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Quick Book Rec: The Overstory by Richard Powers


As I mentioned in my last post, after a few days in London, my vacation has continued with my spending a week in a house in Shropshire with a large group of friends. Activities have included some moderate exploring, adventurous cooking projects (I made this; it was yummy), board games, and lots of reading. In particular, I got to dip into this year’s Booker longlist, which, based on the three books from it I’ve read, is the strongest and most adventurous the award has produced in years. I wanted to highlight one particular book that I think will be of great interest to readers of this blog, Richard Powers’s The Overstory.

This is actually the first Powers I’ve read (I have his previous Generosity and Galatea 2.2 in my TBR bookcase, and having enjoyed The Overstory so much I imagine I’ll get to them sooner rather than later). The impression I’ve always gotten of him is that his work exists in the intersection of writers like Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Ursula K. Le Guin—writers who are interested in process, in systems, and in how people are shaped by those systems. In The Overstory, that system is one that many of us live surrounded by, and yet are completely unaware of: the centuries-long lifecycles of individual tress, and the complex reciprocal systems of decay and regrowth that have existed for tens of thousands of years in natural forests.

In its first segment, The Overstory introduces us to nine human characters, each with their own different relationship to nature, and trees in particular.An Iowa artist has grown up in the shadow of one of the last surviving American chestnuts, carried over from Brooklyn as a seed by his immigrant ancestor. A computer-obsessed Indian-American teen falls out of a tree, which shapes the course of his life. A young girl in the 50s is taken along on her agronomist father’s expeditions, and develops a lifelong love of nature that leads her to a career in dendrology, and eventually the discovery that is the driving engine of much of the book’s story—that trees have far more complex behaviors than our categorization of them as plants would suggest. That they are capable of sensing danger and responding to it, of providing for their offspring, and of recognizing their impending death and bequeathing their remaining energy supplies to the forest around them.

This furious, never-ending exchange of information and energy that takes place in forests is more than just the backdrop of the events of The Overstory. It is a wider context against which the events of the human characters’ lives are but accents. Calamities like the chestnut blight or Dutch Elm disease are given as much—or even more—significance than the particular tragedies of the characters’ lives. And the central crisis of the novel is, of course, the denuding of the American continent, the near-total loss of millennia-old forests, the felling of thousand-year-old trees for lumber, paper pulp, and other products. For many of the novel’s characters, this process—and their failure to stop it—becomes such a defining trauma that they end up, as several of them put it, becoming traitors to their species, which allows Powers to revisit some of the ecoterrorism debates of the 90s.

A lot of the processes described in this segment of the novel will be familiar to LGM readers, particularly from Erik’s discussions of the conflicts between environmentalists and lumber industry owners and workers. The event that ends up bringing the novel’s characters together is the debt-financed buyout of a centuries-old lumber company, whose careful husbandry of their holdings is quickly replaced by a policy of swift asset liquidation—that is to say, the clear-cutting of irreplaceable old growth forest. A long central segment involves two of the characters camping on a platform at the top of an ancient redwood slated for cutting, exploring the miraculous biome that has developed in its upper branches, and trying to reason with the loggers on the ground, who are trying to convince them to climb down. On the last count, the two groups can’t help but talk in cross-purposes, with our heroes unable to offer any meaningful response to the loggers’ complaint that they need their tree-cutting work to feed their families. But on a larger scale, Powers’s argument is undeniable—and, again, one that readers of this blog will be very familiar with—that the system of capitalism that has made it more profitable to cut down a forest once than to continue to profit from it for centuries is a sickness that is killing not only trees but humans as well.

It’s exactly in addressing the politics of the disaster he’s charting, however, that Powers demonstrates the pitfalls of taking a redwood-level view of humanity. He’s not wrong that from the level of trees, humans look like an undifferentiated lump, and our abuses against nature like a species-wide choice. But the differences that Powers’s chosen perspective elides do exist, and are essential to understanding (and combatting) the processes he laments. Throughout the novel, one repeatedly encounters an obsession with diagnosing humanity, as a whole, with a particular psychological disorder that prevents us from taking the long-term view, making good decisions not just for ourselves but for future generations, and addressing looming dangers such as climate change.

You see this, in particular, in the novel’s fascination with mid-century social psychology touchstones such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or pop psychology mainstays such as the abandonment of Kitty Genovese.  But even leaving aside that both of these incidents have been heavily debunked, Powers, like so many writers before him, treats their results as emblematic of humans as a whole, when later reevaluations have raised serious questions about the role of demographics in both cases. The participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment were all young white men; the witnesses who failed to come to Genovese’s aid were members of the poor underclass, many of them (like Genovese) queer, with previous bad experience with the police. Both of these facts color their behavior and how we should interpret it, something that social psychology (a field with a well-documented reproducibility crisis) has for the most part failed to account for.

That Powers, for all his erudition when it comes to the behavior of plants, nevertheless treats warmed-over urban legends as not only reliable, but a meaningful guide to the behavior of all of humanity (if such a thing even exists) can end up having a flattening effect on his narrative just where it most needs to acknowledge complexity. People are no more a monolith than trees, and ignoring the fact that there are various groups working at cross-purposes, and various systems that make it impossible for people not to work against their own long-term interests, will make it impossible to rescue either.

Powers isn’t entirely ignorant of this fact. There are moments in the novel where he confronts his heroes with the conflicting motivations that are at the heart of the disaster he’s observing—the aforementioned conversation with the loggers, or a seed-collecting expedition in South America where locals who have been cutting down the rubber trees that have supported their communities for generations freely acknowledge that they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs because their children need something to eat tonight. But he always returns to a monolithic view of humanity, and what “we” need to do to stop our slide towards planetary death, in a way that ends up reminding me of some of the worst habits of the real environmentalist movement.

Still, perhaps this is part of Powers’s point. There are no shortage of books about people, or about the complicated systems built around them that force them into behavior that is short-sighted and even self-destructive. With The Overstory, Powers is trying to tell a tree’s-eye story, and from that perspective the differences between us are indeed meaningless, and the damage we’re causing equally ascribable to all of us. If The Overstory can’t offer an approach to saving the world—the book’s final chapters even include a sudden shift into science fiction that takes it even further out of the realm of applicable lessons—what it does give us is a different way of seeing the world. A reminder that humans do not, and cannot, exist outside of nature, and that everywhere around us there are processes no less complex and dramatic for taking place within the roots and branches of plants. It’s a book that will make you look differently at the world, and remind you that the world, even the parts of it that can’t talk, is looking at you.

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