6 NOVEMBER 2018 | KAREN KAO
This tree stands in my backyard. Scientists call it a Malus hybrid Red Sentinel. You and I would call it a flowering crabapple. Trees go by many names. The Overstory by Richard Powers is a book of trees and ideas, too.
The Overstory starts at ground level with the humans. There are nine of them populating The Overstory. Their back story is told in the form of stand-alone short stories that comprise the first 150 pages of this novel. Each of these individuals has an intimate relationship with trees.
Some of those relationships are inherited, as in the case of Nick Hoel. The family farm looks like any other but for the tree Nick’s ancestor planted when the state of Iowa was still new. Forefather Hoel plants six chestnuts. One survives.
The Hoel Chestnut becomes a landmark, what farmers call a sentinel tree. Families navigate by it on Sunday outings. Locals use it to direct travelers, the lone lighthouse in a grain-filled sea.
The Appich family plants a tree to mark the birth of a child. The fifth Appich is on his way and this time the kids get to choose. The older children shout out their favorites but five year old Adam is dismayed.
Adam’s face reddens until his freckles almost vanish. Near tears, in the press of impossible responsibility, trying to save others from terrible mistakes, he cries out, “What if we’re wrong?”
A couple plants a tree for the child they cannot have. Two characters have catastrophic accidents with trees. Plant Patty grows up to be a botanist while another finds evidence of her father’s suicide splattered on the family mulberry tree.
The second section, “Trunk,” takes our characters to the Timber Wars. During the 1980s and 90s in the Pacific Northwest, loggers battled conservationists over old-growth forests. In The Overstory, that battle coalesces at the Free Bioregion of Cascadia around a young woman named Olivia Vandergriff, aka Maidenhair, the girl who talks to trees. In thrall to her, the newbie eco-warriors chain themselves to log-cutters and camp out in trees. They are prepared to do whatever it takes to save the trees. They commit crimes.
While the humans do battle with each other, Plant Patty, now Dr. Patricia Westerford, wanders the woods, watching.
The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through these self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests.
The secret lives of trees is the sap that courses through The Overstory. The more Powers teaches us about trees, their interconnectedness, their oneness, the more we cheer on the eco-warriors. Then one of the warriors falls in battle and the rest must scatter.
The eco-warriors go underground. Some go off the grid entirely. Others reinvent themselves. They do not dare to contact each other and yet they remain interconnected. The fallen rise from the dead and whisper words of consolation and courage. When Dr. Westerford is invited to speak at a conference entitled Home Repair: Countering a Warming World, the shy scientist ponders.
What do you think, Den? Go talk Home Repair?
The memory of a hand rests on her shoulder. If you have to ask me, babe, you can’t afford the answer.
These gnomic pronouncements pop up with unfortunate frequency. I had to think more than once of the Lady Galadriel urging poor Frodo up Mount Doom. Telepathy is the device Powers chooses to connect these former soldiers-in-arms. Perhaps not unlike the way trees communicate with each other without their leaves ever touching in the real overstory.
The trees move into the foreground of this novel. The humans lose agency. Even Barbara Kingsolver had to note in her otherwise lyric review that Powers is using the tools of story to convey a message.
We can’t miss the roles his characters have been assigned as fulcrum and levers bent to a larger purpose. It’s a fair enough device in a novel meant to tell us that humans aren’t the only show on earth.
The final section “Seeds” is a call to action. Not to recycle a few more bottles but to radically alter our attitudes toward the natural world. To see a tree not as property but as a gift. Or, as Dr. Westerford exhorts us:
when you cut down a tree, what you make of it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.
Powers will admit, without embarrassment or archness, that The Overstory changed his life. In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, he said
Following the trees while writing The Overstory, I moved to the Smokies, and I will go on living here, in one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, now that the book is done. In fact, I hope to hike all the 800-plus miles of trails down here while writing this same book all over again!
Powers is passionate about trees but also determined to make them part of the conversation. He rushed The Overstory into production upon the election of Donald Trump. At a reading in Amsterdam, Powers spoke vehemently about the steady erosion of environmental protection in the United States. The Overstory is his form of activism.
a book of ideas
My friend Jim loves books about ideas. So of course he was the one who first introduced me to Powers and his writing. But it’s a fine line to walk between a book of ideas and a polemic. I missed the wonderfully burled narratives in “Roots.” I disliked seeing the hand of the author in “Seeds” scrawling his message on the wall. And yet.
You will learn that a pyrophytic plant is one that requires fire in order for the seed to germinate. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica
Some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus, and Banksia, have serotinous cones or fruits that are completely sealed with resin. These cones/fruits can only open to release their seeds after the heat of a fire has physically melted the resin.
It should come as no surprise that these trees also make an appearance in The Overstory. They are a cause for hope. Tree time is long. Seeds are patient.
Long ago, I heard the poet David Whyte speak. He told of a Native American saying, the sort of thing an elder might tell a child taking her first steps into the forest. That saying has stayed in my mind all these years, waiting for fire to crack the seal. It ran something like this:
If you cannot find your way home, stop and listen. The trees are never lost.