Richard Powers’ latest book The Overstory traces the lives of nine main characters between the time before the Civil War and ending in the present or maybe the near future. The sweeping chronological arc and complexity of the story reflects that of the subject matter and the protagonists at the true heart of the book—trees. Powers employs each character’s unique expertise and perspective to delve into the controversial topics surrounding environmental preservation and degradation. Airy and bewildering bits of forest science confront the reader throughout the book, making it a pleasurable challenge to separate fact from fiction. While none of the characters are real, they are all very realistic and relatable, and at least a few are based on real people involved in real events, especially the Earth First movement and the Earth Liberation Front.
Thanks to his background as a student of science and literature, Powers is known for his ability to weave together seemingly incompatible topics in a uniquely poetic yet precise way; The Overstory is no exception. Readers will find themselves immersed in the languages of botany, behavioral psychology, performative art, environmental activism, and computer science. All the while, the reader learns a great deal about trees, and especially the varied relationships between people and trees. The facts Powers offers are compelling and approachable, sparking curiosity and awe, while simultaneously fueling frustration for the way people tend to over-simplify trees and forests.
While the characters’ individual stories begin in disparate, seemingly unrelated biographies, their arcs converge near the middle of the book in unexpected ways. Without unveiling spoilers, it becomes clear that the stories of the characters are a metaphor for the way that the lives of trees in a forest are connected and intertwined. The loose structure of the narrative is modeled after a tree, beginning with “Roots,” then “Trunk” where the characters’ stories converge, and ending with the “Canopy.” As the book begins to conclude in the “Canopy” section, the story arcs twist out again as they started, and individuals’ or couples’ stories become distinct from the whole. The result is that it can be hard to keep track of all the pieces of this puzzle. That said, Powers style is somewhat preachy, and he leaves little work for the reader in terms of extrapolating broader meaning from the stories.
Overall, The Overstory is an enlightening and rewarding read for anyone interested in forests, environmental activism, or creative storytelling. Powers delivers a powerful if pessimistic message about the ability of people to react to the growing environmental crisis, which is unnerving. At the same time, Powers’ message is to present the forest as a mysterious, quiet, and beautiful community which will outlast humans, despite our best efforts to exploit it.
Through this book we gained a renewed appreciation for the complexity and resilience of trees and the power that the narrative can play in protecting them. The book’s structure acts as a reminder to always begin from the ground and move up as well as to understand the implications of time and the unpredictability when it comes to designing with living things.