Trees Are People, Too: A Review of The Overstory

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What childhood memories do you have of trees? I remember climbing the cherry tree in our neighbor’s yard in Arlington to feast on the sticky, sweet fruit. I remember playing house under the sweeping branches of our huge weeping willow. I remember the swing my father hung on a high-boughed apple tree. And when we moved to D.C., I remember the fat beech tree that grew right through our wraparound porch, all the way up to brush my third floor window with its branches. I loved each one of these beings, who added meaning to my childhood. These kinds of early relationships with trees form the “Roots” section of Richard Powers’ The Overstory, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, the PBS Newshour’s November “Now Read This” book club selection, and the Crozet Library Book Group’s selection for December. Eight disparate characters (one of them a married couple) are introduced through their relationships with trees—an American chestnut, a mulberry, a maple, a banyan. Most of these characters are from immigrant families—Chinese, Norwegian, Polish, Indian. The novel spans an entire generation, from the characters’ childhoods through their adult careers to their old age and beyond, always colored by these early experiences. Their lives intertwine in the subsequent “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds” sections.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory is a fabulous, if flawed, book that everyone should read. It is that rare beast, a novel of ideas, important because it endeavors to change our entire frame of reference. Is Nature there for our use, or are we in fact interdependent with the non-human world? The “tree-mad novel” is at once a love song to trees, a scientific revelation of their amazing abilities, and a manifesto/call to action to save our disappearing forest legacy before it’s too late. It belongs in the canon of Great American Literature, beside sprawling sagas like Melville’s Moby Dick, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Roth’s American Pastoral—all of which also have social dimensions. Its near absence of optimism about the future might lead me to also call it an elegy—for environmental activism as well as for the natural environment itself. This book is so visionary and poetic that I can hardly do it justice. 

In the early 90s, after a near-death experience involving accidental electrocution, Olivia Vandergriff encounters “beings of light” in a vision, and devotes herself to listening to and following them. “The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help,” they tell her. They guide her as she drives across country from her college campus in Ohio to one of the last virgin stands of old-growth redwood forest in California, the site of a massive protest movement. Along the way, wood artist Nick (of the chestnut family) joins her quest. Four of the other characters, for disparate reasons, also converge there, and all join the Life Defense Force to stage radical, nonviolent protests—including tree-sitting, human barricades, and sabotage—reminiscent of groups such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her New York Times review, what follows is “a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents, and children.”

Many readers agree that the idyllic year Olivia and Nick spend living together in the canopy of a gigantic, 300-foot-tall redwood called Mimas (the son of Gaia in Greek myth) is the book’s high point (no pun intended). They discover an entire ecosystem in the canopy—a patch of huckleberries, flying squirrels, and a species of salamander that is born and lives its entire life in pools formed in the forks of the tree’s branches. “Fungi and lichen everywhere, like splatters of paint from a heavenly can.” The author compares Mimas to “Yggdrasil, the World Tree [in Norse mythology], with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above.” The group’s ultimately failed effort to save Mimas and its neighbors becomes the heart and soul of the book. Facing indifferent logging companies, brutal police tactics, and multiple arrests, they migrate to another protest site in Oregon, where they eventually turn to violence that will affect them the rest of their lives.

But the true protagonists of this book are the trees themselves. With lifespans of hundreds and even thousands of years, some have been growing since the time of Jesus Christ. We learn the mind-blowing, accurate, research-based science that “mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information,” dendrologist Dr. Patricia Westerford writes in The Secret Forest—loosely based on German author Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees. Trees communicate by sending chemical signals through an airborne network to alert each other of danger. Douglas firs (among others) form communities that share resources through their root systems. Trees heal each other through a shared immune system—harboring “woodland pharmacies” of substances that no one has yet identified. In the novel, they talk, hum, and sing to various characters. “There are no individuals,” concludes Westerford as she pioneers the ‘gospel of the new forestry.’ “There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest.” Happily, Wohlleben has just released a children’s book summarizing his ideas, Can You Hear the Trees Talking? Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest. At times The Overstory borders on the didactic, but compelling characters, beautiful language, and astounding ideas keep us firmly in the realm of literature. It delivers a vital message: the human species, which shares ¼ of its DNA with trees, can and will not survive without them. Only 5 to 7% of the U.S.’s primeval, old-growth forest remains, and only 20% of the world’s. Shouldn’t we save these last stands?

At its discussion in December, The Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group agreed on the profound effect of this book, causing them to see the world—especially trees—differently, which is the hallmark of a great novel. Some pointed out that the ingenious structure of book illustrates the idea that we are all connected, like the trees under the forest floor. Many said they would remember the trees more than the human characters, who were not memorable as individuals. They felt a sense of wonder at the tree science presented, and wished there had been more of it. They questioned whether the characters, after all their dedication and risk-taking, accomplished anything. They did not find much hope in the book, which ends not with a bang, but a whimper. The title refers not only to the forest canopy, but to the history of humankind and our culture’s bias toward exploitation of the natural environment. “Humankind is deeply ill,” Adam concludes. “The species won’t last long.’ 

This year’s Words of the Year (WOY) also reference the ecological threats which Powers so eloquently dramatizes. The Oxford Dictionaries’ WOY is “climate emergency,” chosen based on the preoccupations of 2019 as reflected in usage and look-up counts that have increased by a hundredfold since 2018—most notably by Time Person of the Year Greta Thunberg. Oxford’s WOY shortlist included other environmental terms such as “climate denial,” “eco-anxiety,” and “extinction,” as ecological concerns have dominated the news. Dictionary.com’s WOY echoed this trend with “existential,” reflecting threats to our survival in the form not only of more intense weather caused by climate change, but also of mass shootings, threats to our democracy, and even pop culture. 

This is American author Powers’ twelfth novel, with The Echo Maker winning the 2006 National Book Award. It is a book of its time, one that asks how we might change our relationship with the living world to save both it and ourselves. “We’ve become completely alienated from everything else alive,” Powers observed in a Guardian interview. He challenges the idea, ingrained in our culture, that mankind and Nature are separate. Powers’ own world view was changed during the six years it took him to write this book, reading over 100 books on trees. He relocated from Silicon Valley to the Great Smoky Mountains, near one of our last surviving old-growth forests. “The villain of this book is the small part in all of us that takes miracles for granted,” he noted. 

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