Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)
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 mobilised 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.(The Overstory, page 385)
That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.
The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.
In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.
The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.
In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?
If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.
The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:
The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.(Page 211)
When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.
Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.