If Trees Can Speak
Without a doubt, forests play a seminal role in our lives. From the outside, they look like an untamed and ominous territory fr from the crutches of men. But this thick copse shrouded in mystery is teeming with life that allows other life forms to thrive. Forests are akin to gargantuan green lungs that purify the air that we breathe. They are vast unassuming reservoirs that filter and hold the water that we drink. But it also has a very important role that we rarely acknowledge. With the passage of time, the threats of climate change have increasingly become more and more apparent. What is more alarming is that climate change further exacerbated existing weather conditions all over the world. We are now experiencing stronger hurricanes and typhoons than before. Blizzards and heat waves have become more ominous. The advent of climate change has also caused ice caps on both poles to melt at alarming rates, resulting in rising sea levels. This is making coastal communities vulnerable to flooding and sea surges.
Helping mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change are forests and mountains. They are natural shields that keeps communities from the strong winds while, at the same time, preventing land erosion. It is unfortunate that, over the years, global forest coverage is dwindling at a very alarming rate. The exponential rate of development has caused deforestation and forest degradation to be ubiquitous. Vast thickets are being converted for residential and commercial use. In the State of the Forest report made by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it has been estimated that 420 million hectares of forest were lost to land conversion. While it has slowed down in recent years, the different threats posed by humans and human existence cannot be undermined.
Several calls have been made to mitigate the human impact on forests and nature. With nature unable to speak for itself, environmental activism has become prevalent in recent years. Civic groups and prominent individuals took to arms to campaign for the curbing of human impact on nature. Among the prominent names that have come to symbolize the movement is Greta Thurnberg. Meanwhile, writers are also slowly embracing their role in this global movement to save the earth from inevitable doom. History, after all, has shown that literature is a very powerful vessel for the conveyance of seminal and profound messages. Over the years, books exploring the consequences of our actions have hit the bookstands. Climate fiction is slowly turning into a separate genre.
“But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”~ Richard Powers, The Overstory
One of the most prominent works exploring environmentalism is Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Power’s twelfth novel commenced with the story of the Hoel family. Descendants of Irish and Norwegian immigrants who moved to Brooklyn in the mid-19th century, the family found a new home in the American Midwest. In Iowa, they established their own homestead. Flanking the farm was a grove of chestnut trees grown from seeds they brought along with them; this was an environment unnatural for chestnut trees yet they managed to thrive. However, of this grove of trees, only one would survive the calamities of time. Nevertheless, one tree was enough of a testament to endurance. It was also enough for four generations of the Hoel family to appreciate the wonders of trees and nature.
The final hope of the Hoel family was Nicholas, or Nick, who was introduced as a struggling artist. With his insurance money dwindling down, he was forced to sell and vacate the farm his great-great-grandfather has cultivated. The only memento he kept was a pile of more than 100 photographs of the chestnut tree; his great-great-grandfather started the tradition of taking a picture of the tree on the same day in March every year. Just when the future seemed uncertain, fate, if it can be called such, interceded and made him cross paths with Olivia Vandergriff, a cynical college student with the compunction for partying. The trajectory of her life soon changed when she nearly electrocuted herself to death while she was high. In an unexpected twist, she found a new calling as an ecowarrior who would eventually end up campaigning against the destruction of California’s redwood forests.
Characters with mixed heritages populated the story. Like Nick, they descended from families of immigrants who moved to the United States in search of the quintessence of the American Dream. The varied heritages were also a nod to America’s mixed heritage. Mimi Ma, for instance, was the eldest child of a Chinese engineer who passed away when Mimi Ma was still young. She would walk the same path as her father but she would also be undermined by her personal struggles. Neelay Mehta, on the other hand, was the son of Indian immigrants. Even as a young child, his interest in computers and computer programming was already palpable, to the dismay of those around him who pushed for conventionality. A childhood accident would not prevent him from pursuing his passion as an adult.
As the story moved forward, we meet other characters from different walks, including Dorothy Cazaly, a stenographer, and Ray Brinkman, an intellectual property lawyer, and Dorothy’s husband; Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam War veteran whose path would intersect with Mimi Ma; Patricia Westerford. a dendrologist whose sense of hearing was impaired; and Adam Appich, a rebellious teenager who pursued psychology as a college degree after reaching a certain level of intellectual enlightenment. On the surface, the book’s nine main characters share very little in common. They do, however, share a common appreciation for trees and nature as a whole, the main drivers of the story. Trees have, in one way or another, impacted their lives. A banyan tree saved Douglas when he fell from his plane. The opposite was true for Neelay who was paralyzed after falling from a tree when he was a child. Each would develop an interest in trees and nature at varying stages of their lives.
“Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.”~ Richard Powers, The Overstory
As Powers build their profile and their storylines brick-by-brick – he digressed from the conventions of traditional plotting – these tangled webs of different plotlines would eventually converge. Tying all of these plotlines together were the novel’s main themes: nature, environmentalism, and environmental activism. Deforestation and the destruction of nature were underscored by the novel, further highlighting it through the exploration of the correlation between them and capitalism. For instance, Douglas, who joined a campaign to plant seedlings after witnessing how deforestation is ruining his nation, realized how his effort – he planted over 50,000 seedlings – was all for naught as logging companies still persist. Loggers were ubiquitous in the story and were among the most vivid representations of human’s contribution to the destruction of nature.
Each of the characters tried to do what they can to save trees and nature. Some even turned into fervent activists who were in direct collision with logging companies and opportunist politicians. Unfortunately, their activism, at times, falls on deaf ears. Like the trees they were fighting to save, their voices were muted by the lack of media mileage, underlining how the destruction of the environment often falls on the last pages of major publications, if at all. Still, activists persist because as long as excesses thrive, the voice of nature needs to be heard; activism was also a seminal theme in Powers’ Bewilderment. But even in groups, individuals are drawn to scrupulous acts that can undermine even the purest of intentions.
But are trees the seemingly immovable structures we perceive them to be, incapable of any other actions? It seems not. One of the interesting ideas highlighted by the novel was how trees are able to communicate with each other, highlighted through Patricia’s lifelong work on this phenomenon. Patricia Westerford was also molded from the life and work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, a Canadian scientist renowned for being a pioneer of the idea that trees communicate. The scientific committee, however, found Patricia’s idea unconventional and controversial. Her paper dwelling on the social nature of trees was first met well but was, later on, ridiculed. Her fellow scientists looked down upon her before she would, later on, be exonerated. She would even write a book, The Secret Forest, about her work. For the willing, trees can offer lessons, from the art of adaptation to the
Powers, through his compelling storytelling, managed to give voice to the trees; he even divided the story into four parts that were reminiscent of the structure of the tree, building it from the ground up. The first part was Roots, followed by Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. But the novel does not reduce itself to a mere story about trees. Powers take it up a notch by also exploring the dynamics of human nature, both as individuals and as groups. Some of the characters are outliers but found the voice to speak out and overcome their personal afflictions. The environmental activists were the antitheses of the capitalist, demonstrating that we are also capable of bravery and compassion while, at the same time, falling into the holes of greed and corruption. The human psychological picture is nothing short of complex. In each of us exists a spectrum of emotions and ideas. The key to nature’s, and by extension our own existence is within us.
“Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the micro-climate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intentions.”~ Richard Powers, The Overstory
Beyond trees, the novel explored other seminal and timely subjects. Among these subjects was mental health which was subtly underlined in the novel. One character’s father, for instance, committed suicide. Meanwhile, another character, suffering from disrepute, contemplated committing one. In this regard, the story also underscored our mortality. Death, after all, is a part of our existence, almost synonymous with our birth. Some characters had experienced close brushes with death. Their loved ones have died while some had near-death experiences. One character, for instance, suffered a stroke and would survive. In trees and in nature, he would eventually find healing. Elsewhere, Powers integrated the growing role of technology; a character would develop a video game inspired by deforestation and colonization. The passage of time and the exponential development that took place along its passage were also underscored in the story.
Hope Springs Eternal
With the declining state of both nature and human conditions, hope still springs eternal. Change can be a very tall task. Even the novel underscored how radical acts have barely mitigated the proliferation of eco-terrorism, like Douglas’ realization. Capitalism, corporate interests, and our tendency for greed and moral corruption are all too tall an order to overcome. Nevertheless, Powers subtly underscored the fact that humans can still change. Through several instances and in the characters’ own realizations, he demonstrated how the war on eco-terrorism is not entirely hopeless. It can start with small steps and the journey to change can be arduous but with the proper mindset, it is not impossible. However, this can only be achieved through the development of a symbiotic relationship with nature. Humans and trees can still coexist.
The Overstory, with its deviations from the conventions of storytelling and its exploration of a complex albeit timely subject, was an ambitious undertaking. It was dense and nothing short of a challenging read requiring the readers’ patience. It also had the tendency for melodrama, especially in the second half of the story. Nevertheless, the lyrical and descriptive quality of Powers’ prose was able to convey a profound yet important and urgent message about trees and nature in general. Sure, it is an uphill climb but not all hope is lost. Powers astutely highlighted that while time is of the essence, humans can still change their nature and their ways to help prevent or at least redress this growing concern, explored hand-in-hand with the growing role of environmentalism.
There is a contemplative quality to the story that did not escape literary pundits and readers alike. Both the importance of its message and the beauty of its prose was globally recognized, earning Powers a score of literary awards such as the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2018. It also won the 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine of France and was also shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize in Literature. Skillfully steered by Powers and his masterful storytelling, The Overstory is, without a doubt, a literary masterpiece that carries with it timely and seminal messages. It is a novel of our time, a deserving winner of all the accolades and recognitions it has earned from all over the world.
“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees – trees are invisible.”~ Richard Powers, The Overstory
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I can recall my first encounter with Richard Powers and his novel, The Overstory. It was during one of my stops at the bookstore. While the stamp of the Pulitzer Prize was, in itself, enough of an attraction, I found myself daunted by the book’s cover art and its length. It was brimming with trees, a literary alley I rarely found myself in. The fact that I had no iota about who Powers was did not help. But then again, I thought I just might encounter the book again in the future. Two or three years thence, I would encounter Powers again. His latest novel, Bewilderment, was longlisted (and eventually shortlisted) for the 2021 Booker Prize. I then decided to explore his prose; I ended up loving Bewilderment which made it imperative for me to read The Overstory. Driven by my growing anticipation, I made the book part of my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. While I find The Overstory more complex, both in subject and execution, compared to Bewilderment, it did provide me with a more complete picture of Powers’ prose and storytelling process. It was not an easy read, however. Some of the characters were stereotypes and Powers can be relentless in his evocation of the destructive side of human nature. Nevertheless, the book’s sheer ambitiousness and the urgency of its message make it a worthy read.
Author: Richard Powers
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 502
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Richard Powers’s twelfth novel is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of – and paean to – the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours – vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.
About the Author
To learn more about the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, click here.
A fine read, one of my favorite US novels!