The Overstory, by Richard Powers

OverstoryWhy this book: Strongly recommended to me by my friends Auny, Di, and Liz.  Pulitzer Prize winner 2019.  A very different theme that peaked my curiosity.

Summary in 3 sentences: The book begins with a series of eight short-story biographies of very different people,  whose lives then converge in unexpected ways over the rest of the book.    The common theme that brings these people’s lives together is trees, and the different ways in which each of them came to realize the importance of trees to their own well-being and the well-being of the planet.   There is a story here, but in the drama that unfolds throughout the book, we learn how trees communicate with each other and other organisms, how they influence our environments, and how in industrial society, humans have become alienated from our natural environment and how that is subtly, slowly, insidiously, but definitely hurting ALL of us – which includes all of Life.

My impressions: An amazing book!  Unlike anything I recall ever having read – regarding message, story, structure, and style.  As I got into the book, early on I realized that this is indeed a classic.  It got a bit un-tidy at the end, and it didn’t wrap up with a bow on it.  But as clear-sighted as the author clearly is, I assume that was intentional – life and nature can be complicated and untidy, and it remains to be seen whether we as a civilization will find a connection to the larger nature we are part of, or remain tragically disconnected from the rest of life on this planet.   The stories in this novel are very human, but the context  is very much about LIFE  – of trees, plants, animals insects, fungi – nature – and where we humans fit into a much larger eco-system.

The first section of the book is entitled “Roots” and we are treated to the introductory background biographies, of the eight very different people who we will read about in the rest of the book. Each person gets his/her own chapter.   Thes are eight very different people who at the outset, are not connected in any social way.: A Vietnam war veteran, a Chinese immigrant, an Indian immigrant, a woman botanist, a yuppie couple in the midwest, a party- girl in a midwestern college, a geeky young high school kid trying to get into college.  These are fascinating short stories  in their own right, and they tee-up the rest of the book.

The second section of The Overstory is entitled “Trunk,” and here is where we find the meat of the book.  In this section, we watch the the slow connecting of the  lives of those very different people progress from where their stories had left off in Roots.  The paths of these characters begin to converge in unexpected ways – in ways that remind one of how organically and seemingly without structure, a forest can evolve.   The common theme that brings these people together and connects their lives is trees. Yes, trees – how they interact with each other and their environment.  And the insight that each of the characters has, earlier or later, to greater or lesser degree,  that they as individuals and we as humans are connected to and have more to learn from trees than they had previously realized.

The organic and seemingly haphazard connections between these seemingly unconnected people create a tapestry similar to the connections that happen within an organically evolving forest.  This book takes that simple little bromide – “We are all connected” – to a much deeper and more profound level.

An important part of the drama is the convergence of several of the characters in the movement to save the old-growth redwood forest in the Northwest of the United States. Though a few of them deliberately become activists in this movement, others are drawn in almost inadvertently and are won over to the importance of saving these ancient trees from being cleared by a rather rapacious logging company.  Then after several rather dramatic confrontations with industrial society,  the individuals go their separate ways, significantly transformed by their experience.

And meanwhile, on the periphery, one of the characters represents Richard Powers’ own fascination with AI and the movement that gives increasing priority to a rich “virtual” life.  One of the characters becomes a mega-successful silicon valley computer gaming executive whose goal is to create a computer game that as closely as possible simulates life and living in all its complexity.   In fact it seems that this wheel chair-bound genius seeks to develop a computer “game” that include so many of life’s variables and becomes so “real” to those who play it, that it can eventually become a quasi-legitimate substitute for the actual lived experience it simulates.  As his computer game integrates more and more of the pieces of our world, our genius gamer achieves a type of spiritual awakening regarding the connectedness that trees have with each other, with humans, and with all of life.   The pursuit of one (impossible) holy grail led him to another greater insight –   similar to the wisdom attained by some medieval alchemists.

There are also some semi-mystical pieces to this story, as at least two of the characters are driven by visions and spirit-beings that seem to direct their actions, and advise them on how to deal with crises.  This would seem to reinforce Roberts’ point that there is a dimension of reality that most of us don’t see or understand, levels of communication that are below our normal consciousness, and that indeed are part of an “unseen order of things.” These strange, paranormal experiences of some of his characters are not dissimilar to the hard-to-believe communication he describes between trees, and between trees and other living organisms, including humans – well below the consciousness of most of us.

The book concludes with a mixed message.  Our civilization continues to march into the future along the path of increasing growth and industrialization that got us here – with little understanding of the greater natural world of which we are a part.  On the more positive side,  the characters portrayed in The Overstory represent those who have had the important epiphany that we live in the midst of a much more interconnected eco-system that impacts us in ways the most of us can hardly imagine.

An amazing book, beautifully written with a message that should be taken seriously – and when we do, it is – should be – life changing.

Some quotes that struck me while reading the book. Page numbers from the Norton & Co paperback edition.

p 15. But for a moment each spring, the pale green catkins and cream-colored flowers put thoughts into Frank Jr’s head, thoughts he doesn’t know how to have….His pointless photographic ritual gives Frank Jr’s life a blind purpose that even farming cannot give.

p. 54 Patterns reveal themselves as he watches (the ants), and they’re wild.  Nobody’s in charge of the mass mobilization, that much seems clear. Yet they port the sticky food back to the nest in the most coordinated way. Plans in the absence of any planner. Paths in the absence of a surveyor…. The colony possesses something; Adam doesn’t know what to call it. Purpose. Will. A kind of awareness – something so different from human intelligence that intelligence thinks it’s nothing.

p. 61 The book shows how so-called homo-sapiens fail at even the simplest logic problems.  But they’re fast and fantastic at figuring out who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who should be heaped with praise and who must be punished without mercy.  Ability to execute simple acts of reason?  Feeble.  Skill at herding each other? Utterly, endlessly brilliant.

p. 61 Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules.  What seems 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 opportunist shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.

p. 84 In fact, it’s Douggie’s growing conviction that the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.

p. 110 He rolls from planter to planter, touching the beings, smelling them, listening to their rustles.  They have come from hot islands and desiccated outback, from remote valleys in Central Asia, breached only recently. Dove tree, jacaranda, desert spoon, camphor tree, flame tree, empress tree, kurrajong, red mulberry; unearthly life, waiting to waylay him in this courtyard while he was searching for them on distant planets.  He touches their bark and feels, just beneath their skins, the teeming assemblies of cells, like whole planetary civilizations, pulse and hum.

p. 115 As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change.  There is no knowing for a fact.  The only dependable things are humility and looking.

p. 122 A secret suspicion sets her apart from the others. She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees area social creatures.  It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another.  Nature knows few loner trees.  But the belief leaves her marooned.

p. 138  A person has only to look, to see that the dead logs are far more alive than living ones.  But the senses never have amuch chance, against the power of doctrine.

p. 162  She must still discover that myths are basic truths twisted into mnemonics, instructions posted from the past, memories waiting to become predictions.

p. 183  The smell grips her brain stem until she and the dead man are fishing side by  side again under the pine shade where the fish hide, in the soul’s innermost national park.

p. 244 This man tried to save her pines. Put his body between the saws and the trees. She wouldn’t  be out here, even in this endangered paradise, without him. But for her money, he’s more than a little wacked. His rangy gameness for anything scares her. The twinkle he fixes on the forest ahead has that look of the not entirely housebroken. His head swivels, marveling at the crowd, happy as a puppy to be let back in the house.

p. 282  A dead tree is an infinite hotel.

p. 332 At the corner he leans on a streetlight.  A fact struggles to escape him, one he has felt for a long time but has never been able to formulate. Almost every part of need is created by a reflex, phantasmal, and democratic committee whose job is to turn one season’s necessities into the next’s yard sales.  He stumbles on  into the park full of people dealing in excitement and night. The air stinks a little of Wet-Naps, weed, and sex.  Hunger everywhere, and the only food is salt.

p. 374  We are not, one of Adam’s papers proves, wired to see slow, background change, when something bright and colorful is waving in our faces.

p. 382-3 The books share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive – character – is all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed, of course, just one small step up from the belief that the Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in federal court.  To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

p. 386 The pen moves; the ideas form, as if by spirit hand. Something shines out, a truth so self-evident that the words dictate themselves. We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.  And what Douglas Pavlicek wants to know is why this is so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on the status quo.

p. 422 Wealth needs fences. But fences need wood. Nothing left on the continent even hints at what has gone. All replaced now, by thousands of miles of continuous backyards and farms with thin lines of second growth between them. Still, the soil remembers, for a little while longer, the vanished woods and the progress that unmade them. And the soil’s memory feeds their backyard pine.

p. 423   No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments of 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.  

p. 424 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.  

p. 456 These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems.  If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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1 Response to The Overstory, by Richard Powers

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers (2/5) | Taking On a World of Words

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