I think The Overstory is supposed to have a hopeful ending, but I found it so depressing. The novel recounts how humans have systematically exploited trees through the centuries until we’ve reduced the forest cover (which is currently about 30%) by about 18 million acres each year. Of course, trees are necessary for biodiversity, animal habitat, and clean air. They help prevent mudslides, and they are possible sources of medicine.
Of course, a novel just about trees probably wouldn’t attract a lot of readers, so Richard Powers introduces a cadre of characters that are connected to trees in various ways. Patricia Westerford, a scientist, published early data showing that trees communicated. Since her conclusions didn’t fit the paradigm of the time, she was ostracized from the scientific community, but later vindicated and became a voice of the forest through bestselling books.
Nick Hoel, scion of an Iowa farming family, an heir to a photography project that captured monthly views of a family chestnut tree, became involved in activism when he encountered Olivia Vandergriff, an entitled college student prone to drinking and drugs who had an epiphany after accidentally electrocuting herself. Adam Appich, a psychology graduate student, became pulled into their orbit as he was conducting research into non-conforming individuals.
Mimi Ma, a ceramics engineer, only realized her connection to trees when the city of Portland cut down a cluster outside her window that she habitually meditated. Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam War veteran, was saved by a banyan tree when he fell out of a helicopter during the war. He saw the city crews cutting down Mimi’s beloved trees in the middle of the night and tried to stop them, getting arrested for his trouble.
Neelay Mehta, a paraplegic programming prodigy, and sixth richest person in the county, established a virtual world that ended up with players exploiting resources just as people do in the real world, and he began wondering about the alternatives.
Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, a couple in the Midwest, began to appreciate trees while watching them from the window of their house.
With so many characters and plot threads, I often forgot about characters by the time they came around again! Some of the characters, particularly the activists (who some might call eco-terrorists), intersect, and for me, this was the most engaging part of the book, although often the most heartbreaking since they were witness to the destruction of individual trees, particularly a glorious old redwood that Nick and Olivia tried to save by living in it for almost a year.
Ray and Dorothy, I suppose, represented “ordinary people” who could learn to notice, respect, and love trees, but their story didn’t seem necessary to the overall narrative. Likewise, Neelay was an outlier to me. He was inspired by unusual trees on the Stanford campus, and ultimately, he used his skills to try to achieve a solution, but for the most part, his role in the narrative was mystifying to me. After reading the book, I skimmed an interview in which Richard Powers said that conservationists couldn’t ignore the possibilities of technology, and I wondered if Neelay was a nod (unnecessary) to that idea.
Although I am completely on board with Powers’ message (at least what I think his message is), and I’ve been trying to notice trees more, I’m not completely sure what his book was trying to achieve. It made me feel rather hopeless, and if I, as someone very sympathetic to the message, feel that way, I wonder how someone less inclined to sympathize with the natural world would react.
Besides being, in my opinion, bloated with the unnecessary characters, what to me was the central story of the activists was very interesting and the book was beautifully written if at times mystical. No surprise that metaphors of trees–e.g., branching, leafing–are used throughout.
While I naturally sympathized with the characters trying to save the trees and thought they were righteous, Powers does give some voice to those who see logging as a way of life or an economic necessity, and there is a poignant scene in which loggers are worried about some of the activists and check on them after a big storm.
Clearly, I am ambivalent about certain aspects of The Overstory, but I think it is worth reading. In fact, for those interesting in climate fiction (clifi), I think it is essential reading as it sets a high bar and presents a difficult topic that requires attention.
See deforestation patterns for yourself at the Global Forest Watch.
If you want your heart to break, see this example of deforestation in Brazil from NASA.
Greenpeace has some solutions to deforestation.