The Overstory by Richard Powers
To say that The Overstory is a book about trees would be like saying Moby-Dick is a book about a whale. Richard Powers’ latest novel is a multi-layered, multi-generational epic that interweaves the lives of many protagonists, some of whom just happen to be trees.
My biases going into The Overstory were obvious. I’m a sucker for hefty works of fiction with complex characterscapes and disparate, converging plot lines. When I’m not buried beneath one of these novels, I’m reading literary nonfiction in the science writing genre. Enter Richard Powers.
Powers divides his novel into sections named for parts of a tree. In “Roots,” he introduces the individual stories of nine characters. One of these, a Norwegian ship builder’s son, moves his family (and chestnut trees) from Brooklyn to Iowa during the 19th century. One chestnut tree thrives and grows into a huge beacon in the Iowa farmland, “a lone lighthouse in a grain-filled sea.” The technophilic son of the farmer buys a Kodak No. 2 Brownie camera and takes a photo of the chestnut tree on the first day of spring, 1903, initiating a monthly devotion that he and his descendants continue for the better part of a century, creating a stop-motion flip-book that will inspire the farmer’s great-great-great grandson to spend his life making strange things.
In another story, Winston Ma, a young student from a wealthy family, escapes Maoist China by coming to the United States He studies engineering, meets a woman and they have three daughters to whom he bequeaths the fortunes he brought to America with him – three jade rings each bearing the image of a different tree and an ancient scroll depicting enlightened men, “Chinese superhero!” he tells his eldest daughter, Mimi. “They solve life.”
A soldier shot down over Cambodia is saved by a banyan tree and becomes a guerrilla forester; a stenographer falls in love with an intellectual property lawyer who is slowed down to the speed of trees; and a wheelchair-bound Gujarati-American game designer imagines a computer game in which the player’s goal is to grow the world. Each of these characters is seemingly removed from the others until, in “Trunk,” their stories, like trees populating a forest, being to intertwine, interact and inform each other and the forest itself. The connections are not immediately evident, nor do they become so in a singular unveiling but, as Powers writes, “their lives have long been connected, deep underground.”
The twin stars around which The Overstory revolves are two women who could not be more different. One is Olivia, an angst-ridden college student bent on self-destruction who dies, returns to life and is imbued with a strange ability and a path down which she is so clearly compelled that other characters are irresistibly drawn into her orbit The other is Patricia Westerford, an expert botanist whose work on the hidden lives of trees is ground-breaking. Trees, she tells us, are social creatures that communicate with each other through the air and through their roots; they feed and protect their young, and when under attack by insects, they send out signals to wasps that come and defend them and their kin.
A forest knows things. [Trees] 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.
Richard Powers is an alchemist. His super power is tapping a scientific discipline deeply and transmuting that knowledge into dramatic, evocative story. Through the Rachel Carson-esque “Plant Patty,” he delivers a fervent and well-founded plea on behalf of the natural world, and with the actions taken by Olivia and those around her, he clearly states that the time for action is now, if indeed it hasn’t already passed.
There’s a Chinese saying. “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.”
The Chinese engineer smiles. “Good one.”
“When is the next best time? Now.”
Powers advocates action, but not in the extreme. A group of his characters head down a path of eco-terrorism to tragic consequences. He wants to awaken us to the knowledge that our anthropocentric worldview is false, that humans do not sit at the apex of all life, and that “this is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” He strives to jar readers from complacency, succeeding in doing so with an epic and powerful tale. As one character sagely remarks, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” This is a good story.