Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

“The Greeks had a word, xenia – guest friendship – a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees – an oak and a linden – huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer.”

All fiction is, to some degree, an education. Playing with character perspective and asking that we view the world through the eyes of another, reading is an interactive process that demands both empathy and compassion. We must be able to suspend the centrality of our own worlds and experiences to fully immerse ourselves in the worlds that authors create for us. The reward is that we can become better versions of ourselves. In The Overstory, Richard Powers requires even more of his reader. He asks not only that we engage in understanding with his characters but that we go beyond this in extending our empathy and compassion to the natural world. In Powers’ narrative, trees are both the literal and figurative towering giants. They form the novel’s foundation and its purpose as we are asked to confront our own wilful ignorance at the systematic destruction of the natural world.

The Overstory is a novel that works to dispel the separation that humanity has created between itself and the earth. It follows nine characters with a diverse array of connections to the natural world. An artist, Nicholas Hoel, inherits one hundred years of photographs of his family’s infamous chestnut tree. The air force veteran Douglas Pavlicek is saved by a banyan tree after falling from the sky and commits himself to a fight against the unrelenting destruction of trees in the US. Mimi Ma, an asian-american, begins to understand the complexities of her heritage through time spent with her sisters under a mulberry tree. To each character, trees hold an abiding and complicated fascination. Over the course of their separate but interconnected stories, they are all forced to confront the horrifying degree of devastation brought about by logging and the relative frivolity with which natural history is both ignored and destroyed.

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attack. ‘Here’s a little outsider information, and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware’.”

The Overstory offers so much of what can be achieved when fiction puts itself to work in service of a cause or message. It manages a degree of education without feeling oppressive or dull and, most importantly, without allowing the narrative itself to give way to the message. The novel at no point feels preachy or over-saturated with fact. It flows beautifully at that intersection between fiction and non-fiction, where authors with particular skill and a passion for real issues are able to thrive. Powers consolidates this interplay by stitching the narrative together with a number of real-world events. Douglas Pavlicek’s participation as a member of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment is a particularly interesting turn of the plot as Powers encourages the reader to accept the novel’s position as somewhere between fact and fiction.

It is in The Overstory‘s discussion of trees, their history, and their abilities, however, that the novel truly thrives. The book is a call-to-arms and an effective one. Through the perspectives of a diverse array of complex and believable characters, we are persuaded to remind ourselves of all that goes ignored in the world around us. Trees are the towering giants of this story. Their presence dwarfs the human experiences of love, death, and grief with an age and eternity that feels so expansive in comparison. Yet, destruction is something that humanity seeks with what we have taken for implied permission. And, in the process, we have lost a history that so exceeds our own: “And the forest they might remake he can almost smell – resinous, fresh, thick with yearning, sap of a fruit that is no fruit, the scent of Christmases endlessly older than Christ.”

Perhaps most interesting about the novel is Powers’ incisive insight into human indifference to these issues. Patricia Westerford, an academic with a research focus on trees and their communications, understands this as a kind of universal panic that forests inspire in people: “Humans need a sky.” Beyond this, it is certainly the case that the gravity and scale of such destruction, as is currently practiced upon the natural world, falls outside of our comprehension. This gravity is something that Powers’ characters come up against in a variety of scenarios, as many of them become more impassioned and involved in the environmental protests that characterised the early 1990s. Yet, The Overstory never feels overwhelmed in its attempts to relate the extent of the crisis. In one of its most compelling moments, The Overstory considers its own challenge:

“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”

In its self-awareness, however, the novel navigates any potential that it may have had of sacrificing the narrative for the message or vice versa. Instead, Powers perfectly compels his readers to understand and account for their own blindness.

The novel is not a particularly reassuring read. Neither is it an apocalyptic condemnation of all that humanity has done wrong. It is a call toward knowledge and the power that awareness can have as we work to correct our own misguided paths. Although so much of what we’ve done cannot be undone, we can evolve our own understanding of the compassion that must characterise our relationship with the natural world if we are to survive.

” ‘If we could see green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get. If we could see what green was doing, we’d never be lonely or bored. If we could understand green, we’d learn how to grow all the food we need in layers three deep, on a third of the ground we need right now, with plants that protected one another from pests and stress. If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between the Earth’s interests and ours. They’d be the same!’ “

Powers remains a relatively unknown literary giant. The Overstory was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 and won the Grand Prix de Litterature Americaine. Powers’ other works have won him the National Book Award for Fiction (2006) and the Time Magazine Book of the Year (1991). He was also recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 1989. Yet his name has made surprisingly little impression on the public consciousness. It is perhaps the reach of his novels that is largely to blame. Although growing, there is still little appetite for fiction that forces confrontation with issues deemed too large and, therefore, too laden with doom. I’ve spent 10 years working in human rights and have been asked ‘But what could I possibly do about it?‘ more times than I can count. The answer to this question is always education. Choosing to look an issue fully in its face, without apology and prepared to learn. Large-scale destruction – whether through war, agriculture, or logging – is typically permitted only because it thrives in silence and ignorance. Fictional works such as The Overstory are fundamental to the process of confronting the separation that we have enforced between ourselves and the problems that we fear facing. Were The Overstory required reading for us all, I am sure that we would not be so willing to sacrifice that which it will take us centuries, if not millennia, to rebuild.

the overstory

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