The Overstory and trees

So I finished The Overstory, by Richard Powers. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the official description:

The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

I think that description is a little misleading. Think of it more as a story of ages, of characters whose families sowed the seeds of rebellion as ancestors were forced to come to grips with the consequences of humanity’s greedy obsession with forest destruction. There are multiple characters who take center stage, their stories interconnected in different ways. There’s a few who quickly develop a taste for radicalism, helped in no small part by the incredibly violent reactions of logging companies hellbent on destroying ancient forests. There’s a video game developer who sees his imaginary world razed for profit. There’s a scientist who spends the first half of her life maligned for daring to suggest–correctly–that trees send messages to other trees, only to find herself celebrated when her research is proven.

Time moves slowly in this book. Every event has a ripple effect. The writing is absolutely beautiful, although I found my attention wandering toward the end of the story. I don’t think this a fault in the writing–I just have a subjective preference against the lingering post-climax narrative.

Still, I took so much away from this story. I know it sounds weird, but I see trees differently now. It’s not anything as cliched as a “newfound respect” … more like an understanding that didn’t exist before. An interest. A desire to recognize their value beyond the concept of “lumber.” To see all the hidden qualities that I might have missed before.

Here’s another way to explain it: a big windstorm ripped in half one of the trees in our backyard. We have this giant fallen log, and for the life of me I can’t imagine throwing it on the burn pile. Because what if we just leave it somewhere instead, in a patch of grass on one end of the yard where it’s out of the way? What if we just let it decompose on its own time, feeding thousands of organisms for decades?

And when I’m visiting my parents, I think to myself how amazing it the two elm trees in their yard are still thriving, and I think about the fact that these magnificent, towering trees have reached their impressive height without eating an ounce soil. One of the memories that sits with me from The Overstory is when one of the characters conducts a test, weighing a tree and weighing the dirt it’s planted in. The character wants to know if a tree grows by “eating” the soil. Years later, the character returns and weighs the dirt. It’s the same weight it’s always been. This tree has grown by consuming air.

And I think that’s pretty beautiful.