This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”
Ecological catastrophe, perhaps the biggest issue of our generation, has never been more vividly portrayed than in Richard Powers’s twelfth novel The Overstory. After making his name with the award-winning The Echo Maker in 2006, Powers has graced the literary world with a series of spellbinding tales. In this latest ambitious novel he challenges the selfish exceptionalism of humans through the eyes of nine tree-activists. The central message is clear: we are disconnected from a vast natural world surrounding us.
The story is structured into four sections resembling the morphology of trees: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds.
In ‘Roots’, he introduces us to the nine protagonists, a range of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds: an airforce loadmaster who is saved from falling by a banyan tree in the Vietnam War; a couple who, in an attempt to save their marriage, plant a tree in their garden every year only to be supernaturally rewarded; a 1980s college student who electrocutes herself and is mysteriously brought back to life; a disabled botanist who discovers trees communicating with each other and eventually publishes a seminal book which becomes the bible of a new movement.
The botanist is Dr. Patricia Westerford, a woman whose years spent researching forests are prematurely mocked following her findings about trees communicating (a real discovery – see The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben), but who is later congratulated and vindicated.
As one becomes familiar with the ideas behind her findings, it is clear that the chemical interactions between the trees are symbolic of the later relationships between the characters. Powers’s language is meditative yet scientific – “In summer, water rises through the xylem and disperses out of the million tiny mouths on the undersides of leaves, a hundred gallons a day evaporating from the tree’s airy crown into the humid Iowa air.” He cleverly integrates his obvious scientific knowledge with literary talent, resulting in a book which is both poetic and educational.
Following the discrete and unrelated backstories in ‘Roots’, the later sections see the characters’ lives become intertwined. This slower-paced part of the book allows us to see how the characters’ unique and meaningful connection with trees drives their pursuit of the same interests, and ultimately leads to them taking up the same cause. By focusing less on the characters and more on the central theme, the author urges us to reconsider our relationship with Mother Nature.
While it may be argued that such powerful themes reduce characters into mere rhetorical devices, Powers raises pressing issues which cannot be ignored. Just this month it was announced by the Met Office, in its first major update on climate change in 10 years, that UK summer temperatures could be 5.2°C hotter by 2070. Moreover, the US National Climate Change Assessment has found that climate change is to increasingly “disrupt many areas of life” in the future through consequences such as crop failures, wildfires, flooding, and altered coast lines.
Despite these warnings, the politicians of the world are slow to act, as demonstrated by President Donald Trump ordering further deforestation of North America’s tree population. The message is apparently not clear enough.
The climax of the novel centres around a protest against the logging of an old forest. Some of the characters adopt ‘alter-eco’ names (“maidenhair”, “moss-eater’) and camp atop a giant redwood for a year to prevent the felling. Day-to-day living in the canopy is described in detail. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Powers succeeds in capturing the urgency and scale of the problem at hand.
I guarantee there will not be many things about trees left to know after reading this book. It has even left me pondering the trees outside my door. Trees have lives of their own: they eat, breathe, have sex, form networks, alert others to a threat. You will never look at a tree the same way again after this story.
Why a multifaceted, 512-page novel to combat the climate change issue? Richard Powers answers this from within his own pages: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”