It’s Not the Trees That Need Saving

The Overstory
By Richard Powers
WW Norton & Company, 2018, 512 pages

In Review

Anyone who has read and loved The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben’s surprising bestseller about what trees feel and how they communicate, will find much to love in Richard Powers’ twelfth novel, The Overstory. This sprawling, multi-branched tale is part love letter to trees and part cri de coeur about the state of the world’s forests. By turn poetic, bleakly factual, thrilling, heart-wrenching, and uplifting, the book tells the tale of a group of strangers, all drawn to trees by unexpected circumstances, who come together to try and save the last remaining acres of virgin forest in North America. A proven master storyteller, Powers has outdone himself with this epic saga about the interrelationship of humans and nature.

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The core plot of The Overstory pivots on five characters for whom the moniker “tree hugger” would be an understatement. Their youthful endeavor to protect an old-growth forest from a clearcutting operation changes their lives irrevocably. But we also read about the quasi-spiritual journey of a reclusive coding genius, and the less-obviously relevant story of a married couple – workers in the legal profession by day, amateur actors by night – whose significance plays out (mostly symbolically) only at the end.

To some degree, the trajectories of these eight characters are touched by the life work of a ninth, a plant ecologist. Dr. Patricia Westerford closely resembles, and is probably based upon, the scientist who first researched the way trees communicate, Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia. Westerford’s immersion in her work is almost literal: She sees herself as part of the forest ecosystem. Her life and work provide a context for the goings-on in the novel, a kind of symbolic framework for the interactions of characters, events, and even chance.

If there is any main character, it is Adam Appich, ironically the least committed of the young protesters. Besides serving as an apparently more mainstream foil for his four fervent companions, his academic career of studying cognitive biases and “legacy traits” proves to be a crucial element of Powers’ highly original insights about the anthropogenic ecological disaster we are heading towards.

For the purposes of the novel, the most significant of these traits is the bystander effect – the tendency of each member of a gathered group to rely on the others to handle an emergency witnessed by all. The larger the group, the more pronounced the effect. This can describe partying friends who stand and gawk, instead of calling 911, when one of them overdoses on alcohol. But Powers indicates that it can also apply to the way many of us “gawk” at unfolding natural disasters or social plagues without lifting a finger, expecting that someone else will fix the problem. Whether this is willful blindness, apathy, fear of standing out, or just evolution gone awry, a whole planet full of bystanders will doom millions of species, including ours. The process is well underway already, as Powers makes clear.

But Powers also knows we cannot save what we do not love, and his lush descriptions of such things as the mini-ecosystem of an ancient redwood – complete with flying squirrels and a huckleberry bush hundreds of yards above the old-growth understory – help evoke a sense of awe. If you ever doubted the exceptional ability of fiction to convey the urgency of an environmental issue, this book should change your mind for good.

While the story is gripping, the writing vivid, and the takeaway undeniably important, The Overstory does have its flaws. The rhapsodic tone sometimes lapses into pop fiction tropes, and Powers has a curious distaste for mothers. (Fathers, in contrast, tend to fare well.) Some readers are likely to find the maximalist style of this 500-page novel a little too much. But these are minor quibbles about an ambitious undertaking.

Powers ends on a tentatively optimistic note without resorting to maudlin palliatives. “There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species.” He zooms out to the vast timeline of a tree – sometimes stretching across millennia – leaving behind our own tight, human perspective. Within that context, we cannot despair for the biosphere. Darwin’s “tangled bank” will outlast us all.

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