“The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope

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“What does life want from us,” asks one of the characters in Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fictionalized ode to trees, which celebrates their value to the planet and all its life forms.

A writer friend once told me novels are either “character-driven” or “plot-driven.”  The Overstory is neither.  It is “message-driven.”  It suggests that humankind, which has been so destructive to the planet, can become a healing force through individual and group respect for all its life forms, most specifically its trees and forests.  This is Powers’ twelfth novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.   Powers claims The Overstory represents the culmination of his career.

The book’s nine main human characters come together, either physically, or through reputation, following unique experiences with trees, or a tree, and subsequent dedication to saving them.  Nicholas Hoel grows up in on a farm in Iowa, where one of the last surviving American chestnuts has been on the family farm over a hundred years.  Douglas, a Vietnam vet, was saved by a banyan tree when his parachute landed in it.  Patricia Westerford, a PhD botanist, began learning the secrets of nature from her father, who was a county extension agent.  Westerford translates the language of the forest into imagery mere human beings can understand.  Olivia is the awakened tree spirit after a near-death experience from accidental electrocution.

A key feature, for me, is the loose organizations of individuals formed for a shared purpose and one larger than themselves and larger than humanity.  The sense of cooperation with nature transcends today’s prevalent, commercialized attitude of dominating and subduing it.

The human characters of the book are mostly damaged, either physically or emotionally, and in search of a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.  Each has a piece of the puzzle, that put together, reveals the Tree of Life and some of its many budding branches. That the main characters have or develop serious disabilities suggests human limitations do not prevent individuals from accomplishing great and enduring things.

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Hickory                                           kco2016

The book also reveals an expanded sense of time, based on the long view of trees over millennia and generations.  It’s appropriate that the characters age, with some dying, during the course of the novel.  It’s appropriate that long-term—from human but not tree perspective—consequences ensue from the actions of youth.  The book emphasizes that life is long, if you’re a tree or a forest, and if humanity doesn’t raze you or incinerate you to create junk mail and GMO row crops for export.

While the book’s style is not dogmatic, the characters exhibit an aura of spirituality, animism, or tribal devotion for the delicately interwoven life forms that contribute to the forests’ integrity.

The enormity of the research Powers must have put into the book humbles me, yet he does it all so gracefully that it never comes across as sanctimonious or condescending.  It’s as though he has adopted the quiet wisdom of his ancient sylvan subjects.

On the surface, the ending is anticlimactic, but on a deeper level it plants seeds of consciousness, which I suspect will grow in the “long time” span of trees.  The individual characters grow old, and they disperse.  Only Neelay, the paraplegic, continues to create idyllic forest-loving computer games that seek to build communication between man and nature.  The implication is that artificial intelligence will save mankind from itself, through amassed data and algorithms that sort through it to consolidate understanding.  But Neelay’s solution is only one bud on the ever-branching tree of life.

The Overstory has changed my attitude in a profound way.  I found the book inspiring because the author demonstrates a cooperative way to generate enthusiasm beyond the gloom and doom that characterizes today.  He does it by showing the government for the self-serving corporate enabler it is, and by showing how individual and small group initiative has the power to shift consciousness individually but also collectively over time.

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Looking up:  Pecan with Spanish moss                                   kco2006

One of the book’s most powerful draws is its brutal recognition of its characters’ flaws, even as they perform acts that bring on their own downfall.  Ultimately, the book is growth-directed but in unpredictable ways.  Just as trees branch and bud, The Overstory grows in imagination even after its end.  Maybe that’s the message:  it plants a seed in human consciousness, that un-imagined answers are within reach, but we need to open our senses to them.  You don’t learn about life by destroying it and putting it under a microscope.

Somewhere between religion and science, there may be a path toward self-and-planetary sustainment.  Maybe that’s my take-home message:  it doesn’t come from above, an external authority, or any experts.  It comes from the heart and from an appreciation of life for its own sake.

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12 thoughts on ““The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope

  1. navasolanature

    Really interested to read your review of ‘The Overstory’ I bought it to read and then decided to give it away as a present to an avid reader and member of the Woodland Trust! There is more hope in this but as forests burn perhaps this will propel us into a different way of acting in this world. However, global corporations might be more of the problem if government continues to be influenced by promoting economic growth. You make me think about my novel which is driven by animal characters but is about the need for co-operation and coexistence. I have now added a human character to frame the story. I feel I have capitulated! It seems though from a tough editor I need a market and young adult need more than my ‘meditative’ style! I will now definitely encourage my friend to finish the Overstory then borrow it back! Your review has also persuaded me to plod on with my revision of my novel.

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      My 2019 New Year’s resolution was to revise my novel, but I got sidetracked. Mine is futuristic sci-fi/speculative, with AI and animals, too. Seems we’ve started down the road of mutual reading/tips before.

      I think you will like “The Overstory.”

      Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      Thank you, Stuart. It may be especially meaningful to you, just now, considering the wildfires in Australia. TV at my sister’s house tonight said you can see the smoke from New Zealand.

      By the way, I didn’t mention this in the review, but most of “The Overstory” is set in the area around San Francisco, CA, with strong concentration on the redwoods, but there are events in Oregon, too.

      Reply
  2. Rosaliene Bacchus

    Katharine, thanks for your excellent review. I’ve added Powers’ novel to my Books to Read List. What a powerful story when it can cause us to re-think our attitude towards Mother Earth!

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      Rosaliene,
      Thank you. I wrote the review with you in mind, because you mentioned earlier that you were looking forward to it.

      Writing the review took some contemplation time, because the book says so much, and reviews are necessarily short.

      I suspect the book will not change your attitude towards Mother Earth, because you are already simpatico. It might change your attitude about government’s ability, or even desire, to lead the healing.

      Reply
      1. Rosaliene Bacchus

        Thanks for the consideration 🙂 Our corporate-controlled government has already indicated its contempt to act on our climate and ecological crises. Last night (Sunday), I started another novel, American War by Omar El Akkad (2017), that deals with the fallout of our crises from a different viewpoint. It begins in the year 2075, following the Second American Civil War that breaks out in 2074. Sadly, it’s the future I see for America given our current divisiveness and inability to come together to resolve the multitude of problems we face as a nation.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Thanks for liking and for your comment. While I don’t agree with all the author’s premises, I do appreciate the respect for nature that he shows. It seems we human beings have become much too anthro-centric.

      Reply

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