Book Review: The Overstory

By Richard Powers

Winner of the Pultzer Prize for fiction in 2019, this is a book about catastrophe, in myriad forms, from personal to global and how they are linked. And how trees can help us withstand, overcome and hopefully avoid catastrophe. But it’s not very hopeful, to be honest. Human progress has destroyed our world. Quite likely, it seems to me, past a point of no return. The catastrophe of climate change is upon us, and our world is ending in so many ways. I fear for the future. My kids and grandkids will live in a drastically different world… Dystopian, apocalyptic, maybe, and technologically, artificially enhanced to overcome, or bypass the uninhabitable reality of what we’ve done to the natural world. These are terribly sad, pessimistic thoughts and ideas I’ve carried with me for much of my adult life. This book doesn’t speak directly to those feelings, but it is very much about them. Humans have fucked this planet up beyond repair, and our short term quest for dominion over and profit from our planet has set us on a downward spiral towards worldwide suffering, war for scarce resources, weather events, global disease and other natural disasters as part of a vast correction to the currently unsustainable path of destruction which will mean nature is going to take a few billion human lives off this planet to restore balance.

Quick update : From The Guardian today. Makes my darkest, pessimistic predictions sound quite rosy. Life on Earth is going to change sooner than later, and we have no idea what we’re in for. But it’s going to get very bad. In my lifetime.

I remember learning about the hole in the ozone layer in the early 1980s. Aerosol sprays were causing it, apparently. I remember looking at cans of hairspray in the supermarket, completely dumbfounded by the connection. I remember Sting, one of my favorite musicians in the 80s on MTV with some indigenous Amazonian tribe members talking about saving the rainforest, and how pretentious he came across. I remember organizing Earth Day for the school I was teaching at in the mid 90s, with my class putting on an assembly that included a song with the lyrics, “recycle, reduce and reuse”. I remember the rise of recycling, cities requiring citizens to sort their trash. I remember life before the rise of plastic shopping bags and water bottles, and much later, the feeble attempts to reduce their suddenly ubiquitous presence in our everyday life. I have always been radically sceptical of recycling, and have had friends tell me in recent years, “dude, you were right”, recycling IS a joke being played on us to make us think we’re doing something. It’s “save the world” theater, much like all those airport security measures after 9/11. And all this time, the machine of progress just keeps rolling along. In Colorado in the mid to late 90s, I had a friend named Logan who lived in a solar powered cabin, off the grid, and dedicated his time to his Priorities Institute, which attempted to slow down the development by advocating smaller, auto-less cities and towns along the I-25 corridor between Denver and Colorado Springs, which still had open spaces then. I was his legal representation, getting his Institute set up as a non-profit and helping write the constitution and legal charter for this mythical world. We would be laughed out of city council meetings. Completely dismissed as the stoners we were. He had a 4 meter square model of his city that he would set up and present to whoever would listen. No one did. I brought him to my school to present his ideas to my classes, working on their own projects to design civilizations of the future. A bit like a non-computer version of SimCity. I remember one student who’s entire city was set in the trees. If only.

So, I’m no idealist, but I’m familiar with optimistic idealism. It’s a heart breaker. You don’t need to study the statistics to know the environment is fucked. The number of species disappearing, the climate change and resulting destruction of storms, fires, drought. The man made disasters like deforestation and oil spills. On and on it goes. And at the same time,the internet, this alternative reality, the double edged hope and false promise of being “connected” when, really, it’s just been a further extension of human selfishness, greed and stupidity, leading to an even more insulated, anti-social, blind populace, worldwide. My son plays Fortnite for hours and hours. He doesn’t have any idea or interest in the lack of clean drinking water here in our posh little enclave where we live, called El Bosque, The Forest… As if to mock the trees here that were not cut down for the golf course, equestrian stables, tennis club, and of course, million dollar homes. We have to buy bottled water here in The Forest.

OK. Let’s take a break.

I guess I used to care more. I still care, of course, but it’s different now. I’ve learned a lot about how the world works, I got old, I realized I was fucking my own life up more than the planets, and I’ve fucked my own kids’ lives up enough regardless of my recycling habits, so fuck it. I wouldn’t say my cynicism won, it’s just reality. The world is fucked, and maybe with alot of luck, my grandkids will live a life something close to mine, but probably not, and certainly not their grandkids. They’ll be lucky to have a place to live and access to clean water. Our ship has come in, and it’s sinking. We keep on building, concrete everywhere, not enough fuel, food or water or anything, even parking places. Advancements in electric cars are hard won, too slow and mostly useless, much like the efforts for solar electricity in the past. The present infrastructure is simply too powerful, until it isn’t. And when that happens, and there is evidence that it is happening, that our current way of life is crumbling, you just have to know where to look, it’s swept away, under the rug, everything is fine, keep on the path of progress and prosperity. What’s happened in China and India and parts of Africa, where western ways of easy living came later, are truly catastrophic. The unsustainability of it brought into clear focus. Pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. The economic and societal consequences of this capitalistic insistence are too great to ignore. But we do. As long as we have wifi and running water and cheap electricity. Fuck the rest.

Along that I-25 corridor between Denver and Colorado Springs, which I traveled ALOT, I can remember the long trains full of coal. Miles long. Off to feed generators so we could keep our air conditioner’s running all night. A friend there, also from the northeast, like me, once commented on how strange it was to pass from one town to the next with all that space in between. In the northeast, the I-95 corridor between Boston and Washington D. C., passing New York City and Philadelphia, it was concrete and towns and cities and traffic the whole way, each city connected to the next, sharing a border. It wasnt like that in Colorado. It is now. Logan tried to fight against this. He, we, never had a chance. The Front Range of the Rockies is totally “built up” now. Housing and industry filling the landscape I used to compare to Mars.

The west of the United States branded its wide open spaces and exploration places into my psyche. I am not who I am without having spent ten years traveling around and hiking and biking the west, from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Grand Canyon to Mt. Tamalpais and Wilson. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon…Moab, Mt. Ranier, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, Sante Fe, Great Sand Dunes, Rainbow Falls, Rockey Mountain National Park, St. Elmo ghost town at foot of Mt. Princeton, Muir Redwoods, Point Reyes National Seashore just north of San Francisco, Whistler in British Columbia, Tahoe, Vegas desert, Great Salt Lake and skiing in the Wasatch. And I climbed over 40 of the 50 highest mountains in the lower 48 states. I’m skipping over all my mountain climbing, biking, skiing and running in Colorado because it’s too much to elaborate. This is all off the top of my head, I could check my journals, I just mean to say… I HAVE BEEN OUT THERE. DEEP IN THE OTHER SIDE. THE OUTSIDE. Deep in the woods, often in winter. Often alone. I have heard their voice, their words. I have shared the spirit and found that connection with mine. I remember climbing Mt Yale in the Colorado front range, in winter, in snowshoes, with skiis on my back for the descent, and stopping for a sip of water and hearing a voice… No one knows where you are, but you’re not alone. At the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, in a thunder and lightning storm…the same voice… Be still and be here now. I still hear these voices on sleepless nights. Memories of places and people I used to be.

Those palm trees aren’t native to this place. Just like me.

So, with all that nonsense out in the open, lets talk about the book. It’s about all this. Our relationship with nature and our fight against the end of days. Our history of connection and rejection and denial of our natural instincts. Or our disconnected acceptance of our modern day existence and technologically induced paralysis. There are two main characters in the book with severe paralalytic handicaps. Their insights, clearly relevant. Two other characters end up in federal prison for their beliefs that led to actions of illegal protest. That led to a woman’s death. So they accept their justice. Others are artists and significant scientists and writers who move the landscape of the movement against corporate landscaping. People live in trees. People get maced in the face and balls. People get caught years later. Others don’t but know others do. There are backyard gardens, boreal forests, the Amazon and giant redwoods. There is arson and death and prison and street art and activism at its purist pursuit. Graffiti on a global scale by a man who’s father, grandfather and great grandfather took a photo every month of a great American chestnut tree in Iowa for over a hundred years. How would that look when you flip through the photo album? He risks his life for the photo album and so much more. He lives on a platform 200 feet high in a Redwood with a woman he loves to save the tree, fruitlessly. There is a genius computer programmer, inventing fantastic new worlds that are ultimately just like this one. A Vietnam vetran who owes his life to a tree. And more. Characters touched by trees and sacrificing their lives to protect them.

All the characters have exerienced personal, private catastrophes as well, experiencing loss of family or career or other such tragic accidents and circumstances. And each character has a deep connection with trees. Some more obvious and direct than others, but all have been changed in some way by a tree. So many trees. We learn so so much about trees in this book. Absolutely amazing things about trees and how they live and breathe and communicate. How they help us and each other, and, of course, as I spoke about above, how much we take from them without giving anything back. Perhaps the most obvious, yet overlooked aspect of trees is how long they live. I find myself now wondering about the trees I see. How old is it? What kind is it? How does it spread it’s seeds and send it’s messages to the world around it? We think living to 100 is something special, but trees are on very different timescales. Humans simply don’t, can’t, understand longterm consequences. We are very bad at thinking beyond 20 or 50 or 100 years into the future. Trees have longer, slower perspectives and stories to tell. One passage of the book includes the familiar, “if the history of Earth was compressed into 24 hours, midnight to midnight, humans don’t appear until about the last 2 seconds of that day.” And in that short time, we have destroyed over half of the trees that existed when we arrived.

                          The gardener sees
only the gardener's garden.
The eyes were not made
for such grovelling uses as they
are put to and worn out by,
but to behold beauty now invisible.

Another obvious but overlooked aspect of trees and plants is photosynthesis, the miracle of light, air and water. Trees are made from light, air and water, growing from a seed that sits on the tip of your finger. Miraculous, really. They hold the secret to life. And by killing them, we’re killing ourselves. There’s SO much more to say about trees, and our connection and misunderstandings. But the author says these things so much more eloquently than I ever could. There are deeply poetic and philosophical passages. He quotes Rumi, “Love is a tree with branches in forever with roots in eternity and a trunk nowhere at all, ” which I appreciate. The structure of the story, like others I’ve read recently, dedicates a chapter to each of the main characters, explaining who they are from just about the very beginning of their lives. Then the second section of the book starts to bring them together, and reminded me of some Stephen King books I’ve read, such as The Stand, with it’s long list of characters coming together in one way or the other to take on some malevolent force. The connection between some characters can be very subtle or difficult to decipher until the end. The last 200 pages of the over 600 page book were profoundly beautiful and satisfying as the story came together, and “overstory” becomes clear, though with so much story, I found myself looking back to earlier passages to find explanations or connections for events or conversations. I think before reading the book, and even as I got well into it, I had this idea that it might have some surreal, or mystical or other-world like influences, with talking trees or an apocolyptic disease or something like Stephen King might write, and for a long time, that’s how the novel felt, although more poetic and pretty. But, in the end, while there have been deeply moving and emotional moments, and an awakening to the great lifeforce of trees, nothing really mystical or magical happens. Just the cold, hard reality that human beings are hopelessly stupid and the only hope for our planet is that we disappear. Unsuicide.

For many years now, I have taught ten year olds about rainforests, focusing on the Amazon, in our History/Geography class. We read a novel called Journey to the River Sea, and we look at the distinct layers and habitats and the incredible biodiversity of each one, and all of them together. We look at the indigenous people still living there, desperately holding on. We copy Rousseau’s famous jungle scenes, making collages. We study butterflies and other rainforest animals in science class. It’s a cross-curriculum unit of study with endless teaching and learning opportunities. And every year, we talk about deforestation, and have a debate about the construction of new roads with students taking a role and researching their position, whether they are playing an animal, a cattle rancher, a mining company employee, a logger, a farmer, an indigenous tribe member, a conservation group leader and so on. I’ve been doing this for over ten years. I’m afraid to look right now at how much of the Amazon has been lost in the ten years I’ve been teaching about it. Here we go….

Ten million football fields. What does that really mean? That’s too big to really fathom. Like the long life of a tree, it’s just too much, too abstract for our brains to really appreciate. I see the Amazon in the news all the time. This is from last week:

It’s just going to go on and on. There are people like the characters in The Overstory who feel so fervently that it has to stop and that they must do something. But most of the world, including myself, don’t. And most of us don’t even appreciate the trees growing on our own street. Go touch a tree, and see what it says to you. Read The Overstory, and consider your relationship with the planet, your family and yourself. Face the catastrophes of your life and hope for healing and growth. Hope.

From a bench in a park next to a café where stories have been written and shared.

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