The Overstory by Richard Powers is the story of trees in America, told through the lives of nine people. They all start their stories as everyday people with everyday childhoods and problems, but they find each other through their discovery of the importance of trees, particularly old growth forests. It’s hard to describe the story, because it’s not just one story. These nine people interact with nature in very different ways, from creating videogames about it to committing domestic terrorism against logging companies to protect it.
I don’t think having so many characters on so many different paths was a very effective way to tell the story Powers was trying to tell. When one chapter is people fighting for their lives against police, trying to save thousand year old Sequoia trees and the next chapter is the marital struggles of a couple across the country, it seems like those two things are being treated as equals when they shouldn’t be. A regular theme of the novel is asking the question, “Why do some people care so much when most people don’t care at all?”, yet it seems like we’re expected to care about the success of a videogame company as much as the destruction of forests half as old as Christianity.
I think this story is so complicated and difficult because it is a glorious attempt at describing something infinitely more complicated and difficult: the Anthropocene. For those of you who don’t know, we are in a new geologic era, an era of humans. Humans have changed this planet so much that it’s unrecognizable from anything that came before it, and it’s all because of us. Most people, when asked, will agree that humanity has gotten out of hand; that we’re barreling towards a future that gets scarier every day. Those same people, however, are happily working their 9 to 5 jobs, mowing their perfectly manicured lawns, and redoing their kitchens. How do you write about something that everyone knows but has agreed to ignore? How do you address the planet-sized elephant in the room?
While I’m not sure this book is a groundbreaking revelation that will turn the tide of American culture and save humanity, it is a respectable attempt at quantifying something so mind boggling we can barely seem to talk about it.
On that note, The Overstory does exceed expectations in one area: the language. I had to keep a highlighter with me the whole time I read this book, because there were so many quotes that spoke so truly. This book is so full of important questions, heart wrenching descriptions, and poetic interactions. I found myself regularly highlighting a passage and setting the book down, so I could look out my window at the maple tree in my front yard and think about what I’d just read. It inspired me to go for walks at the nearby nature trail and look for the tiny signs of spring I’d never noticed before: little tufts of moss, newly burst buds on trees, and the tiny nubs of the year’s first flowers poking through the mulch. It made me want to grow my grass a little longer, throw out some seed for the birds, and remember to stop and look around every once in a while.
If you’ve been feeling stressed about your daily life, or claustrophobic from being inside all winter, The Overstory might be the perfect reminder that there’s a whole beautiful world out there just waiting for us to appreciate it.