12 November 2019

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Posted by Callan Bentley

This is an interesting novel. The book came highly recommended to me from two friends who have literary and environmental sensibilities that I respect, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, which is an accolade worth noting – a validation of its quality. It is a story about trees, and about “radical” environmental activists who try to save them. I suppose it could be viewed as a bit of a mashup between The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben and Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not rollicking and feckless like the behavior of Abbey’s quartet of cartoonish ecosaboteurs. (I note that one of them is a semiloopy Vietnam veteran, kind of like Abbey’s character George Washington Hayduke. The harmony is even more profound when you note Powers’ character is even named “Douglas,” in what I presume is a tribute to Doug Peacock, the supposed real-life inspiration for Hayduke.) The treehuggers in The Overstory have a passion that is paired with serene wondrous contemplation of the organisms they seek to protect. And there are an equal number of other key characters who are not party to arson or chaining themselves to trees: a married couple, a video game developer, and a scientist who writes a very Wohlleben-like treatise (“tree-tise?”). The sternest critique I can offer of the reading experience is that these other characters ended up mattering less to the central story than I thought they would. I expected all the various arcs of narrative to ultimately merge into a compelling twist, but instead the book’s various “branches” grew off in different directions, and though a few tiny connections were inserted, they were in no way substantial, and so ultimately the characters’ stories stood independent of one another.

Though the novel confounded my expectations in that way, I found it a very compelling book on another, more important level: It articulates clearly and powerfully the most astonishing aspects of the plants we share the planet with. Trees aren’t just “rocks that grow;” Powers’s characters (and, I suspect, Powers himself) see them as animate beings with intentions, social behavior, and perhaps even wisdom. Therefore our “harvesting” of them is an act with ethical consequences – or more to the point, an act that is unethical, both for the sake of the trees themselves and for the sake of the humans who benefit from the trees’ existence. And so the book is ultimately not just about trees, or just about this handful of characters, but about the human relationship to the natural world, and the self-defeating collective decisions of society relative to the natural systems that sustain it. The book plays out over many decades, and many American historical events are woven into the narrative arc – the counterculture of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the “timber wars” in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and more. Through it all, the trees grow, and are logged, and grow back, and succumb to disease, and grow back, and are razed, and grow back, on and on. Silently they watch humanity’s frenetic action. The characters grow, and are lopped back, and so they grow in a new direction, and they get lopped again, and they react anew, shedding damaged branches, taking on new forms as a consequence of their individual histories. Ultimately, I’m not sure where the novel left me… I think I expected a masterful conclusion that left everything crystal clear, but that wasn’t how this book finished up.

Perhaps it leaves me here, now, in late 2019, in American society, where our society prioritizes making money over the preservation of the organisms we share the planet with. I’m not interested in being an eco-saboteur, but I am interested in promoting appreciation of the natural world, of deepening my own understanding of natural systems, of promoting a human relationship with natural ecosystems that embraces conservation as a default approach, and deploys respectful harvesting and use of natural ‘resources’ where appropriate, where sustainable, where ethical. What to do in our situation is not straightforward or clear-cut, but it seems to me that the idea of preserving landscape and biota as precious needs to be given more priority, not less. This book is a counterpoint to the way American capitalism generally treats these ideas. For me, it acted as a personal confirmation that I’m not crazy for thinking this way.

A thought-provoker, I reckon. A book that will make you re-examine the world you live in.