Book Review: The Overstory

The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

As fires devastate over 3 million acres in California, Washington state’s air is “hazardous” because of burning forests, and over 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate due to fire danger in Oregon, it’s time to read The Overstory. Fair warnings: Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not an easy read. Some highly intelligent friends found it too long, depressing, convoluted. And it will leave you unable to walk oblivious beneath a forest canopy ever again. The ultimate tribute, as Powers told the Chicago Review of Books: “I just want to walk, look, listen, breathe, and write this same book,” from different angles and perspectives.

He recreates a genre of literature which challenges the notion of human separation from the environment, as the former Stanford professor tells a PBS interviewer: The book’s astonishing scientific data about trees, discovered during the last 30-40 years, is verifiable. To our peril, only 2-5% of US old growth forest remains, and we’re clueless about the mystery and magnificence we have destroyed.

Humans share significant amounts of DNA with trees and through books like The Hidden Life of Trees  by Peter Wohlleben, we’ve learned the scientific processes of how they communicate, support and nurture each other,  protect against assault through their vast root systems. Powers brings an enhanced reverence to the topic, underscoring how some leviathan redwoods are “old as Jesus or Caesar.”  As Powers says, we live in an extraordinary moment, suddenly realizing our grief over what we’ve done to the natural world.

At first the human stories seem as tangled as the undergrowth. But gradually, the connections emerge. To focus on one: A young woman, Mimi Ma, adored her father, who kept meticulous records of every camp site his young family visited in the national parks. The perfume of pine brings back her childhood’s “only untouched days,” and the memory of her father after his death. “She falls into the smell, a devastating whiff of over two hundred million years ago. .. until she and the dead man are fishing side by side again, under the pine shade where the fish hide, in the soul’s innermost national park.” (p.183)

What a lovely phase for the soul’s vast inner expanses, filled with abundance: peaks, firs, wild strawberries, waterfalls, lakes, campfires, clear stars, panoramas, quiet, columbine, cedar, green valleys, birdsong, sun-dappled trails beside streams, deer, stunning vistas, golden meadows, chipmunks, overlooks, sunsets, picas, granite, soft dust, aspen, crashing waves, bubbling wells. Other lyrical phrases: “the bronze spears of beech buds,” “the polite applause of aspens. A yew reaching out, like a parent taking a child’s hand.”

Mimi and four others converge on a legacy tree “five times larger than the largest whale.” (p. 264)  In one day, this mammoth eats four pounds of carbon from the air, in the natural cleansing cycle humans seem hell-bent on destroying. Two live on platforms in its uppermost branches trying to protect it from a logging company.

They fail, but years later in jail, imagining the questions, “Why didn’t you do something? You who were there? How can humanity unsuicide?” can answer with integrity, “we tried.” How bizarre and infuriating that logging companies greedily devastating national forest, which supposedly belongs to the people of the US, are legal, but environmental activists trying to save it must face police, pepper spray poured into their eyes, and prison terms.

The shared humanity of loggers and environmentalists surfaces in poignant moments, though. One occurs when a tree-sitter tosses down his sketches of lichen, huckleberries and pools, and the loggers are impressed at the life forms that flourish two hundred feet above ground. Another comes after a howling storm, when the loggers appear at the base and confess, “we were worried about you.”  (p. 296)

Towards the end, the novel crescendos into sacred text.  One character, dying from an act of botched eco-terrorism, assures her comrades, “what we have will never end” in an echo of the last supper. Another goes to jail, accusing himself, “He didn’t look hard enough. He loved too little.” By doing his time, he saves the woman he loves from a similar fate, but consigns Adam, a collaborator, to a life-long prison sentence.

Adam, like a modern Thomas More with a “heart as good and worthy as wood” feels “If I save myself, I lose something else.” His sacrifice of teaching profession, wife and son re-writes salvation history in another, 21st century key. And the resurrection? Surely it comes through the trees called “sempervirens,” which scientists tell us will survive fires that break open cones of seeds that couldn’t open any other way. The novel quotes the poem:

For there is hope of a tree, if it

goes down, that it will sprout again,

and that its tender branches will not cease.

Reading the book challenges our unconcerned life styles, and may put us in the same mental frame as John Muir, whose love of Yosemite led to making it the first national park. He once admitted, “I only went out for a walk…”

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