The Overstory is Brilliant and Unsettling

The Overstory (2018)
By Richard Powers
W. W. Norton and Company, 502 pages.

Pete Seeger used to muse, "The human race, if it survives...." Richard Powers' magisterial and National Book Award-winning The Overstory, might lead you to conclude that the best hope for the planet would be humankind's demise.

Powers dons the mantle of a literary sociologist/biologist with a deep streak of sympathy for eco anarchists. His is a hard novel to explain, but it is both an important book and—despite its bleak assessment of our species—a joy to read. Stick with me; it's more about trees than humans. Powers draws inspiration from Peter Wohlleben 's 2015 bestseller The Hidden Lives of Trees. Powers sees trees as social, migratory, emphatic, and communicative. They sing, warn each other of dangers, feel pain, remember, and forecast the future. If that sounds too crunchy for you, consider that there are trees—increasingly fewer—that have lived since Jesus was on earth. Powers writes, "… [T]he word tree and the word truth come from the same root." The Overstory opens with a two-page meditation that closes with this line: "The pine she leans against says: Listen. There is something you need to hear."

The Overstory is an ambitious novel with nine major characters; ten if we consider Powers as an interlocutor. It has two major themes that are philosophical questions of the highest order. The first is: Who owns the earth? The second comes from the character Doug Pavlichek, a former Vietnam War pilot who plants saplings to placate an eco consciousness that awoke when he was shot down and his parachute came down in a banyan tree. His question is coarse, but on target: "What the fuck went wrong with mankind?"

Nature and plants define all of the characters in the book. Nick Hoel, a fifth generation Iowan, is the last heir to a tree many thought extinct, the American chestnut. We meet him as he's trying to give away his art and about to lose the farm. Only one person bothers to exit the highway to explore his free art offer, Olivia Vandergriff, a lass whose life took a new turn after she electrocuted herself while stoned, but was revived. Patricia Westerford—clearly patterned after Wohlleben—also took new turns. As a graduate student, her theories of tree intelligence met with such ridicule she was dubbed "Plant Patty" and driven from academia. She retreated to Oregon, became a park ranger, and is 'discovered' in her old age. Needless to say, she is deeply conflicted about all of this. 

We also find Mt. Holyoke grad Mimi Ma, who is shocked when the mini park outside her office is taken down; and Adam Appich, a psychologist studying activist mindsets who becomes a covert convert. Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly were college sweethearts and actors who planted a tree on each anniversary, until ennui turned the flame to a smolder. And then there is the intriguing Neelay Mehta, a precocious computer geek who "skitters through the schoolyard like a traitor to childhood." His life changes when he is paralyzed from a fall from an oak tree. From his wheelchair, he designs elaborate games and complex alternative universes that make those of Second Life and Sim City look as simple as checkers.

All nine will, in various ways, be drawn into the battle for the planet, several of them gravitating to a radical activist group modeled on Earth First. Such struggles take place against long odds. Powers is no Pollyanna when it comes to tree huggers and radicals. At times you will find yourself wondering whether you are reading about the only sane people left on the planet, or a band of dreamers who make Summer of Love hippies seem like pragmatists. Powers pits them against an industry that is the wood-based equivalent of oil and coal barons intent upon extracting resources until the last penny is earned from them. As in most such confrontations, the ones accused of being "violent" are not the ones who light the first fuse.

Powers' sympathy is with the trees, but his skepticism parallels that of Doug Pavlichek: "The greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth." (You can almost hear Al Gore shouting "Amen!" from the wings.) There are magic words we use: jobs, housing, renewable resources, reforestation…. Yet, as Westerford contemplates the question of how to best help the world she realizes, "The problem begins with the word world. It means two opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we cannot escape." Wisdom lies in what is hidden: "The beech told the farmer where to plow. Limestone underneath covered in the best, darkest loam a field could want." Powers vividly describes the worlds that dependent upon trees. As he puts it, "People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures–bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful–call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing."

This is such a beautifully written book that you can unearth Websites devoted to quotes from it. Ultimately, though, Powers' message is, "Be still and feel." Then act and hope that it's not already too late to reverse what went wrong with mankind.

Rob Weir

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