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
(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