“The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more”— Ralph Waldo Emerson
And wonder is what I walked away with after having read The Overstory by Richard Powers. I have always been enamored with trees. In every place I have lived there was a tree that somehow spoke to me. From the large locust tree in the backyard of my youth, to the arms-wide maple in the park where we would take the children, to those very tall oaks in the neighborhood where our children grew up, and now, today, that one lone Eastern pine that stands immense, surrounded by spruce a fraction of its height at our home in Starboard.
Finding a novel, no less by an author I have not read before, whose subject and focus is trees and the stories they carry is like finding two lost friends and taking a walk in the woods together. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found Powers — and his approach to the subject of trees as living, breathing and communicating life forms — intellectual and extraordinary. I am not alone; the book garnered high praise recently, winning the National Book Award.
Powers’ knack of pulling drama out of science began ten years ago when he started writing short stories and then novels. The Overstory is his 12th novel, and it is a hefty read, not in length, but in the stories contained within the story. Like a seed dropped and planted into soil, the amount of information the seed contains in order to sprout, root and then grow is vast, and so is this story. The book is arranged in two parts. The first part contains eight stories about nine people from across the country, each coming into contact with their own tree, their own story. The second part brings them all together in the woods, literally, and into a world of ecological disasters, global warming, climate change, deforestation and, ultimately, to eco-terrorism.
Nicholas Hoel, an Iowa-raised artist, inherits an obsession passed down by his ancestors: a photographic time capsule, if you will, spanning a hundred years of monthly snapshots of the same doomed tree, the American chestnut. This tree will haunt his dreams. As Thoreau once expressed, “Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of nature, you must practice more humanity.” So, too, will this particular tree envelop Nicholas with passion and its message that all is not lost, if one simply listens to the message.
Olivia Vandergriff died once already. It is December of her senior year in college and she is making her way back to her house. As she turns the corner onto her street, a living fossil is lit by the streetlamp, “one of the oldest, strangest that ever learned the secret of wood. Its leaves vary as much as human faces. Its limbs, in the streetlight, have that extraordinary profile. She has lived under the tree for a whole semester and doesn’t know it’s there. She passes it again tonight without seeing.” Olivia then is electrocuted in her room as her damp hand reaches for the switch on a floor lamp. She is dead for just over a minute, but during that time is given a glimpse of something. What? She cannot be certain, but she knows the voices cannot be discarded, cannot be dismissed. This time she must see.
Then there is Patricia Westerford, the girl with hearing and speech difficulties, who is ostracized by others but is always by her dad’s side. He teaches her about the beech tree and how it can tell farmers where to plant. While traveling and learning with him, she is constantly asking questions until the day she becomes a scientist. It is then that the question is turned around, and she finds the answer and writes it down. ”You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, the tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.”
These three characters are the linchpin of the story, and Powers’ ability to bring them together with all of the other characters is subtle and sometimes complex. But having them all find the communal message in the haze of diesel fumes and sawdust, so they can help these wondrous products of four billion years of life, is miraculous.
Powers’ use of phrasing, his prose and the flow of this book are sometimes a challenge, but when taken as a whole, like a tree, it is a beautiful piece of work pulsating with fictional rhythm, yet filled with facts, figures and some alarming information about where the world is heading. This perfect blend of factual fictional energy creates a powerful story that is squarely focused on humanity’s ignorance on the last dwindling stands of old growth forest and the hope that someone will finally take notice and, just maybe, do something about it.
Reading this book was like being perched high in a tree, a tree-sitter no less. Looking down on the devastation, happening minute by minute, as the pace of human evolution eats away at it, I felt I was watching a feeding frenzy on resources the world will be unable to replace. Yet, at the same time, with every turn of the page, I was a part of the story. And, along with the other characters, I was also seeing the miraculous held within this living organism, a tree, and hoping the rest of humanity would eventually do the same.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, Hardcover, $27.95