“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.
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.
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.