A Review of The Overstory by Richard Powers
James E. Lassiter
2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Buy and read this book. Within you will find yourself as you presently are. That is, your understanding of Life and humankind’s place within it. From reading it you might also find and become a better person.
Who are you now? Here are two reviews of The Overstory that reveal some of you, standing above and separate from nature:
The Atlantic called the novel “darkly optimistic” for taking the long view that humanity was doomed while trees are not.
The Guardian was mixed on the novel, claiming that Powers mostly succeeded in conjuring “narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again.” (Wikipedia)
Others of you stand here, within, a part of nature:
Library Journal* called the book “a deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature.”
Ron Charles of The Washington Post offered up effusive praise, writing that this “ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.” (Wikipedia)
Other Reviews (Amazon.com)
“Should be mandatory reading the world over.” – Emilia Clarke
“The best book I’ve read in 10 years. It’s a remarkable piece of literature, and the moment it speaks to is climate change. So, for me, it’s a lodestone. It’s a mind-opening fiction, and it connects us all in a very positive way to the things that we have to do if we want to regain our planet.” – Emma Thompson
“An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.”
“This book is beyond special.… It’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed.” – Bill McKibben
“The best novels change the way you see. Richard Powers’s The Overstory does this. Haunting.” – Geraldine Brooks
“A towering achievement by a major writer.” – Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland
“Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a ‘historian of contemporary society.’ He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked.” – Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
“Monumental… The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.… A gigantic fable of genuine truths.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review
“A big, ambitious epic.… Powers juggles the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity. The human elements of the book―the arcs his characters follow over the decades from crusading passion to muddled regret and a sense of failure―are thoroughly compelling. So are the extra-human elements, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’s prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species.” – Michael Upchurch, The Boston Globe
The Overstory is a novel published in 2018. It is about the lives of nine Americans whose unique experiences with trees bring them together to try and stop the destruction of forests.
Nicholas Hoel – an artist of Norwegian and Irish descent who comes from a long line of farmers and whose great-great-great grandfather planted a chestnut tree that survived blight for decades and enthralled the Hoel family for generations.
Mimi Ma – the eldest daughter of Winston Ma, born Ma Sih Hsuin, who fled China and became an engineer in America. Mimi falls in love with the Mulberry bush he plants in their backyard and is deeply affected when her father eventually commits suicide.
Adam Appich – an inquisitive boy who is fascinated with insects and later becomes interested in human psychology and how humans can only understand things that are put into narratives. His father planted a tree before the birth of Adam and each of his four siblings; as a child, Adam conflated the characteristics of each tree with his siblings.
Ray Brinkman – a conventional property lawyer and Dorothy’s husband who later in life falls in love with nature.
Dorothy Cazaly – an unconventional stenographer who falls in love with nature late in life.
Douglas Pavlicek – an orphan who enlists in the Stanford prison experiment before enlisting in the Air Force. After being discharged he wanders across America, realizing as he does so that deforestation is ruining the country. He signs up to plant seedlings, only learning after the planting of his fifty thousandth seedling that this effort does nothing to help the trees and only contributes to their destruction at the hands of logging companies.
Neelay Mehta – the child of Indian immigrants, Neelay spends his life building computers and creating computer programs in Northern California. Despite being paralyzed when he falls out of a tree as a child, he goes on to become a computer programming marvel, eventually creating a series of video games called Mastery inspired by trees, deforestation, and colonization.
Patricia Westerford – a dendrologist with a hearing disability, Patricia spends most of her childhood and adulthood enthralled with trees. When she accidentally discovers that trees are capable of communicating with each other, her research is widely mocked leading her to contemplate suicide. She eventually finds work as a park ranger where, years later, she discovers that her work has been redeemed and expanded upon.
Olivia Vandergriff – a young woman in her early 20s who lives an impulsive and reckless life until dedicating her life to protesting deforestation. (Wikipedia)
Nicholas Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman, Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford, and Olivia Vandergriff are people who had unique relationships with trees which occasionally led to tragedy or salvation.
In 1989, when Olivia Vandergriff is one semester away from finishing college, she gets high and is accidentally electrocuted, briefly dying. Upon being revived, she comes to believe that higher powers are trying to give her a message. After seeing a news story about a group of activists trying to protect the remaining 3% of giant redwood trees, she decides that her purpose is to join them. On her way there, she meets Nicholas Hoel, now 35 years old, and at a loss of what to do with his life as the life insurance money he lived on is gone. He has sold the Hoel farm, the Hoel tree is dying, and his art is a commercial failure. After talking to Olivia, he decides to join her in her mission.
At the same time, in Portland, OR, Mimi Ma, the daughter of a Chinese engineer who dies by suicide, is rising up the corporate ladder when she sees that a small group of trees by her building are scheduled to be destroyed by the city. She contemplates attending a town hall meeting to protest their removal but before she can, the city cuts down the trees in the night. Douglas Pavlicek, a veteran who has spent 5 years of his life replanting trees for major companies only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his work actually enables additional logging of old-growth stands, walks by the trees and sees them being cut down. He tries to prevent their destruction and is arrested. When he returns to the trees he is confronted by Mimi Ma, who quickly realizes he is not a city employee but an environmentalist. The two band together to start joining in protests against environmental destruction.
Nick and Olivia join a group of nonviolent radicals and give themselves “tree” names, Nick becoming Watchman and Olivia being Maidenhair. When they are asked to tree sit in a giant redwood called Mimas for two weeks, Olivia leaps at the chance. Their stay ends up lasting for more than a year, during which they watch as the forest around them is clear-cut. They are eventually joined by Adam Appich, who is doing a thesis on environmentalists. The night he is there Nick and Olivia are finally forced out of the tree and arrested so Mimas can be cut down. Nick and Olivia decide to do more work in Oregon.
Mimi Ma and Douglas continue going to protests where they are brutalized by the police and arrested. Mimi is eventually fired from her job and, like Douglas, becomes a full-time activist.
Changed by his time with Olivia and Nick, Adam goes to Oregon to rejoin them, and meets Mimi Ma, now going by the name Mulberry, and Douglas, going by Doug-fir, who are part of the same activist camp. He stays with them a month and they believe that they are finally achieving something until their camp is destroyed by the forest authorities and law enforcement. In the altercation Mimi and Douglas are both badly injured. In retaliation the group sets fire to logging equipment. Pleased by the results, they set two more fires intending the third to be their final act. During the final arson Olivia is injured and dies, and the four remaining activists burn her body and scatter. The fire is deemed the work of a crazed killer and the logging continues.
Mimi Ma sells a priceless heirloom her father passed down, which ensures that she can reinvent herself. Nick becomes a vagrant, Douglas a BLM ranger, and Adam returns to academia.
Douglas is still haunted by what happened and writes down everything in his journal using everyone’s forest names. Nevertheless, his journal is discovered and the FBI arrests him. In order to protect Mimi Ma he decides to give up one name and goes to New York City where he locates Adam and reminisces with him about the fire. Fingered by Douglas, Adam is arrested and sentenced to 140 years in prison, which strikes him as a small price to pay as it is barely any time in tree life.
Mimi Ma, who is now living and working as an unconventional unlicensed therapist of sorts, hears about the arrests and realizes that Douglas turned in Adam to protect her.
Living in the forest, Nick creates a giant message from branches and dead logs that can be read from space. He is helped in this project by a Native American man who happens to be passing by, and later by some of the man’s family. The message, which reads “Still,” will be legible from space for 200 years before it is absorbed into the forest. (Wikipedia)
“When you spend all your hours with horses, your soul expands a bit until the ways of men reveal themselves to be no more than a costume party you’d be well advised not to take at face value. … The greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth. Single biggest influence on what a body will or won’t believe is what nearby bodies broadcast over the public band. Get three people in the room and they’ll decide that the law of gravity is evil and should be rescinded because one of their uncles got shit-faced and fell off the roof.” (Douglas)
“We’re evolution’s third act.” … “Biology was phase one, unfolding over epochs. Then culture throttle up the rate of transformation to mere centuries. Now there’s another digital generation every twenty weeks, each subroutine speeding up the next.” 1. Biology, 2. Culture, 3. Digital. (Neelay)
“The [free internet commons] are becoming enclosed. The gift culture will be throttled in the cradle.” Me: by private companies – a capitalization of one-on-one freedom. (Neelay)
“Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red n tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.” (Patricia)
“They [the trees] aren’t self-reliant. Everything out here is cutting deals with everything else.” (Patricia)
Me: All persons featured in the book are in search of true meaning in and purpose for their lives. Not just any purpose or meaning but one that respects and promotes the sacredness, the specialness of Life.
“She marvels again at how the planet’s supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for.” (Patricia)
“The smell of her red cedar pencil elates her. The slow push of graphite across paper reminds her of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of galls on water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk every day. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ver get to the enlightenment of plants.” (Patricia)
“Hope and truth do nothing for humans, without use.”
“The psyche’s job is to keep us blissfully ignorant of who we are, what we think and how we’ll behave in any situation. We’re all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right. But even when the fog is pointed out, we’re no better at navigating through it.” (Adam’s undergrad prof.)
“Legacy cognitive blindness will forever prevent people from acting in their own best interests.” (Adam)
“The judge asks, ‘Young, straight, faster-growing trees aren’t better than older, rotting trees?’”
“’Better for us. Not for the forest. In fact, young, managed, homogenous stands can’t really be called forests.’ The words are a dam-break as she speaks them. They leave her happy to be alive, alive to study life. She feels grateful for no reason at all, except in remembering all that she has been able to discover about other things. She can’t tell the judge, but she loves them, those intricate, reciprocal nations of tied-together life that she has listened to all life long. She loves her own species, too – sneaky and self-serving, trapped in blinkered bodies, blind to intelligence all around it – yet chosen by creation to know.” … “I sometimes wonder whether a tree’s real task on Earth isn’t to bulk itself up in preparation to lying dead on the forest floor for a long time.”
“The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.
“’Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three-quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests that kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel.’”
“This cause they have given themselves to – this defense of the immobile and blameless, the fight for something better than endless suicide appetite – is all they have in common.” (Mimi thinking of Douglas)
“I want to start a seed bank. There are half as many trees as there were when we came down out of them.” … “One percent of the world forest, every decade. An area larger than Connecticut, every year.” … “A third to a half of existing species may go extinct by the time I’m gone.” … “Tens of thousands of trees we know nothing about. Species we’ve barely classified. Like burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records, all at once.” “I want to start an ark.” … “I don’t know [what I’ll do with the seeds]. But a seed can lie dormant for thousands of years.” (Patricia)
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” (Adam)
“A little time must be bought from the approaching apocalypse. Nothing else matters more than that.” (author on Adam)
“What the hell am I doing? The clarity of recent weeks, the sudden waking from sleepwalk, his certainty that the world has been stolen and the atmosphere trashed from the shortest of short-term gains, the sense that he must do all he can to fight for the living world’s most wondrous creatures: all these abandon Adam, and he’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.” (author on Adam’s thinking)
“Reason is what’s turning all the forests of the world into rectangles.” (author on Douglas’s thinking)
On “Failure” and “What the Fuck Went Wrong With Mankind” … “We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And what Douglas Pavlicek wants to know is why this so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on the status quo.” (author in Douglas’s thinking)
“The reporters ask why her group, unlike every other NGO seed bank on the planet, isn’t focusing on plants that will be useful to people, com catastrophe. She wants to say: ‘Useful is the catastrophe.’ Instead, she says, ‘We’re baking trees whose use haven’t been discovered yet.” … “But their eyes glaze over when she tells them how all these threats [plant diseases in areas of forest decline] are made fatal by one single thing: the ongoing overhaul of the atmosphere by people burning once-green things.” (Patricia)
“Myth. Myth. A mispronunciation. A malaprop. Memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives. Sending off telegrams composed by skeptics of the planned escape, saying Remember this, thousands of years from now, when you can see nothing but yourself, everywhere you look.” (Patricia)
‘The first two great rolls of cosmic dice: the one that took inert matter over the crest of life, and the one that led from simple bacteria to compound cells a hundred times larger and more complex. Compared to those first two chasms, the gap between trees and people is nothing at all.” (life…eukaryotes)
“The world had six trillion trees, when people showed up. Half remain. Half again more will disappear, in a hundred years. … Reason is just another weapon of control. How the invention of the reasonable, the acceptable, the sane, even the human, is greener and more recent than humans suspect.” (author on Adam and Adam)
“Defiant hope.” (Adam’s scholarly interest)
“‘We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive – a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. … Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.’
“‘Men and trees are closer cousins than you think. We’re two things hatched from the same seed, heading off in opposite directions, using each other in a shared place. That place needs all its parts. And our part…we have a role to play in the Earth organism.…’
“‘Trees are doing science. Running a billion field tests. They make their conjectures, and the living world tells them what works. Life is speculation, and speculation is life. What a marvelous world! It means to guess. It also means to mirror.’
“‘Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics….’”
“‘If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between Earth’s interests and ours. They’d be the same!’”
“First there was everything. Soon there will be nothing.”
“Wilderness is gone. Forest has succumbed to chemically sustained silviculture. Four billion years of evolution, and that’s where the matter will end. Politically, practically, emotionally, intellectually: Humans are all that count, the final word. You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford.
“The coming massacre was their authority – a cataclysm lare enough to pardon every fire the five of them set. The cataclysm will still come, he’s sure of it, long before his seventy plus seventy years are up. But not soon enough to exonerate him.” (Adam thinking in his prison cell)
“This is how it must go. There will be catastrophes. Disastrous setbacks and slaughters. But life is going someplace. It wants to know itself; it wants the power of choice. It wants solutions to problems that nothing alive yet knows how to solve, and it’s willing to use even death to find them. (Neelay thinking about a new computer ‘game’)
“Stand your ground. The castle doctrine. Self-help. If you could save yourself, your wife, your child, or even a stranger by burning something down, the law allows you. If some breaks into your home and starts destroying it, you may stop them however you need to. … Our home [Earth] has been broken into. Our lives are being endangered. The law allows for all necessary force against unlawful and imminent harm. (Ray, one-time property lawyer now paraplegic, thinking) Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees. (author on Ray’s thoughts) Me: This is why the band plays on, lawfully, righteously.
“The word tree and truth come from the same root.” (Nick)
“This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.” (Nick’s thoughts)
* – Finnell, Joshua. “The Overstory [review].” Library Journal 143, no. 2 (February 2018): 96.