“The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope


“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.


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.


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.






30 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.

    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.”

    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.

  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!

    1. katharineotto Post author

      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.

      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.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’m okay, considering Humanland has gone crazy. The animals keep me focused on what’s really important. Nice to hear from you. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and best wishes for the Aquarian Age.

      1. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        That’s good to hear Katharine! Youv’e gone quiet with your writing, I remember you saying you were working on an article around this time last year. I’m back on the good old S of A. Returned just before the world went crazy. Was going to return to South America after 6 months, but since the world remains crazy (everywhere) I’ve decided to stay. It’s actally nice being on home turf, have missed it. Especially all the foods I missed while I was abroad. Good to hear that the animals are keeping you focused. For me it’s my writing + reading & research. Ideal time for it (avoiding people & all the madness). Happy New Year, Katharine!

      2. katharineotto Post author

        I’m most interested in the food. I’ve done a lot of travelling, but most enjoy sampling the world’s foods. I’ve never been to Africa, but loved the food in Peru.

        My perpetually unfinished novel has a theme of total healing through a computer-generated diet of healing nutrients.

        I haven’t posted much in 2020 but plan to post a blog soon. Not only am I absorbed in living moment to moment all day every day, but it seems there’s so much noise being generated that no one has the mental space to pause and reflect, and certainly not to listen.

        Happy New Year to you, too. May the world begin to lighten up this year. I think the Age of Aquarius is really upon us. Even below the equator, you may be able to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, now in Aquarius. Supposedly, these two planets were conjunct (within five degrees of each other) at Jesus’ birth and again in Aquarius 800 years ago. Some say the conjunction was the Star of Bethlehem that the Magi followed.

        I’m truing to synthesize all the different belief systems I’m familiar with, including Oriental philosophy, medicine, monotheism, and science, among others. Your writings about the Mayan culture, for instance, are perpetually interesting.

      3. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        Hello Katharine, the diversity of food here is one of the country’s attributes. Peru also has a huge variety, especialy in terms of the variety of produce that they have cultivated. Here I find the the range of products in supermarkets is even larger than in Peru and definitley larger than in the other South American countries, but it would make sense, because we are a much more diverse country (although Peru is also very diverse) than any of the others in terms of all the different cultures that live here (we have strong influences from various places in Europe (Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal) and Asia (Malaysia, India & China) – and of course Africa. However, we also have a very well developed food industry.

        Glad to hear you are still working on your novel – hope to be able to read it one day. Yes, very true – nobody is listening, just subjectively lashing out, no time for reflection or considering anything carefully, thinking things through, weighing them up and having the humanity of others in mind. I could see this all coming and mile off and that’s why I wrote those articles about technology in the past. Yet, people are totally embracing technology (spending every waking moment on it), because they believe its the future, no matter how much it cuases them to regress, so what can you do if people lose all self-awarenes in the process? Try to convince them, if it’s futile? (I DID try, but eventually gave up). I’m mostly disengaged and that’s why I am able to write so much, becasue almost all my spare time goes into my writing. I do it as much for myself as my readers – keeps me sane and balanced and my mind sharp.

        On the subject of the Age of Aquarius I actually went to read up on it again after you mentioned it and me being the perptual Jungian, always identifing the shadow, I looked into the dark side of it. Actually, it seems that it will be about 500 years before we are in it proper, this from a recent article I read on on, I’m leaving a few excerpts here below:

        “What’s important to know is that we are, in fact, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The song got that much right. However, by astronomical calculations, if dawn is at 6 am, then it’s about 5 am. We’re close, but it’s still kind of dark. With some 500 years left of the age of Pisces, we will still have to grapple with some of its fundamental lessons.”

        “Egomania is a negative aspect of Aquarius, as well as rebelliousness for the sake of rebelliousness or advocacy for lost causes (the ‘teenager archetype’), which can turn into lack of individual responsibility in the name of the group. So although the overall goal of the Aquarian Age is to build community and restore hope and trust in the family of man, as an air sign it carries a strong mental energy that can lead to indifference, isolation, or hiding behind others to avoid the individual inner work needed to grow emotionally and spiritually.”

        “Aquarius is the age of self-realization (Kundalini Awakening). Aquarius is the true age of knowledge. In this age, dogmatic types of religion will cease to be taught, and all dogmatic forms will disappear. Science and religion will merge and people will begin to comprehend that spirit and matter are derived from the same source, and are only modifications of the One Universal Energy. It is the desire to pool and merge the time, efforts, and resources of the individual with those of the larger society in order to create something new for the benefit of everyone. Enhancement of the polity overwhelms the desire for self-aggrandizement, and the wall of Ego come tumbling down and the individual communes with the totality of the species.”

      4. katharineotto Post author

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I concur with most of what you cite. If you consider that a “cosmic year” is 25,000 years, each age is about 2,500 years, and they do overlap. We are seeing the death knells of the Age of Pisces, while the Age of Aquarius is in its infancy. Like an infant, it must grow to maturity and will make mistakes (hopefully learning from them) along the way.

        Leo is opposite Aquarius on the zodiac and represents its opposite, in a way. Both are “fixed” signs. Leo is “fixed fire,” ruled by the sun, and Aquarius is “fixed air,” having to do with intellect and both have to do with love, but for Leo, it’s personal, while for Aquarius, it’s detached and universal.

        As a Jungian, you no doubt appreciate the value of symbolism and universal archetypes. Jung himself was interested in alchemy, and I believe he was a competent astrologer, too. Of course he was interested in dreams, the ultimate personal symbolic language.

        My take is that earthly life challenges us to combine the personal with the universal in a balanced and growth-producing way. Every system provides insights, yet none has the “whole” picture.

        I’d like to sample the food in South Africa one day. I’ve never been there but have this dream of divesting myself of materiality and travelling the world with nothing but a toothbrush and a rice bowl. I will have to outlive my chickens for that, though, and Tweety is only six months old.

      5. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        Thanks for your further thoughts, Katharine.
        “My take is that earthly life challenges us to combine the personal with the universal in a balanced and growth-producing way” – Yes, this is my view too. I also think that life challenges us to not be drawn into polarisation – and not to fuel it even further, which most people in the West are dismally failing at right now (and that’s understating it). However, polarization can lead to a kind of madness. History repeats only because humans don’t learn from history. There’s a Mesoamerican cycle called the Venus cycle – the oldest cycle that the Mayas follow and every 104 years history returns, so …
        2020 ‘was’ 1916.
        2121 ‘is’ 1917 …
        2022 ‘is’ 1918 …
        2033 ‘will be’ 1929, etc.
        If we look at what happened in those years in World History, then it provides for an ideal of what to expect – at least in terms of the atmosphere/energy, because history never repeats exactly. So, if humans could just step over their own nature … (highly unlikely it would seem) then perhaps disaster could be avoided. The Cycles of Life: The Ultimate Educator (for those prepared to learn). In spite of it all, I’m as postive as always for the future. I’ve had quite a hard life, but a good one too – filled with adventure, so satisfied overall. Wouldn’t mind seeing the New Dawn though.

      6. katharineotto Post author

        I keep hearing and reading about “polarization” in media and elsewhere, yet I’m a pattern-based thinker and look for ways to balance perceived opposites, in accordance with the Oriental concept of “yin” and “yang”. Each needs the other in order to fulfill itself. Male and female, left and right, up and down, inside and outside, for instance.

        I believe trying to predict the future limits the future, because there are many possible or probable futures, each valid in its own way. Best to approach the present with pure intent (whatever that is, individually determined), hoping that thought and action in the present will help to create the future that fulFills those hopes and dreams.

        At present, there seem to be lots of people trying to “control” the future through predictions, but that seems to be based on insecurity and lack of faith in the universality of life in all its manifestations.

        Maybe you’ve read some of the Seth books, by medium Jane Roberts. I’ve picked up or absorbed some of the philosophy that made particular sense to me, because the idea that everything has consciousness jives with my own understanding. This is also consistent with the concepts presented in “The Tao of Physics,” which relates modern quantum mechanics to ancient Oriental mystical traditions.

        These are all frameworks for understanding “reality,” yet “reality” is probably subjective and dependent on the frame through which you view the external world (if there truly is such a thing as an external world).

      7. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        Good points Katharine, although I’m probably not in full agreement with all you say, but I agree that we all have a subjective reality which means we are all able to view the present or the future through whichever filter/s we choose to.

        I used to view life through various filters as I have tried those filters on and have over time also discarded them one by one.

        You make a good point that some people try to ‘control’ the future by wanting to predict it, which stems from insecurity . Usually those predictions are more or less hopes and wishes (and a lot of thumsuck pulling various current trends together, etc) to project future outcomes – and there may be some vaidity in some of it. Anyway, humans will always be concerned with the future.

        Since I’ve been studing the Mayan Calendars in-depth for several years my view is that there is definitive structure to time through energy and that history does indeed rhyme for that reason – and that if that structure is sufficiently understood – general predictions could be made for future conditions which would generally play out that way. It is not an exact science though and will never be. Prophets and shamans who do this as a science have always had a role in society because they give people a general idea of what to expect, which means they can prepare themselves, at least mentally and spiritually for what’s to some. But, people always have the option to ignore such predictions too.

        So, reality is subjective, but its also objective. Personally I think it’s wiser to be less attached to subjective reality, becaue it can lead to illusions and delusions when not balanced with objectivity and practical reality.

        On the issue of polarization we can see how subjective (personal dislike otr hatred for persons or their charachters on a personal level) partisan politics is causing people within the most established democracies to abandon democracy itself and it would seem they don’t care for the rule of law anymore. That to me seems to be a type of madness, because there’s a fine line between barbarism and civilsation – the latter is held together (just about) by the rule of law – and courts have a duty to maintain the rule of law (but what would happen if they fail to do that? How long would it take for anarchy to rule again? )

        Anyway, we can see there’s a certain momentum to events and I think that has to do with the process of the rise and fall of civilsiations, which has its own timeline – and ‘the universe’ make use of light as well as dark energies to move the process ahead.

        Revolutions often have the result of bringing old systems to an end, but revolutions are rarely ‘good’ in themselves, they are very desctructve and what follows is often worse – as history has shown – nevertheless people feel compelled to participate in revolutions … and they don’t always even know why.

        I will be writing about some of this in my next chapter in a few weeks from now.


      8. katharineotto Post author

        You make many points that I would love to discuss in more detail. The idea of predictions interests me because people can predict disaster as well as happiness.

        When I used to do astrology readings, people wanted to know “everything that is bad.” It surprised me that they were not interested in their strengths (maybe took those for granted) but in their weaknesses.

        Why the focus on the negative, or on the growth-limiting rather than enhancing facets of their personalities?

        As a sythesizer, I find some validity in every point of view, but don’t embrace it in its totality. My own perspective is constantly changing, so I could be called wishy-washy, but there is a certain consistency in my values, even if actions sometimes appear to contradict them.

        Lately, I don’t have much respect for the “rule of law,” since it seems idiots are making the laws. Even Alexis de Tocqueville commented in his classic “Democracy in America,” published around 1835, that the US seemed to have developed an aristocracy of lawyers.

        You speak of revolution, but I contend we are long overdue for a “revolution in consciousness.” I hope current events will lead to humanity’s awakening to some new understanding of our place in the universal scheme of things.

      9. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        Hi Katharine, yes some of the subjects need much deeper discussion to really flesh them out. I’ll just add a couple of notes. There’s no doubt that the rule of law is flawed and in some cases it’s outright prejudiced. I see a lot of people imagine that they don’t need police for example, but in all the areas where the police forces have been partially defunded crime and violence have sky-rocketed. The other side of the coin is that if courts simply fail (or refuse) to take on cases then justice is not served. Again, we see that if a formal structure is not place to provide justice according to a set of criteria based on fairness, people end up taking the law into their own hands or meting out justice on their own, i.e. kangaroo courts and lynch mobs with the result being a failed state. People who believe that revolustions are a solution always think that they can build something better afterwards, but it’s almost never the case and everybody suffers – that’s why I believe mobs that are driven to revolution are supernaturally influenced in the sense that they are ‘taken over’ on a psychic level (mass psychosis) – an observation made by Carl Jung and others.

        I fully agree that we need a revolution in consciousness, although my belief is it can only com from inner work and deep study, which few people are engaged in since the proliferation of mass engagement in social medias & digital devices.

        Nevertheless, all this turmoil will indeed lead people to seek out a better worls, so in that sense I agree with you – from the chaos will eventually arrive something better, although I think the balance of power and wealth will shift permanently – most likely to the East.

        There’s no doubt that we live in interesting times though – and we have front row seats! 🙂

      10. Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

        I’m fully with you studying various belief systems and I’m now getting into the more ancient civilisations’ understanding of daulistic world we live in, e.g. from a Gnostic or Hermetic point of view. Fortunately quite a few old books and scripts available to draw on. Glad your’e still enjoying my offerings on the Mayan Calenders. I’ve got a couple more in the pipeline, all relevant to the times we are in.

      11. katharineotto Post author

        It seems time folds over on itself, and the history of all civilizations remains relevant today, even if the messages have changed over time.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Thank you very much. I read the book over a year ago, but it still speaks to me. I love nature so much, because it is so sane, a most valuable feature in today’s world.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      The Overstory is unlike any fiction I have read. It is full of information about plant life, so seems more factual and even scientific than fiction I have read.


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