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The Overstory by Richard Powers

December 17, 2018


Last year, my family and I moved into a house in a grove of redwoods near Santa Cruz. These magnificent hundred-foot giants surrounded the house on all sides, reminding us every time we looked out the window or stepped onto the deck just how small and young we are. But it is also an area that was heavily logged in the early part of the 20th Century, and around the house are a few tree trunks that are nearly twelve feet in diameter—trunks we estimated to be almost 2000 years old. Old growth redwoods until they were cut down, possibly to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The trunks still stand, more than a century later, as scars of human industry.



Around 1900, a fungus was accidentally imported from Asia that caused a blight of the American chestnut. It took nearly 50 years, but by mid-century, the chestnut had been wiped out as a mature forest tree. At the beginning of The Overstory, we meet the Hoel family, who have a rare mature chestnut near their Midwestern family farmhouse. Nicholas Hoel has taken up the family art project of once a month photographing the house from a nearby hill. In doing so, the Hoels have created a kind of intergenerational time-lapse flipbook, with that lone chestnut marking the passage of time.

Nicholas is just one of nine main characters whose lives interlock in The Overstory. Another, a researcher named Patricia Westerford, has published a paper claiming that trees share energy through their roots and communicate via the chemicals they release (when I read this, I recognized it from a book a friend had given me as a gift: Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees). Another character is a Stanford computer programmer who, inspired by a tree on campus, creates a massively successful gaming platform. Another, a Viet Nam vet, takes up with a kind of eco-terrorist group inspired by Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (I was inspired to read that book because of this one).

It’s a long and complex cast in a book that, in reality, is about trees. The message isn’t subtle—we are destroying our world. Cutting down the old growth forests, polluting our air and our oceans. Each character’s narrative arc bends toward environmentalism, eventually intertwining. They are interesting characters, but they are at the service of the trees.




This isn’t a hopeful novel. Even in the simulated world of the video game platform, humans run amok and overconsume. The only hopeful note is that nature will heal, long after we are gone—a notion that reminded of a book I read in 2007, The World Without Us. Which was a cathartic book, even if the implication was not good for humankind.

This is the thing with Powers—I find that his writing inspires me to make connections and dig deeper into topics. When I read his Orfeo in 2014, it was music. With The Overstory, I’ve been thinking a lot about trees, about our time on the planet and about our lasting impact. The occasional criticism of Powers is that his themes are too intellectual, his stories not imbued with enough humanity, I don’t mind so much. Here, it’s as if he’s heeding the advice of one of his characters: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” If I’m honest, it feels like this is either a story slightly over-burdened by an argument, or an argument dressed up as a story. Still, it’s masterfully written. It’s smart. It’s ambitious. It’s about trees. That’s a pretty good formula in my mind.



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