The Overstory, by Richard Powers

This is a remarkable book, a feat of imagination, research, imagery, and character development. The winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, it can be a challenge to read—no cruise-control mindless scanning will get you through this one. But once you finish, your world will look different. You’ll sit in your backyard and wonder what the trees are saying to one another. You’ll take a special trip to check out one of the few remaining chestnuts in Iowa. You’ll start noticing trees on your daily walks—how one gingko loses its leaves all at once and another does so gradually. You’ll recognize trees as part of their own communities and as protectors of our own. This book will stay with you, and it is worth every minute you give to it.  

In The New York Times, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about how author Richard Powers, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, created a work of art with significant scientific merit:

The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size. 

Powers told the Guardian that he read at least 120 books on trees and this research changed him. He talked about his motivation for the book and its effect on him:

When you look at the statistics of what’s happening to species, to rainforests, to forests of all kinds, it’s so overwhelming that it’s difficult to believe it. It’s utterly daunting. I wanted to tell a story about ordinary people who, for whatever reason, have that realisation about the irreversible destruction that’s happening right now and who get radicalised as a result. The book explores that question of how far is too far when it comes to defending this place, the only place we have to make a home. The act of writing this book has made me more radicalised, for sure.

In a PBS Interview with Jeffrey Brown, Powers explained the scientific backbone of the book:

Whatever I present in the book as scientific fact was, to the best of my ability at the time of publication, verifiable, consensually repeated and agreed upon. 

The book seems so real that, as Kingsolver wrote, readers Google characters to see if they actually exist. In some ways they do. One of the central characters, Patricia Westerford, is a scientist who discovers that trees communicate with one another, creating a community in which members help others in crisis, plan for the future, and guard against common threats. This is based on the ground-breaking work of real-life ecologist Suzanne Simard. In The Overstory, Westerford writes a book, The Secret Life of Trees. In reality, author Peter Wohlleben wrote  The Hidden Life of Trees in 2016, using Simard’s work as a central focus. 

Literary Hub writer Kevin Berger spent a day visiting Powers in his Appalachia home and was there at the poignant moment when the author read Kingsolver’s review for the first time. “I have found my people,” Powers said. And, for every writer who feels compelled to crank out words for the sake of words, Powers emphasized the importance of the contemplation he learned living near the forest, a truth for most of what we do in life:  

When I lived in cities, I wrote out of a tremendous work ethic. I felt if I were to be a serious writer, I needed to produce 1,000 words a day. When I didn’t, I was tremendously anxious. But since coming down here, and committing myself to communication with the plant world, I’ve been much more comfortable in letting an hour or two or more go by in a reverie state. I don’t feel compelled to have a word count at the end of the day, but rather to prepare myself as a ready receptacle for whatever might happen.

This is a book about trees, but it’s also about us. Trees have natural resilience. Those we destroy today will provide roots and seeds for regrowth, which may take hundreds, even thousands of years. Whether humans will be around to see that resurgence is an open question.

Pat Prijatel

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