  I always feel as if I’m going to roll off somewhere when I say it; as if the word was deliberately created to distract your interlocutor.  It has been used by many in science and in other fields to stifle and promote a science that, ironically, does not accept change.  Scientists like to use anthropomorphism to keep out all things an honest discussion might need to move forward: empathy, compassion, justice, truth, beauty, voice, difference, feeling, thinking, love. 

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, activist, and writer who is most famous for his book, The End of Nature, likes to refer to the Book of Job as the first ecological text. He points to God’s response to Job, after Job has done a fair amount of complaining because of his suffering, as our truth: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Then there are three more chapters of God’s response about who created the sea, the sky, etc…? Job, finally getting the idea of humility, is quieted. I imagine now, though, that most humans might think they have bested the creator of the universe. Most likely Job 2 would reply, yeah, but we made the internet and cracked the atom. The Earth, however, whether you believe in God or not, seems better at creating than we can ever be since it deals quite honestly and efficiently with waste, rarely sending it to another location and pretending it does not exist. I suppose when we can finally create an infinite loop that includes the waste part of us then we can yell, Eureka, I am! On the other hand, why create something that already exists? Why not work with what we have: life and death?

The Overstory is a great novel. Have I said that? You will fall in love with all nine characters. I had my favorites in the beginning, but by the end of the book I loved all nine of them.  A small caution: when I opened the book and started reading I thought I might have been mistaken as the novel clearly seemed like a collection of short stories; the first several chapters are about each individual character. But, it is not a collection of short stories. Have patience. The first section, Roots, has a chapter on each character, followed by Trunk, Crown, and Seeds.  The story is simple and absolutely complex:  how nine characters transform and wake up to their relationship and responsibility to the world of trees — which is really to the world itself, which includes them, but is clearly not all about them.  All the characters in some way become entangled, grow, branch out, get lost, and mostly fail at changing the world. But, then again, it seems to me the world is changed a little when one, two, three … nine and more and more people go through a complete and utter transformation.

Read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is truth and beauty.





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