What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."
This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.
In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.
Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves."
So we can listen and take heed and remain part of the ecosystem. Or we can invite Life to take its course without us.
Here is my brief reaction to and review of The Overstory, the book that evoked this contemplation:
Immediately after inhaling the first two pages of this book, I screamed in ecstasy: "Thank you!" To whom, I'm not sure. Then throughout the book, I re-erupted with it, sometimes to Richard Powers, sometimes to whatever force allowed me to understand what came through Powers, through the page, through the people he was writing through, and through the ancient tree memory that pervaded this orgasmic and sweeping novel about all of Nature’s life.
This book, the writing, the subject of trees and Life with a capital "L" throbs. It's so beautiful and exciting that sometimes it hurts and you have to put the book down and digest. From the opening words, Richard Powers casts a spell, and for me it felt like both thick and expansive energy—an altered state. Love. Love of and for trees as the complicated communal beings that they are, and when you feel that, it changes everything—from your relationship to the book you're holding that once was a tree, to your connection to Life, to the incontrovertible knowing that there is nothing that is not alive and remembering and praying, and even if we humans destroy ourselves, Life will always go on..
This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived. [. . .] Trees know when we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near. . . . When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. (424)
This book asks what keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness, our place in the context of all that is—and responding to it. And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not?
My plants are happy I read this book.