Can a book about trees really be interesting? I never thought so but I was craving something different and I wanted relief from the angst of today’s problems. Watching with sadness how this area’s magnificent trees are being destroyed, I thought it was about time to read the much discussed – and highly praised – book titled “The Overstory” (W.W. Norton). The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is often referred to as the “tree-mad novel,” and that it is. Richard Power’s 12th novel is a love song to trees, a scientific eye-opener of their amazing abilities, and a call to action to save our disappearing forest legacy before it’s too late. It is a gem of a book, full of ideas that strive to change our entire frame of reference. Is nature there for our use, or are we in fact dependent with the non-human world? This is a book everyone should read.
Eight dissimilar characters (one of them a married couple) are introduced through their relationships with trees – an American chestnut, a mulberry, a maple, a banyan. Most of these characters are from immigrant families – Chinese, Norwegian, Polish, Indian. The novel covers an entire generation, from the characters’ childhoods through their adult lives to their old age and beyond, always highlighted by early experiences. Their lives intermingle with those of the trees on which society depends – and has always depended – for timber, for food, for shade, for beauty.
“The Overstory” begins with the Hoel family, Norwegians who emigrated to Brooklyn before the Civil War, and before setting out for starting a farm in Iowa. They brought with them the seeds of a chestnut grove and planted it at the edge of a cornfield. One of the trees survives the great blight that sweeps through the U.S. in the early 1900s and makes it to maturity. For no reason he can understand, old man Hoel photographs the tree on the same day in March every year, a tradition he passes on to his son, and then grandson, and then great-grandson, and so on. As the farm withers in the face of modernization, Nick, the final Hoel, a young art school grad, sells off the last of the land and the house. However, he keeps the pile of 100-odd photographs that track family life in terms of tree years, the gentle changes, and the generational development.
The book is split into four sections, Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Roots spread out across eight very different lives and follow them through the late 20th and early 21st centuries against a backdrop of the American forest’s destruction. The characters each have a story which centers, in some way, on their relationship to trees.
As well as Nick Hoel, there’s Mimi Ma, whose father escaped from China just before the rise of communism. He took with him only a trio of jade rings and an ancient scroll depicting the four stages of enlightenment, which his American daughters inherit. And there’s Neelay Mehta, who has a useless body but a brilliant mind. He is the son of a Silicon Valley engineer and grew up dreaming of codes until he realizes that the genetic sequences written into the various trees of the Stanford arboretum bear an acute relationship to his own computer programs. He creates online games that are played by millions, while beginning to understand that virtual reality is nothing compared with the actual forest.
The author is marvelous at depicting a character, a family, and a culture with a few rapid brushstrokes. Cultural diversity is part of his point but at the heart of the novel are two women. One is Patricia Westerford, a botanist mocked as Plant-Patty while she was growing up, for her preference for flora over her fellow humans. She “discovers” how trees communicate with one another, and how much more is going on in their undergrowth than is apparent from above ground. This idea costs her an academic job before minds change and she becomes famous. Her work, on the wisdom and utility of trees, underlines much of the novel: You and your backyard tree come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.
The other woman who figures heavily in the story is Olivia Vandergriff, a drugged out college student who, in the early 1990s, has a near-death experience involving accidental electrocution. She encounters “beings of light” in a vision and devotes herself to listening to and following them. “The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help,” they tell her. They lead her across country from her school in Ohio to the spectacular redwood forest in California, the site of an enormous protest movement. Along the way, artist Nick – of the chestnut family – joins her quest and for an idyllic year they live together in the atop a gigantic, 300-foot-tall redwood called Mimas (the son of Gaia in Greek myth). They discover an entire ecosystem referenced in the book’s title. The “overstory,” is the highest bit of a forest that sets the conditions of life for everything beneath. In that canopy they find such things as a patch of huckleberries, flying squirrels and a species of salamander that is born and lives its entire life in pools formed in the forks of the tree’s branches. “Fungi and lichen everywhere, like splatters of paint from a heavenly can.” Other characters end up there, too, and all join the Life Defense Force to stage radical, nonviolent protests reminiscent of groups such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. They aren’t successful, but their efforts to save Mimas and its neighbors becomes the heart and soul of the book. Facing apathetic logging companies, ruthless police tactics and multiple arrests, they migrate to another protest site in Oregon, where they eventually turn to violence that will affect them the rest of their lives.
The real protagonists of this book are the trees themselves. With lifespans of hundreds and even thousands of years, some have been growing since Biblical times. Readers learn from astounding, research-based science that trees communicate by sending chemical signals through an airborne network to alert each other of danger. Douglas firs (among others) form communities that share resources through their root systems. Trees heal each other through a shared immune system – concealing “woodland pharmacies” of substances that no one has yet identified. In the novel, they talk, hum, and sing to various characters.
Environmental fiction is not new, but it has gained more acclaim during the last few decades. Wonderful writers such as Rachel Carlson, Jane Goodall, Annie Proulx and Georgia’s Janisse Ray have all published urgent, persuasive works that describe the Earth’s plight and call for more drastic efforts to save the planet. Powers is a terrific writer and he provides plenty of open-endedness to think about long after the book ends. Even without a bigger agenda, “The Overstory” would be worth reading. It delivers an imperative message: the human species, which shares a quarter of its DNA with trees, will not survive without them. We all owe our lives to trees, these air purifiers and soil conditioners that have made human civilization possible. Only 5 percent to 7 percent of the U.S.’s primeval, old-growth forest remains, and only 20 percent of the world’s. We have to save what’s left.