- What: The Overstory
- Who: Richard Powers
- Pages: 502
- Genre: Environmental fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
At the end of January, while reading The Overstory, I took a vacation to Turks and Caicos with my best friend. I didn’t know beforehand, but the island actually has the third-largest barrier reef in the world (behind Australia and Belize, both of which I’ll visit someday). After a relaxing first day on the beach, we decided to book a boat tour the next morning to go snorkeling.
Talk about being worth it.
I had decided at the beginning of the year that my non-literary resolution for 2020 would be to go green; I want to do my part to help this beautiful world that provides me such experiences as snorkeling in Turks and Caicos. With all of the colors, beauty, awe, and insight into so many life forms I could never understand, this adventure not only reinforced my resolution, but it sparked a need to do my part. Ironically, at the same time, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fictional tale about nine characters who become obsessed with saving the world’s trees, bolstered this new-found desire. Sustainability was no longer an option for me after reading this novel. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: That’s the power of literature.
“… the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.” — The Overstory
Richard Powers gives us nine characters to tell the scary story of Earth’s demise but also the inspiring hope of impassioned activists trying to save it.
Nicholas Hoel comes from a long line of immigrants who, generation after generation, take photos of a tree outside their family home. Adam Appich, a cynic who has always lacked social cues, sets out to study radical environmentalists and becomes enamored with his own focus group. Patricia Westerford has long suffered from hearing and speech impairments but has made a discovery about nature that will alienate her from her scientific community. Olivia Vandergriff married too young and focuses more on partying than actually finishing her degree. After she returns to Earth from a drug-induced accident, she hears voices in her head that lead her to do more with her life and for the earth.
These characters and the other five will find their way to each other through activism, books, or study. Their lives don’t share many similarities nor do the reasons for why they feel inspired, but they share the same goal: save the trees that are dying at unprecedented rates because of humans’ carelessness and selfishness.
“[World] means two such opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we can’t escape.” — The Overstory
I love how Powers and his characters prove our interconnectivity not just with other people but also with the planet. He makes a very pointed effort to relay that, at some point, we — this includes the trees — all started from the same DNA. More or less, we have the same roots; humans just split off. They believed they reigned over the whole planet and that they had abilities that no other living creature could have possibly had. Humans — who have incredible wisdom for only being around for a few millennia — clearly have greater survival instincts and have garnered greater evolutionary clout than all other living things.
But wait: How long have trees been around?
To really emphasize the “brains” of trees, Powers utilizes a lot of personification. By making “them” seem more like us, Powers illustrates that trees and plants are not only smarter than people but that they should be loved and cared for like we do for each other.
“But, of course, it’s not the world that needs saving. Only the thing that people call by the same name.” — The Overstory
He also uses repetition of the word “understory” to depict this point and to make other ones in the process. The imagery and realism of “understory” not only describe life beneath tree canopies, but they additionally symbolize the stories that exist behind the scenes. This dichotomy with the title proves that nature’s story is the one that oversees, joins, and captures all of us. Nature is actually the main character of the show rather than, much to our disbelief, human beings.
“[Powers] has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma,” writes Nathaniel Rich of The Atlantic. “At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’ ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked.”
This novel does a lot of things really well. The symbolism and imagery are quite frankly — and no pun intended — out of this world. It’s not perfect though. I enjoyed most of The Overstory but could not shake feeling that it seemed unaccessible to me and maybe a little too poetic, a little too deep and philosophical. It wasn’t the easiest novel to get through, and at times, I certainly wondered, “What is happening here?” (This was proceeded by me rereading some paragraphs many times.)
My literary preferences are very much low-brow. I’ve never been ashamed of this and feel no qualms about loving the simple and just devouring a book. Powers’ novel has neither of those qualities as it’s meant to be read slowly and philosophically. I generally respect this, but rarely does it mean I’m going to love the experience of reading it or that it will change my life. In other words, this type of literature rarely receives a strong rating from me.
“The confirmation of others: a sickness the entire race will die of.” — The Overstory
On the contrary, The Overstory did change my life and forced me to see the devastation that humans are creating on the planet. Not that I’ve ever denied the scientific proof, but I never really came to terms with my own actions and how I’ve contributed to the mess of global warming. I, just like everyone else, am not innocent. That’s the ugly truth I uncovered in The Overstory. But I, also like everyone else, can change my ways and work toward preserving this beautiful place that’s existed for eons before I ever came to be. The author emphasized that for me too.
When literature forces you to recognize dark corners that are desperate to be seen and forces you to change your everyday habits, that’s an experience like no other, and that has exponentially more power than a few pages where you didn’t really know what was happening.
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” — The Overstory
Looking for more on this powerful story? Head over to The Biblio Files via the link or your favorite podcast platform to listen to a conversation about the book with my friend Collier and don’t forget to subscribe for more great literary convos!