Book Review: The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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So says Dr Patricia Westerford, in her closing lecture to a room of environmentalists in the final pages of The Overstory. As one of the nine main characters in the book, it is she and her work that represents most directly the central premise of the story: in her discovery of “how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networked soil”, she tells us that we have more in common with the natural world than we might think. 

If you are a reader who expects a book about trees to be somewhat dry, then The Overstory will subvert these expectations — and more. For not only does it draw a comparison between humanity and the natural world, but it also forces us to do the opposite: to realise that this anthropomorphism is our only way to comprehend such power and that what we experience in our own lives passes as a nanosecond to a tree. When Adam Appich faces a 140 year prison sentence for arson, he is soothed by the knowledge that this is a passing moment to a tree. “Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us,” says Douglas Pavelicek.

The nine human beings whose journeys we follow consist of students, scientists, researchers, activists, loners and entrepreneurs, some of them born with an affinity to the natural world, and some of whom are sharply derailed from their own track by a stirring need to be part of something bigger.

The result is as powerful and mysterious as it can be heartbreaking. Olivia Nieberg is electrocuted in her student bedroom and dies, but is miraculously awoken with a new purpose: to save trees, who she believes are talking to her. Neelay Mehta is a child when he falls from a tree, the impact of which paralyses him from the waist down for the rest of his life, inspiring an affinity with the natural world that makes him his millions. Ray Brinkman is paralysed by a sudden brain bleed, but in his newfound stillness, he and his wife discover that the American chestnut tree in their garden is supposed to be extinct. This unlocks a whole world for them in which their imaginary, unborn daughter runs wild, and the trees become the children they desperately wanted. As activists, Olivia and Nicolas live for months in the branches of a towering redwood, growing attuned to the tree’s “phantasmagoric, Ordovician fairytale” atmosphere. 

This picture of affinity and mysticism isn’t without its own critique and dismay at our failure to comprehend the bigger picture. Olivia is heralded as a new leader amongst the environmental activists and is convinced that trees will protect her from harm. Yet when she refers to ‘Mimas’ as a friend, the narrator dryly describes how, “She pats Mimas, who has, that very day, eaten four pounds of carbon from the air and added them to its mass, even in late middle age.” The narrative exposes her simplicity, and while trees save countless characters’ lives throughout the book, Olivia is killed by an accidental explosion while attempting to set logging equipment on fire. When the rest scatter after illicitly burying her, we understand that the ‘saviour’ narrative was never going to be simple. 

Despite this, there is of course a strong environmental message running throughout The Overstory. Indeed on one level, the intentionally flawed paralleling of human and tree is a metaphor for human greed and for governments who believe that the forest is theirs to plunder. This is an urgent message, without being hysterical: Ray’s last thoughts before he dies are that “Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough.” That this is inevitable. 

Yet Powers doesn’t place himself as an external, godlike narrator; his narrative tone is as full of wonder at the natural world as the characters he creates, and he walks amongst them in parallel with the paralysed computer giant Neelay, who has grown to develop a multi-million dollar, forest-inspired video game series, and is known for entering his computer worlds and walking amongst the players.

Powers’ point is simple and tells us what we already know: that without trees, we will die. Through Douglas, he tells us that as an author, he has a limited ability to transcribe what power the natural world really has: “Cloud, mountain, World Tree, and mist – all the tangled, rich stability of creation that gave rise to words to begin with leave him stupid and speechless.” 

Nor is his message hopeless. In her closing lecture, Dr Patricia also tells us that “trees want something from us, just we’ve always wanted something from them. This isn’t mystical, the ‘environment’ is alive, — a fluid, changing web if purposeful lives dependent on each other.” The mistake of the characters, the intentional mistake of the narrator, is to attempt to condense the relationship down to one metaphor, one track. But in The Overstory, by aligning our relationship to the natural world with the ancient regimes it has employed to preserve itself for time eternal, Powers does his best to fulfil the concept that “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” That by listening, we might have a chance.

Written By: Holly Hamilton

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A note from Green Reads and Springwise: If you are interested in ordering The Overstory or other books, please remember to read responsibly! You can order secondhand from online retailers such as hive.co.uk, or check out Books Etc. and Better World Books for other ethical platforms. Springwise also spotted this cool service back in 2016, which connects you to a local shop selling the book you are after, before delivering within the hour. 



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