Richard Power’s novel The Overstory is organized as a tree: roots, trunk, crown and seeds. The roots are eight individual short stories of immigrants coming to this continent, families planting trees, a man’s life saved by a tree, a boy falling out of a tree. The stories are unconnected and even the trees don’t hint at how they may or may not be drawn together. For this reason, the trunk of the story is a bit difficult to read initially because five of the characters come together, while others don’t, and it took me a while to keep everyone straight. That said, once I worked my way into this book, I was hooked.
The Overstory is about trees: how they live and how they die, what they do in between. It’s a love story to the amazing things that trees actually do: communicate, sense their surroundings, create symbiotic relationships with fungi and other animals, all while turning solar energy and water into materials we use.
The five characters that come together, unite in protesting the logging of old growth timber in Oregon and the last redwoods in a particular California forest. Olivia and Nick climb into a giant redwood’s canopy and live together for a year on a small platform. They are joined in their protests by Mimi and Douglas, and finally Adam as well. One by one the tracts of trees they seek to protect are cut down. Powers’ description of the trees and their subsequent destruction is heartbreaking. Eventually one of their protest actions goes terribly wrong and they are forced to scatter.
The crown of the tree takes up the subsequent twenty years. It contains a lot more information about trees, about climate change, and the incredible waste and loss we are experiencing. Powers weaves this information into the stories of the characters so skillfully that the book doesn’t come across as a political statement, more a beautiful eulogy for these amazing beings. Humans aren’t villains, as much as unwitting destroyers. In addition to the protesters, the novel follows Patricia, a biologist reviled for her discovery that trees communicate, and then later revered. Yet, even she can’t save the forests, and her words: “When you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down” go unheeded. The other characters also reinforce the beauty of trees and their abilities. Neely, the computer genius and Silicon Valley millionaire, seeks to create a perfect AI world. Dot, a woman who cannot find happiness in her life, who seeks freedom from her marriage and her husband Richard, eventually learns to love by exploring the trees in her own backyard.
The seeds of the tree contain bits of hope, bits of wisdom. Not that humans will stop the path to destruction, but that in fact it doesn’t really matter, life continues.
As I read this book over the last four weeks (yes it took a while) I found myself seeing patterns in bark, noticing the lichens hanging from the wintry branches and smiling as our trees are starting to leaf out. Maybe I’m paying a bit more attention as a result of reading this book, I hope so.