RICHARD POWERS: THE OVERSTORY (2018)

It has often been argued that a major potential benefit of reading novels is that this activity might help the reader better to understand and empathize with other human beings, even human beings whose backgrounds and beliefs might differ substantially from those of the reader. Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, takes that idea to a whole new level by seeking to help its readers better to understand and empathize with other living things (especially trees) that are not human. Indeed, Wai Chee Dimock has argued that The Overstory (like Barbara Kingsolver’s 1993 novel The Poisonwood Bible) can be taken as a marker of new evolutionary phase in which the modern novel might be returning to its roots in the epic as it begins to take more seriously the abilities and concerns of the nonhuman world[1]. By this reading, The Overstory is not just a very fine novel and an important statement about the relationship between humans and nature: it is also an important turning point in the history of the novel as a genre.

The Overstory was inspired by Powers’ observations of the magnificent redwoods that grace the forests near Stanford University, where he was teaching at the time, and informed by a number of recent works that have extended our understanding of the way trees really function and experience the world—such as Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees (2005) and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015). We have long understood that trees, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and adding back oxygen, make a crucial contribution to earth’s natural environment. The Overstory, though, employs a powerful array of literary techniques to make the argument that trees are far more complex and important than this, that they are sophisticated beings who have much more in common with humans than we might realize. But this novel also suggests that we have a great deal to learn from trees, whose wisdom and nobility might very well exceed that of humans.

As Jonathan Arac notes in his review of The Overstory, “the movement known as eco-criticism places the humanities in necessary conversation with practices of inquiry that reach out beyond our species to questions of the earth and its very long history, especially as shaped by life in all its forms” (137). The Overstory is ideal for that project.Among other things, The Overstory is an exercise in decentering the ego, moving us away from the typical individualist emphasis of the novel by employing a large and diverse cast of characters, all of whom are of roughly equal importance to the narrative. But the novel goes far beyond this simple strategy by arguing that trees are of (at least) equal importance to human beings in the larger scheme of the world and subtly extending the character list to include trees as well, though the novel forcefully makes the point that trees are inherently cooperative, communal, and non-individualist creatures whose behavior transcends the competition and greed that all too often informs human interactions.

Noting the argument by philosopher Dale Jamieson that climate change constitutes “the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced” (61), Marco Caracciolo argues that climate change is particularly difficult for humans to overcome by collective action because we are so conditioned, yet “capitalism, the economic system at the root of the climate crisis, … is deeply grounded in individualistic notions and struggles with long-term action of a collective nature” (“We-Narrative” 87–88)[2]. He then singles out The Overstory is a key example of a “we-narrative” that helps to convey an effective sense of collectivity, a new form of narrative designed to address a problem of unprecedented seriousness[3]. Rob Nixon has well described the dilemma that The Overstory seem designed to address. The “slow violence” being done to the environment, causing our current climate crisis, Nixon notes, challenges us to ask “how to devise arresting stories, images, and symbols adequate to the pervasive but elusive violence of delayed effects,” as well as “how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? This is a crucial challenge if we are to generate any sustained understanding of the transnational, intergenerational fallout from slow violence” (38).

The basic approach of The Overstory becomes clear in the very first section of the book, which is ostensibly devoted to Nicholas Hoel, an artist who might, in himself, be a fairly conventional character in a novel. But Powers’ decentering technique is displayed early on as Nick Hoel is actually a relatively minor character in his own section, which is mostly devoted to detailing his family background from the time his great-great grandparents came over from Norway and Ireland, eventually moving to a homestead farm in Iowa, taking with them a number of chestnuts from New York, planting them and eventually growing several chestnut trees, though only one ultimate survives. This surviving tree, though, becomes the strand that connects the successive generations of the family, as they pass down from one generation to another the practice of photographing the tree on the twenty-first day of each month, thus producing a semi-continuous record of its life. Eventually, an accident with a propane heater kills off the entire Hoel family except Nick and the tree, which thus becomes the artist’s only living link to his family past.

The other main characters are all then gradually introduced in the successive segments of the first part of the book, which is collectively entitled “Roots,” establishing the backgrounds from which the story of the novel will grow and thus beginning to give the novel itself a sort of tree-like structure[4]. For example, the second main section of the book, in which the plotlines of the various characters begin to develop and grow together, is called “Trunk.” Even the title of the book is a sort of pun, indicating the ways in which trees provide an overall story that ties together the different strands of the plot but also referring to the “overstory,” or canopy that is formed by the interconnecting top foliage of trees in a forest. In addition, actual trees remain thoroughly interwoven in the plot as they turn out to be centrally involved in the lives of a diverse array of characters who otherwise have very little in common, often providing keys to the formation of romantic couples. For example, bad-girl college student Olivia Vandergriff, having electrocuted herself and momentarily died at the end of the “Roots” section, revives in this section, has a vision that causes her to head West (though she isn’t sure why) and then runs into Nick Hoel in Iowa, where he is now selling tree art in a roadside establishment. They form a bond and agree to head West together. Another odd couple features Chinese American engineer Mimi Ma and Douglas Pavlicek, a veteran of both the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment (conducted in the summer of 1971) and Vietnam (where he was almost killed when he fell from a plane but was saved when he landed in a tree). Returning home after the war, Douglas becomes convinced that deforestation is ruining America and devotes himself to planting seedlings to replace harvested trees (though he later learns that this project might mostly serve to help logging companies justify the cutting down of old-growth forests). He urges the baby trees to try to hang on until humans have destroyed themselves and they can be free: “Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over” (90).

Douglas meets and bonds with Mimi when the city removes a stand of pine trees that Mimi has become attached to viewing from her office window. A third couple is formed by property lawyer Ray Brinkman and free-spirited stenographer Dorothy Cazaly, who eventually marry and ultimately devote themselves to rewilding their yard, despite complaints from neighbors and city authorities. Dorothy and Ray remain somewhat in the background and do not become directly involved in the main plot but are still connected to it. Their story also gets some good lines that help to connect this epic novel about trees to famous literature about people. After Ray has a stroke and is paralyzed, Dorothy spends a great deal of time reading to him. When they are partway through reading Anna Karenina (and also partly through rewilding the yard), we are told (in a thought that is Ray’s) that “civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way” (384). Finally, two of the most important characters do not form couples with other main characters and are only peripherally involved in the plot. However, Indian American game developer Neelay Mehta and hearing-impaired tree scientist Patricia Westerford ultimately make major contributions to the overall impact of the novel as their professional work adds significantly to the book’s message.

In the third major section, entitled “Crown,” the main plotline that is put in place in “Trunk” comes to a culmination. In this plot, Douglas, Mimi, Olivia, and Nick all become involved with a group of activists who are attempting to prevent California’s majestic redwoods from being cut down to make way for human development. In particular, Nick and Olivia camp out in the branches of a giant redwood that they have named “Mimas” in order to prevent it from being cut down. Expecting to be there for perhaps a few days, they end up residing in their impromptu treehouse for months, eventually joined there by Adam Appich, a PhD student in psychology who is doing his dissertation research on the psychological profiles of devoted environmental activists. Adam himself will become a major character and will be won over to the cause of saving the trees, though they are all eventually forced out of the tree, which is then cut down in a heartbreaking development.

Incidentally, lest the notion that activists might stay in the branches of a giant redwood for months in order to try to protect the tree seems farfetched, this part of the plot (along with many others) is directly based on historical reality. For example, activist Julia Lorrain Hill (who grew up partly in Jonesboro, Arkansas) occupied a giant California redwood known as “Luna” for more than two years from 1997 to 1999 to prevent the tree from being cut down by Pacific Lumber Company. Hill succeeded in saving the tree, but Pacific continued to fell other old-growth redwoods. In 2007 and 2008, Nadia Berg spent eleven months living nearly 200 feet off the ground amid the branches of a 1500-year-old giant California redwood she named “Grandma.” When she was finally convinced to come down in September 2008, along with Billy Stoetzer, who was occupying a nearby giant redwood named “Spooner,” it was presumably the end of the series of tree-sitting protests that had by this time driven Pacific Lumber into bankruptcy and new ownership as Humboldt Redwood Co. This new company then promised to protect old growth trees, thus convincing the protesters to come down. The protests also drew an unprecedented amount of public attention to the plight of the redwoods and ultimately seemed to serve as an example that such protests could, in fact, achieve positive results.

Alas, the cutting of old-growth redwoods has nevertheless continued, and a group known as the Redwood Forest Defense continues to conduct protests in Northern California to this day. It is perhaps a measure of media exhaustion and contemporary cynicism that these contemporary protests have garnered far less attention than did the earlier ones, though a recent short documentary film called “Sentinals” documents the efforts of this group. In terms of The Overstory, meanwhile, the protests are far from successful, failing to save Mimas.And Humboldt, in fact, is the company that cuts down Mimas in The Overstory, where the protests are not successful.

As the protests go on, Mimi and Douglas join a group of protestors who chain themselves together inside the headquarters of the logging company. In a powerful segment that is grueling to read, police assault them, brutally torturing them by rubbing pepper spray in their eyes with cotton swabs (and with sadistic glee). The cops try to prevent news coverage of the action, but a tape of the brutality gets out and begins to circulate. Anyone who watches can have no doubt about who the police are trying to serve and protect. Patricia’s husband Dennis sees the tape and describes the brutality to her: ““Pepper spray. With cotton swabs. It looked like something out of . . . not this country” (304). In response to Dennis’s description of the tape, Patricia surprisingly takes it as a sign that people are “beautiful,” beautiful because doomed but determined to fight on in desperation, even if it is against the wrong enemy. She diagnoses the human race in a way that is really a diagnosis of capitalism: “The only thing we know how to do is grow. Grow harder; grow faster. More than last year. Growth, all the way up to the cliff and over. No other possibility” (304). Not knowing what else to do, she conceives of a plan to use the newfound wealth from her bestselling book to establish a seed bank to try to save endangered plant species that will soon be disappearing otherwise.

Ultimately, given the failure of their efforts at civil disobedience, the protesters of the novel turn to more radical means to try to protect the redwoods, including a campaign of violent sabotage against logging camps. In one of these attacks, Olivia is killed (and Nick seriously hurt) in an accident, leading authorities to consider Olivia’s death a result of criminal activity and causing the other activists to disperse to avoid arrest. Ultimately, though, Douglas is arrested decades later and then turns informant, handing over Adam (now a respected professor of psychology), gaining a shorter prison sentence for himself but mostly protecting Mimi, who spends the rest of the novel immersed in guilt at going unpunished, though she comes to admire Douglas’s gesture. Adam, the one among the activists who was least involved in their activities, is then convicted and sentenced to 140 years in prison, once again demonstrating the ultimate priorities of a justice system designed to protect the interests of corporations over those of individuals—and especially over those of trees, however old and important to the environment the trees might be.

Patricia and Neelay are not directly involved in this central plot involving the attempt to save the redwoods, though Patricia’s groundbreaking writing provides considerable inspiration for that attempt. Even as a graduate student, Patricia had gone against the prevailing wisdom of her professors, who believed (along with most “experts” in the field) that forests should be kept neat and clear, while she becomes convinced that messiness is crucial to sustaining healthy forests. An early paper in which she suggests that trees can communicate with each other is eventually scoffed at, driving her out of academia, though she manages to catch on as a forest ranger and thus still be able to live and work among the trees she so loves, coming more and more to appreciate their complexity and how fundamental they are to life on earth.

Partly based on real-world Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, Patricia develops insights into the nature of trees that are crucial to the overall impact of The Overstory. In particular, Powers draws upon Simard’s work with the way trees and other plants communicate and cooperate through underground networks of fungi and roots, constructing ecosystems that are genuine communities in which, for their mutual benefit, different trees and plants exchange information, but also carbon, water, and nutrients. In the novel, Patricia is at one point amazed by a large aspen forest that she realizes is actually a single organism, possibly over a million years old: “All around her spreads one single male whose genetically identical trunks cover more than a hundred acres. The thing is outlandish, beyond her ability to wrap her head around. But then, as Dr. Westerford knows, the world’s outlands are everywhere, and trees like to toy with human thought like boys toy with beetles” (131). From her study of trees, she also comes to appreciate the crucial importance of death to sustaining life, despite our difficulty in dealing with the concept. “Death is everywhere, oppressive and beautiful. She sees the source of that forestry doctrine she so resisted in school. Looking at all this glorious decay, a person might be forgiven for thinking that old meant decadent, that such thick mats of decomposition were cellulose cemeteries in need of the rejuvenating ax. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, where the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed” (134-35). She especially comes to appreciate Douglas firs as the tree that built America: “Arrow-straight, untapering, soaring up a hundred feet before the first branch. They’re an ecosystem unto themselves, hosting more than a thousand species of invertebrates. Framer of cities, king of industrial trees, that tree without which America would have been a very different proposition” (141–42). Moreover, her study of the firs helps her to come to appreciate the truly communal nature of the forest: “The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests” (142). Finally, her growing understanding of the communal nature of forests, with all elements working together, provides a powerful counterpoint to the humans of the book (and of the world), who can’t seem to stop squabbling among themselves in an attempt to gain advantage over others: “Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons” (142).

The utopian nature of Patricia’s view of the forest, meanwhile, parallels the utopian nature of Neelay’s work with computer games, in which he ultimately creates a sort of utopian alternative universe. For a novelist, Powers has an unusually strong background in computer science, which often features in his fiction. That background is put to especially good use in his portrayal of Neelay’s game designs, which are themselves (of course) inspired by trees. For one thing, the young Neelay falls from an oak tree after being upset when his English teacher confiscates the notebook in which he has been working on a game design. While lying on the ground, he experiences a sort of vision of the complexity of tree intelligence. Because of the fall, he is paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life, a fact that encourages him to create alternative worlds in his game designs. He gets off to a fast start in his career as a game designer, but then the wild and wooly world of early game design starts to become routinized. However, inspired by a magnificent Queensland Bottle Tree on the Stanford campus, where he is studying, Neelay conceives of a grand, breakthrough game that will change everything. He develops an immensely popular MMORPG called Mastery, but that, for him, is just a start. Partly inspired by reading Patricia’s book, his real project is to expand this game into what amounts to a posthuman alternative reality. Indeed, he is so devoted to this less commercial project that he is booted out of the company that he himself founded, He continues his work nevertheless, and, by the time the book ends, he has developed an army of artificially intelligent “learners” that begins to gather data from all around the world to try to gain an overall understanding of the way the world works—perhaps to help humans learn ways to emulate trees and to build a better posthuman future.

Posthuman, however, might be the key here. Just as much of The Overstory suggests that the most utopian future for earth might be a world without humans to damage the natural environment, so too is it unclear that Neelay’s learners will really need humans in the world that they ultimately build from the networks of data that they are compiling. Caracciolo compares The Overstory with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999), arguing that the two novels are similar “in imagining a computational solution to the Earth’s anthropogenic woes: an artificial intelligence deploys its algorithmic strategies of global surveillance to defuse the many crises―from nuclear proliferation to global warming―afflicting our planet. But there’s the rub: ‘saving the planet’ involves letting go of humankind as we know it, embracing radical societal change and even the possibility of species extinction” (47). This warning seems a dire one, of course, but Caracciolo also sees hope in The Overstory in its exploration of new narrative structures that might encourage humans to learn to think and feel differently.

The Overstory is highly critical of the way the progress of human civilization has done so much damage to the natural world, and it includes well-known examples such as the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest as part of its plot. The book, however, is not opposed to progress as such, and it is especially not opposed to science and technology, which the stories of Patricia and Neelay clearly convey the notion that science and technology can be deployed in ways that are not damaging to nature but instead learn from nature in order to help human beings build a world that will be better both for the natural environment and for themselves. Indeed, one of the central messages of The Overstory is that we need not choose between the needs of humans and the needs of nature because humans are a part of nature and what is good for nature is ultimately good for humans.

Near the end of the book, Patricia (now made prominent by the success of her book and having published a second book) is invited to speak at an important environmental conference at Stanford. She delivers a powerful presentation demonstrating the damage done to nature by humans, all (just like John D. Rockefeller) seeking to acquire just a little bit more for themselves. In contrast, she extols the wonder and the generosity of nature, but, even at such a conference, no one seems to really hear her. Then she appears ready to punctuate the speech with a final, dramatic public suicide by drinking a poison prepared from tree extracts. At the last moment, though, she flings the poison into the audience instead, shouting “Here’s to unsuicide!” (466). Patricia, like the trees she so loves, will go on and continue the fight, despite everything.

The book, in fact, ends with a number of utopian gestures, despite all the negative things that have happened in the course of its various stories. For one thing, the final segment of the novel is entitled “Seeds,” signifying new beginnings, but also giving the book a circular structure that mimics the “circle of life”: seeds, after all, can lead to new roots, which then lead to the growth of a new trunk and crown. And “Seeds” begins with a long epigraph from an audio lecture by Patricia, describing the entire history of the planet as if it were a single day, ending with the appearance of humans, an appearance that becomes a threat to everything:

Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter” (474-75).

Teetering, though, is not falling—and even when a tree falls, more spring forth to take its place. In one sign of hope, Ray dies, but the yard he and Dorothy have been attempting to rewild goes on, has now been discovered to contain a rare wild chestnut tree, which has somehow survived the blight that has almost wiped out its species. Douglas, studying for college credit while in prison, listens to Patricia’s audio course and begins to truly learn. Meanwhile, a number of pieces of this narrative come together in one final scene in which Nick makes a new artwork that caps off the novel. Through much of the novel, Olivia (and Nick with her) had been inspired by a vision that told her she needed to help save “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life.” In a sudden revelation Nick now realizes that the species that needs to be saved is not the trees, as he had thought, but humans. So, aided by some helpful Native Americans who just happen by he begins an artwork to support this new understanding. Now full of admiration for trees that surround them, he tells the Indians how much there is to be learned from trees. One of them simply chuckles and responds, “We’ve been trying to tell you that since 1492” (493).

Finally, the installation is completed, as Nick and his helpers arrange some heavy logs (from which new seedlings will sprout for natural embellishment) to spell out a word that can be read from space. The word is “STILL,” suggesting the endurance of the trees, which still go on, despite everything that humans have done to try to destroy them. Nick knows, of course, that, over time, organic changes will obscure his original sculpture, a fact that he finds appropriate. Meanwhile, Neelay’s learners observe the new sculpture from satellite images and ponder its significance, then begin to understand. Satisfied, Nick prepares to move on to his next project. “This will never end” is the final sentence of the book, whispered by a mysterious voice in the forest. Whether the “this” that goes on will include human beings is entirely up to us.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan. “The Overstory: Taking the Measure of a Major New American Novel.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 4, 2020, pp. 137–44.

Bekhta, Natalya. We-Narratives: Collective Storytelling in Contemporary Fiction. Ohio State University Press, 2020.

Caracciolo, Marco. “Deus Ex Algorithmo: Narrative Form, Computation, and the Fate of the World in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Richard Powers’s The Overstory.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 2019, pp. 47-71.

Caracciolo, Marco. “We-Narrative and the Challenges of Nonhuman Collectives.” Style, vol. 54, no. 1, 2020, pp. 86–97.

Dimock, Wai Chee. “The Survival of the Unfit.” Daedalus, vol. 150, no. 1, Winter 2021, pp. 134-146

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 594–630.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Popov, Alexander. “Staying with the Singularity: Nonhuman Narrators and More-Than-Human Mythologies.” Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene : Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media. Edited by Marek Oziewicz, et al., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, pp. 41–54.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. W. W. Norton, 2018.

Tudge, Colin. The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter. Penguin, 2006.

Wallace-Wells, David. “Interview with Amitav Ghosh: ‘We Are Living in a Reality that is Fundamentally Uncanny.’” New York Magazine, 30 September 2019, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/amitav-ghosh-on-our-failure-to-face-up-to-the-climate-crisis.html. Accessed 11 July 2022.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Translated by Jane Billinghurst, Greystone Books, 2015.

Notes

[1] Even Amitav Ghosh, a critic who has taken a very negative view of the ability of literary fiction to address the problem of climate change, admits in an interview with David Wallace-Wells that The Overstory is a crucial exception, “a major turning point–not just because it is a great book, which it is, but because it was taken seriously by the literary mainstream.”

[2] It should be obvious that capitalism is the principal cause of climate change, but Caracciolo cites Jason Moore on this point for anyone who needs convincing.

[3] For a fuller discussion of the notion of collective narration, see Bekhta.

[4] I’m not sure I’m convinced but see Popov for an interesting argument that the novel is actually narrated by the trees.