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Richard Powers’s The Overstory Is an Unflinching Examination of Nine Humans’ Fight for Forests

The Overstory (2018) won the 2019 Pulitzer for fiction, and for good reason. This is the most ambitious novel I’ve ever read, possibly also the best-written. Almost every sentence is perfect: such that the very occasional slightly-imperfect sentence stands out. The prose is both sparely poetic, and dense with distilled meaning – inviting slow savouring, extensive excerpting, and repeated revisiting. Like a spider’s web, it’s lightweight and powerful, fully holding the weight of its substance.

That substance is saving the earth.

The Overstory examines the movement to conserve old-growth forests in the U.S. The narrative follows nine individuals: scattered across the country, beginning their journeys at staggered intervals: from the mid-1800s (Nicholas Hoel) to the late 1980s (Olivia Vandergriff). For some characters, their story begins three generations in the past. For others, it begins at their own adulthood’s threshold, or at the crisis of a complicated marriage.

None of this is accidental: for structure is another thing The Overstory does well. Its four-part structure mirrors the parts of a tree. The nine chapters of “Roots” narrate the nine characters’ histories: from the beginning up to the present.

The beginning: the forming of a personal bond between one character and one type of tree; whether three generations ago, or on the day a character accidentally electrocutes herself.

The present: some event, often catastrophic, that awakens the character to the beauty, the power, the mystery, and the plight of forests.

Five of the characters eventually meet, after they’ve individually joined the fight for forests. Their families came from different continents; their own life-journeys have been diverse. A starving artist who’s been living a hermit’s life. A ceramics engineer, whom family tragedy has driven into a period of wild irresponsibility. A participant in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, who later became a Vietnam War hero. An actuarial science undergraduate who drops out six months before graduation. And a graduate student whose early love of nature, rebuffed, he hides under practised cynicism. Four of these five are full-time wilderness-protection volunteers. The fifth has undertaken research into tree-huggers as weirdo outsiders. He ends up confronting the truly inscrutable problem: Why isn’t the whole world up in arms to save our last fragments of old-growth forest?

Of the book’s nine characters, the other four have trajectories spanning the width of our link to nature. My favourite character is Patricia Westerford: a hearing-and-speech-challenged, odd-looking child who becomes a botanist, glimpses the unsuspected depth and breadth of trees’ communication and cooperation with each other, for her pains in challenging conventional wisdom gets ostracised by her fellow-scientists (“No species closes ranks as quickly as humans”), and forges her own path in fighting for forests.

I suspect Powers’s favourite character – he writes them all well, but this one’s written with particular gusto – is Neelay Mehta: a first-generation Indian-American fascinated, like Powers, with programming.

Powers clearly cares for his characters: they’re fully realised. But he is unsparing in visiting upon them a spectrum of misfortunes. Misfortunes demonstrating life’s randomness, while also following the laws of artistic symmetry.

Every chapter teaches the reader about the secret life of trees: mostly in accessible, well-dramatised snippets demarcating milestones in the characters’ discovery of self and world. But Patricia’s profession makes her legitimately a vehicle for Powers’s didacticism: which, in the Patricia-centred segments, can get tedious, occasionally devolving into textbook lessons.

A literary masterpiece, The Overstory is curiously dismissive of most human artistic achievement. Neelay voices the narrator’s disdain for the literary canon, and his belief that tomorrow’s leaders are technocrats. Here’s how another character reacts when confronting an Amazon Fulfillment Centre dedicated to books: “The sight fills him with a horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, compounding, swelling canyons of imprinted paper… there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfilment and bring back danger, need, and death.” Powers correctly sees most books, and most culture, as distracting us, via conspicuous consumption, from real and urgent concerns. But The Overstory’s repeated, casual dismissal of most human achievement is striking, does not further the book’s aims, and buttresses its quasi-nihilism.

The Overstory is emotionally demanding reading. Our wilderness-defending heroes begin with the best of intentions. But they run up against corporate forces that – for all that Powers humanises their constituent individuals, and presents their side of the argument (“This state was built on timber! Our timber salaries pay your welfare!”) – at some point represent Evil. Now, our heroes find themselves involved in dubious activities. Poetic justice is quick: before they’ve properly started down this dangerous new path, tragedy stops them short.

The other characters’ efforts to reconnect with nature, and preserve something of it – in a seed-bank, in a video-game – also remain unresolved. The Overstory is a hyper-realistic novel and, as such, austere in offering hope. If it presents no clear solutions, it still argues passionately for the importance of resisting. Resisting capitalism, conspicuous consumption, government inaction, and our own distancing as individuals from each other and from nature.

This is not a humanist novel. The narrator repeatedly reminds us that our time on earth is limited; that, after us, nature will begin again and do just fine. But the figurehead of the Life Defence Force, faced with loggers wondering “Why do you hate people?” articulates the tragic irony: “We don’t hate people. We love people. We’re doing this for people.”

In this book about the fight for forests, ‘climate change’ is mentioned only once or twice, and in passing. Powers’s point is that forests do very much more than maintain the climate: they provide a long list of services, including many we’re still ignorant about. This decoupling of conservation from climate change is refreshing: at a time when mainstream discussion of environmental challenges has narrowed almost exclusively to the human effects of climate change. If mainstream media have given up hope for nature as nature, Powers stops short of that anthropocentric resignation.

The Overstory takes a long, unflinching look at the planet’s biggest crisis. This is a work of individual courage documenting the hopes and efforts of nine characters, and the failures of the world around them. It’s a work into which one man has poured the soul of millions. The real tragedy will be if we fail to heed its call to action.

Buy The Overstory here. Please consider buying an ebook to save paper.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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