The Overstory

The Overstory

by Richard Powers

W.W. Norton & Company | 2019 | 502 pages

At our first Elders story workshop we were encouraged to come up with an idea for a story.  I thought it might be interesting to tell a story from the perspective of a tree. We have several large trees near our cabin that are probably around 500 years old. What those trees would have seen encompasses the entire history of settler Vancouver and then some. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben affirmed that trees do indeed have a story to tell if we can attend.  In Barkskins Annie Proulx tells the epic story of the 5 generation assault on North American forests that continues even now in the old growth groves of Cascadia.

In The Overstory Richard Powers takes it to a new level. The story is itself a tree.  Roots converge into a solid trunk  which then branches into fractels and finally seeds that scatter into myriad possibilities for the future. Trees have watched over the story of life for eons. It is no longer weird to think that they have evolved complex social structures, communication systems and a form of consciousness with wisdom that we may yet begin to understand. 

Both richly imaginative and powerfully grounded in science and history, Powers weaves a tale of people drawn to the defense of trees through an emerging awareness that humanity has become an existential threat to themselves and all the other forms of life that they exploit. The situations that his characters confront are eerily familiar.  A researcher finds her insights into the complexity of forests is dismissed by jealous colleagues as “unscientific.” A women whose brush with death gives her a vision of what trees are thinking meets a guerrilla artist who follows her through fire to protect an ancient redwood grove.  There is a computer whiz confined to a wheelchair whose digital alternate realities uncover the basic flaw in human design that too much is never enough.

It must be said that trees are also key characters in the story. From the last remaining American chesnut isolated on an Iowa farm, a sprawling aspen cluster, and the “elder” coastal redwoods with their thousands of years of wisdom, trees populate the story such that a Sibley’s Guide is helpful.

Our interdependence on trees may well form the mysterious “collective unconscious” that Carl Jung attributed to the understory of human experience.  My favorite character is the psychologist whose field research on idealism and self-delusion draws him into the world of environmental activism and eco-terrorism and dissolves his objective detachment.

The book raises the question: is our collective delusion that “all will be well” leading us inexorably into the barren landscapes of the future. The wisdom of trees may be deeper and older than human wisdom, yet we turn them into planks and paper faster than the blight that finished off the elm trees. Overstory is a rippin’ yarn too close to the truth to be a comfortable read – highly recommended!

Reviewed by Bob Worcester 2019

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The Tree

(with apologies to Joyce Kilmer)

 

Moth-like seeds flutter down to rest

Sending tendrils deep in sand and stone

Moistened into life by rain that seeps

Deep into the dark decaying loam.

 

Green eyes of phototropic cells

Gaze up toward the ancient light

That brings ground water into clouds

And gives the rings of heartwood sight

 

Fungal roots rot new life into being

Soaking nutrients from layered humus

Cracking carbon chains to make

Sweet sugars and oxygen to effervesce.

 

Denizens that roam the deep bark valleys,

Forage through the twig and needle forests,

Graze through fields of leaf and bud — the

Minions buzzing their delighted chorus

 

Birds weave like thoughts among the branches

Thinking where they might end their flight

While furry ones slink and skitter through

Green chasms unworried by the height.

 

Trunks stand firm in storm wind lashing,

Branches bend to the slash of lightning

A thousand thousand times rebounding

From the blasts of winter’s scouring

 

Watching as the cities rise and fail,

As wars and epidemics sweep

As heros are forgotten and their words

fall into silence as they sleep.

 

To be a tree is to know time where

An eye blink marks the march of seasons

While our lives quickly flash and scatter

As the wind that gathers the dry leaves in

 

Time and time again the seasons

Roll around our ancient earth

Time and time again the reasons

Are remembered with each birth.

 

So in time the trees are toppled,

Sink back to soil from which they sprung

Nursing new growth into being

As the old becomes the young

 

 

5 comments

  1. Beautiful words. I will definitely buy the book. The poetry was read aloud and copied to read again.
    Thank you for this.

  2. What a wonderful birthday present this message is. I can hardly wait to read these books! So maybe I won’t give up on birthdays.

  3. ” The wisdom of trees may be deeper and older than human wisdom, yet we turn them into planks and paper faster than the blight that finished off the elm trees.”

    Interesting that you consider the unconscious existence of trees as showing wisdom. And, actually, the amount of forested area in the US is increasing. I couldn’t find figures for Canada, but I expect the statistics are the same.

  4. Neal Adams—it is much more than “interesting” regarding tree consciousness. But bring an open mind that acknowledges both mystery and sanctity—the wonder of life and consciousness itself. We as humans have a superiority complex to overcome to arrive at that place where we can even begin to behold. A lot of unlearning is required after a lifetime of mis- and disinformation that only grows more intense with every new tech ‘marvel.’
    BTW, “more trees” does not translate into intact ecosystems. Hectare upon hectare of peckerpoles does not a healthy forest make.
    Try this on for size, I dare you. It is not “woo” hippie-dippie at all. I’ll urge all readers to give this their attention:
    ‘Rupert Sheldrake is an author, lecturer, and researcher in the field of parapsychology, known for his proposed theory of morphic resonance.’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZklRSn92ek4&t=568s&frags=pl%2Cwn

  5. David’s invocation of Rupert Sheldrake suggesting something “spiritual” is going with trees is interesting. Psychologists have always had difficulty with the concept of “consciousness” as something difficult to study. Mechanistic explanations seem too clunky – how does a machine made out of meat generate a mysterious “mind?”
    If a meat machine can do it, why not one made out of silicon? Could the billions of neutrons in an anthill make a mind? If so perhaps the Amazon ecosystem is also “aware” – there has as yet been no disproof of Lovelock’s “gaia hypothesis.” Humans have no difficulty empathizing with their pets, perhaps it is not too great a step to empathize with an aspen grove though it may stretch our “theory of mind.”

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