If you love trees, you’ll find this book fascinating: it’s a rich exploration of both trees and people, as individuals and groups, and how closely these two species affect each other.
The Overstory follows the stories of a variety of humans – the common thread is that in some way, trees play a significant role in their lives, and as the narrative unfolds, the trees and forests are as much active characters in it as the people.
One of the poignant threads in this rich tapestry is the story of Neelay Mehta. His family are from India, but live in Silicon Valley. He cripples himself as a child, falling out of a tree. He becomes hugely rich and successful by creating an addictive computer game, in which players inhabit and reshape a beautiful natural world.
As Neelay’s business grows like crazy, till millions of people are hooked on it, we observe for ourselves as readers how the actual natural world is being destroyed. Although Neelay still gets his own juice by visiting the forest in his wheelchair, his vision is of a completely virtual world, as in this quote from the book:
“We’ll live and trade and make deals and have love affairs, all in symbol space. The world will be a game, with on-screen scores… Real life? Soon we won’t even remember how it used to go.”
The author, Richard Powers, is a well-established American writer, who I’d never heard of. I really like his writing style, although the Guardian review which led me to buy the book was critical. This book is full of tangible actions and observations, it’s relatively light on dialogue, and has very little author’s commentary, which I appreciate: Powers trusts us to find the insights for ourselves.
This is a long book, 500 pages, but rarely felt too long. What draws you along is not so much the plot lines, as the fascination of the world view you experience, and this different reality where trees are as much a living part of it as people.
The Overstory will surely expand your sense if a forest as a living community, for example through passages like this:
‘Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information…
There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…
In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species — whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry — bear heavily or not at all, together, as a community…
Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees.’
Like real life, the reality you share in this book is full of paradox, arouses mixed feelings, is hard to pin down. The severe degradation of our ecosystem is felt through the narrative: for example, where Patricia, an expert on tree ecology, walks through the forest near her home, which is still beautiful, but suffering severely too:
“Magnolia and striped maple fill in for the decimated chestnuts. The hemlocks are dying, hit by adelgids and helped along by acid rain. High above, on the Appalachian spine, the Fraser firs are all dead…But the priestly tulip trees still boost her immune system, while beeches lift her mood and focus her thoughts.”
Pictured: Richard Powers
This book will show you painful truths about how vulnerable the old forests are, not only to rapacious capitalist lumber corporations, but also to corruption in the National Forest Service and elsewhere. You shudder to imagine what’s happening under President Trump.
You may also start to question how we humans view trees. Some more musings from Patricia, preparing to speak at a well-intentioned conference:
“These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.”
From the viewpoint of humans, the outlook is pretty bleak. But this book should help you see a different picture, from the viewpoint of trees, forests, ecosystems. These will somehow outlast human assault, and outlast humanity. As one character comments, “The most wonderous products of four billion years of life need help.” Not them, us. Help from all quarters!