KP Reads

'The Overstory' by Richard Powers

Where trees and humans share the stage in an appeal to view both in new ways.


This spring I found myself replanting cedars in a clear-cut. This summer I will be carrying water to them. It’s tough walking through the slash and brush. As I slosh water on each sapling, I imagine how different the place will look when a forest canopy again casts shade. The foxglove and blackberries will be replaced by starflower and trillium. The cedars at my knee will one day have trunks big enough to make ten canoes. Then I have to remind myself that I won’t live to see it. At best I’ll see these trees just coming out of adolescence.

The mental time warp of being around young trees inspired me to pick up “The Overstory” for a second read.

Richard Power’s 12th novel won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Among my circles of artists and writers, it’s had a far-reaching ripple effect. The story follows nine people and five trees and the unexpected ways their separate arcs intersect across the American landscape.

The simplest way to describe it is as a novel where trees are just as active as people. It’s an admirable feat, considering that the novel is perhaps the most human-obsessed literary form, as idiosyncratic and serpentine as our emotions. Again and again the book measures the dramas of a person’s life against the more tectonic scale of forests, civilizations, blights, orthodoxies. It constantly toys with time scales. In a time when most literary novels offer closely bounded visions of the world through the limited perspectives of their characters, it is a marvel to read such an expansive work.

Alongside multigenerational stories of the families that lead to the book’s main characters, early chapters tell the epic of the American chestnut, the genesis of a fig with 300 trunks, the smell and taste of a pawpaw in Ohio — “the only tropical fruit to ever to escape the tropics,” which settlers called prairie bananas — and a hundred other details about trees that were there long before the characters and will be there long after they exit the stage. Or will they?

The characters, it soon becomes clear, are a select handful of Americans for whom a veil is lifted, and they learn to see trees as living beings. For some it is instilled over time, as for a Vietnam War veteran who finds work replanting Douglas firs. For others it is a full-fledged conversion moment, as for a crippled computer programmer who has a psychedelic encounter with the exotic trees planted in Stanford’s Inner Quad.

Trees have always marked American art. They are omnipresent in renderings of human exploits as scale-creators, shadow-casters and measures of men’s beaver teeth. Their bodies literally create the frames of our canvases and set designs. But what if they are not passive? What if they have agency in how stories of life play out? From their perspective, we must look pretty hectic and futile.

“The Overstory” explores this and then goes much further. Through its many stories spanning many decades, it seeks the ramifications of the existential loneliness that comes from reducing the rest of Earthly life to passivity in our backdrops. In an interview with The Guardian, the author said, “Environmentalism is still under the umbrella of a kind of humanism: We say we should manage our resources better... They’re not our resources, and we won’t be well until we realize that.”

In one of the stories, a Chinese student attempts to carry his family’s treasure through U.S. customs. It’s a priceless ancient manuscript showing arhats, Buddhist holy people, under the trees where they found enlightenment. The customs agent finds it and forces him to unroll it. “Who are they?” she asks. “What’s wrong with them?”

In broken English he attempts to explain that they have seen the True Thing.

“And what’s that?”

He’s not even Buddhist. Yet he says, “The True Thing mean: human beings, so small. And life, so very big.”

The agent snorts. “And this makes them happy?” She waves him through.

It’s hard not to feel a contact glow of happiness reading this book, a tantalizing brush against the thought that the arhats did not find enlightenment near trees solely because of their shade. On every page discoveries await: The intense amount of life that fills a nurse log in the centuries it takes to rot; that trees and humans share a quarter of their genes; a tree’s unexpected intelligence.

For some of these revelations, no special tools are required. In one storyline, a man pioneers a farm in 1800s Iowa, planting a chestnut as his ceremonial first act. Many years later, in middle age, an aficionado of every new gadget, he buys one of the first cameras available. He makes a habit of taking a photo of the chestnut on the first of every month. Somehow, his descendants continue the practice for three generations. After 75 years, the flip-book shows a tree “rousing itself and shaking free,” swelling into “a sky-probing giant,” independent of a litany of marriages, divorces, feuds and redemptions.

Other revelations are as intricate and fresh as modern scientific research. Trees in a forest communicate through chemical signals. They cooperate to ward off infestations. They share resources through fungal networks, even across species. Old trees subsidize the growth of young trees.

One character is based on real-life ecologist Suzanne Simard, a Canadian researcher whose pioneering work uncovered this “wood wide web,” as it has come to be known. In a field dominated by foresters operating under the assumption that forests are sites of intense competition for resources, where “waste” must be cleared to give desired species space, Simard fought an uphill battle to have taken seriously the idea that cooperation makes a forest possible. Her work has sparked an incredible reorganization of our understanding of forests, a far more detailed picture of the competition and cooperation that interpenetrate them, much of which has found its way into “The Overstory.”

It might sound like a slow book. It’s not. The influence of trees on the beings around them, including humans, may be prolonged, subtle and often missed, but the sudden shifts and violence of human life remain the lion’s share of the story, for they are always capable of shattering the lives of trees. The book culminates in our neck of the woods, in a series of protests patterned after the timber wars of the 1990s, when several of the characters find themselves fighting to save the 3% of American old growth that remains.

Powers has said, “Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected, we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.”