Reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory, I was reminded of George Herbert, the 17th-century metaphysical poet and priest, a “devotional lyricist” known for writing “pattern poems,” in which the lines are so arranged that they become visual, “concrete” representations of the subject of the poem. Powers’s novel offers a grand reworking of that concept: trees, the novel’s primary subject, imprint the four-part structure of the book—Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds—and the lives of its nine characters. And, of course, what we’re holding in our hands, at least if we’re reading the print version, is also a representation of its green progenitors.
“Overstory,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, refers to a layer of forest vegetation and foliage, often a canopy of trees, but in its original 15th-century sense, the word meant the “upper part of the nave” in a cathedral, where “a series of windows admit light into the central part of the building.” Powers’s novel plays on both meanings in its mission to illuminate our understanding of trees. Their magnificent, overarching presence in our lives is ignored if not simply unseen: “No one sees trees, we see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade….But trees—trees are invisible” (423).
The grand historical sweep of the 502-page novel takes us from the days of early settlement in the American Midwest to the present era. Nine main characters—distinct in their upbringings and professions—are introduced in separate vignettes. We see Mimi Ma, for example, the child of Chinese immigrants, grow up in Wheaton, Illinois, and eventually become an engineer. Douglas Pavlicek’s life, on the other hand, is already in mid-stream when we first meet him as a battered Vietnam war veteran. Despite such divergences, the nine individuals form unexpected alliances, with trees playing the critical role in creating their interconnections and determining the trajectories of their lives. As such, these nine people constitute the novel’s “understory”: as the narrator observes, “[T]heir lives have long been connected, deep underground. Their kinship will work like an unfolding book” (132). In weaving and unfolding their narratives, Powers revisits the violent historical events of the 1990s when environmental activists—called “guerrilla groups” by some—confronted the logging industry’s massive destruction of national forests and virgin woods. At least four of the nine characters get swept up in these events with dramatic consequences. While “real” historical events are evoked, Powers’s characters, at least in my mind, eventually emerge as allegorical figures. Their experiences—whether centered on violent activism or focused on close observations of trees—so transform them that they appear alienated in the so-called “real” world, the one ruled by people who view themselves as “the apex species” (285), entitled to exploit the natural world.
Evoking Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Powers offers a fascinating study of transformation: his characters’ conversions are often accompanied by exile, misunderstanding, and even suicidal despair. And yet, they remain true to the “alien script” (155) of trees. It is the language of trees, their “words before words” (3), Powers suggests, that we need to read and hear to live as enlightened beings on this planet. We can begin by learning the names of trees—at least fourteen appear in the first two pages of the book—and appreciate the many gifts they offer us: “Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count” (4). For a guide, Powers gives us the character of Patricia Westerford, scholar and plant scientist, whose controversial views on trees are at first ridiculed but much later embraced by the scientific community. She teaches us that human beings and trees are close cousins “hatched from the same seed” (454), that trees have astonishing chemistry (452); they form complex communities we know little about; they migrate, and remember (285); they learn “to save water…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 attacks” (453). And she warns us that deforestation is “a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together” (281).
In passage after passage, Powers asks us to see, to look at trees as we have never seen them before—without romanticizing them. In his description of quaking aspens in south-east Utah, for example, he blends scientific precision with poetic cognition to describe not only the minute details and colors of his subjects but also their movement, sound, and interaction with their environment: “Populus tremuloides. Clouds of gold leaf glint on thin trunks tinted the palest green. The air is still, but the aspens shake as if in a wind. Aspens alone quake when all others stand in dead calm. Long flattened leafstalks twist at the slightest gust…The oracle leaves turn the wind audible. They filter the dry light and fill it with expectation. Trunks run straight and bare, roughed with age at the bottom, then smooth and whitening up to the first branches. Circles of pale green lichen palette-spatter them…The air shivers in gold, and the ground is littered with windfall and dead ramets” (130). Besides demanding that we see them, Powers also asks us to entertain the idea that trees should have rights in the way that people do. While some may find the proposal laughable, we are reminded that women were without rights until not long ago. Law gives visibility to the “rightless” who are only seen as things for “use” by those holding rights (250).
Born in Illinois, Powers, in the course of his thirty-year career as an award-winning novelist, has shared the complexities of such subjects as artificial intelligence, genetics, and neuroscience with his readers. Novels are generally not expected to be repositories of scientific facts, and Powers has been taken to task by some critics for being too cerebral in his selection of subjects and his portrayal of his characters. Given the blindness—and lack of any cerebral power—with which many of us choose to respond to the environmental crisis, The Overstory is a necessary novel for our times. With its sobering message about the destruction of trees on the planet, it is not an easy read. But it is a tremendous gift from its author, who reminds us that “when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down” (453). In his fusion of science and poetry, Powers has created the kind of novel we need in our ecologically devastated age. Sci-po as a new genre, comparable to sci-fi, could infuse urgency into our scientific understanding of the environment and our place in the universe. The Overstory, which took him five years to complete, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018. I predict he will one day also be a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.