BOOK REVIEW: The Overstory by Richard Powers

I’m at home in the forest. It’s where I head when I feel the nature deficit in a fast-forward city lifestyle, where I go for top branch birdsong and the sound of leaves touching. I like the sticky scent of tree sap and bark at my back and to marvel at the forest’s longevity, an ancientness which cannot be rivalled. Beneath the sylvan canopy’s hush the immense size of trees never seems to get any less humbling and it’s the permanence of these wooden giantesses – never seen to move – that evokes a great sense of solidarity. For many summers I played inside a hollowed out oak and later protested against its knotted trunk when men came to destroy it.

It was then, thoroughly exhilarating, to read Richard Power’s The Overstory, an environmental novel whose primary focus is the lives of trees. Monumental in size and emotional power, this fiction, recently longlisted for The Man Booker Prize, chronicles the patterns and behaviours of trees and maps out the resourceful ways they sustain humans and non-humans across generations and amidst great ecological conflict.

The book is structured in a style reminiscent of a cross-sectional diagram with the tree’s geology at its centre: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Roots contains eight short stories about nine characters whose lives are touched by trees in diverse and complex ways branching off from antebellum New York to the Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest.  We meet the memorable Patricia Westerford, also known as Plant-Patty, a botanical lecturer convinced that trees communicate using biochemistry when they’re under attack. When her hypothesis is undermined, she goes off the grid to study trees and commits her life to her beliefs.

There is also Mimi Ma who inherits a trio of jade rings and a scroll detailing the four stages of the enlightenment from her father who escaped communist China. An engineer, Mimi becomes an accomplice in various acts of eco-radicalism and over time learns that the ancient wood around her finger is the only thing that matters. Each fictional offshoot seems boughs apart and seemingly unrelated but there are slow, blossoming overlaps and a growing sense of ruinous epiphany about human beings and what they believe they own.

This novel is concerned with the preservation of trees and plant life but Power’s character Westerford argues rhetorically that trees are not ours to preserve, ration or possess; ownership a humanist assumption that still underpins ecological modes of thinking: ‘This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.’ Instead, Powers implies that actually humans are the guests within the tree’s world and he firmly locates the slow-growing plants as independent, self-sustaining characters with lives of their own.

In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Powers said of trees:

“What I was taking seriously for the first time in this book was: they’re not our resources; and we won’t be well until we realise that.”

For readers who can’t decipher their maples from their redwoods, this novel feels beautifully encyclopaedic due to the meticulously researched tree science shot through the prose. The Overstory is a little like learning the language of trees directly from the leaf-strewn mouth of an oak.  We learn that the hawthorn tree has several hundreds of species but only gets referred to by one name, that the chestnut grows real fast so that ‘By the time the ash has made a baseball bat, a chestnut has made a dresser’ and that the linden tree is as dissimilar from the oak ‘as a woman is from a man.’  This is a dense, high-minded book and one drawback for me was that I found it hard to take on board some of the more intricate ecological concepts whilst processing prose at the same time. At times, I felt overwhelmed and rather sapped out by the solidity of the reading.

But there can be no argument that Power’s incisive research brings a hefty validity to the narrative’s premise of trees having a life of their own, an idea that is mutually intriguing and advancing.

This novel is a lusciously written polemical treescape which explores ecological conflict and human error with acumen.

The Overstory is published by William Heinemann and is available here.

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Richard Powers

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Richard Powers is the author of twelve novels, including Orfeo (which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark. He is the recipient of a MacArthur grant and the National Book Award, and has been a Pulitzer Prize and four-time NBCC finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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