Speaking for the Trees: Richard Powers’s “The Overstory”
By Claire Miye StanfordMay 10, 2018
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This is the challenge that Richard Powers takes up in his latest novel, a 512-page environmental epic, The Overstory. How does one speak for the trees? For Powers, the answer is a sprawling account following no fewer than nine main characters. Some of these story lines converge and some do not, but all of them feature at their core a relationship with the living things we so often take for granted, the trees that grow all around us. One way, then, to summarize the novel would be to list its human characters: Nicholas Hoel, an environmental artist; Mimi Ma, a half-Chinese engineer; Adam Appich, a doctoral student in psychology; Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam veteran; Neelay Mehta, a wheelchair-bound computer genius; Patricia Westerford, a hearing-impaired forestry PhD; Olivia Vandergriff, a college partier; and, finally, married couple Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, a lawyer and a stenographer who are also amateur actors. Another way to summarize the novel would be to list its trees: the American chestnut that survives the decimating blight on the Hoel family’s Iowa farm; the mulberry tree that Mimi’s Chinese immigrant father plants in their backyard; the banyan that saves Douglas’s life when he is shot out of the sky in Vietnam; the oak that causes Neelay’s devastating accident; and, in the center of it all, a centuries-old redwood named Mimas that acts as home to Nicholas and Olivia, who live in a platform in its branches for almost a year, hundreds of feet above ground.
The novel is an ambitious undertaking, both in its human and its nonhuman scope. As with any novel that takes on so many varied characters, some of the story lines soar while others feel comparatively hollow. Five of the characters — Nicholas, Olivia, Douglas, Mimi, and Adam — will come together as eco-activists and, ultimately, eco-warriors/eco-terrorists (depending on one’s point of view). This convergence and its consequences provide the novel’s gesture toward plot, but two of the characters on the outskirts of the action — Patricia and Neelay — are the most compelling. In his previous novels, Powers demonstrated a distinct interest in portraying the particular complexities of living life as a scientific genius, whether the cognitive neurologist of The Echo Maker (2006), the computer scientist of Galatea 2.2 (1995), or the geneticist of Generosity: An Enhancement (2009). The two scientific geniuses of The Overstory are likewise the most fully realized characters, allowed physical and emotional vulnerabilities that complicate their incredible intellectual prowess. Meanwhile, Ray and Dorothy feel adrift in what seems like a separate novel, one that also cares deeply about trees but exists in a universe discrete from the novel’s increasingly propulsive eco-activism plot.
However, as Powers indicates, the human lives are only the novel’s “understory”: the layer of vegetation beneath the forest’s main canopy. The overstory of the title is the story of the trees and the forest ecologies they create; throughout the novel, Powers zeroes in on the perspective of nonhuman nature, describing its lived experience closely and at length. Powers is a master of language, and the meditative prose throughout the novel is utterly engrossing, but the descriptions of these nonhuman worlds give the novel its startling impact. Take Powers’s account of the Franklin Experimental Forest, ensconced in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest:
All the world she needs is here, under this canopy — the densest biomass anywhere on Earth. Steep, steely streams scour through rickles of rock where salmon spawn — water cold enough to kill all pain. Falls flash over ridges turned jade by moss and tumbled with shed branches. In the scattered openings, shot here and there through the understory, sit secret congregations of salmonberry, elderberry, huckleberry, snowberry, devil’s club, ocean spray, and kinnikinnick. Great straight conifer monoliths fifteen stories high and a car-length thick hold a roof above all. The air around her resounds with the noise of life getting on with it.
The nonhuman life of the forest is seen through the eyes of the human character Patricia, but it has its own agency: streams scour, salmon spawn, plants huddle in secret, while the trees protect all this teeming life below. This description — like many of the descriptions in the novel — is filled with linguistic beauty, but it also serves a greater purpose; this is the very rethinking of language and narrative for which Plumwood calls, brought to fruition not in a few scattered paragraphs but with a sustained attention that appears on almost every page.
What does it mean to make nonhuman nature the “overstory”? Can nonhumans carry the narrative of a novel, which typically relies on human characters and human conflicts? These questions act as a metanarrative throughout the novel, giving it a second intellectual mission: Powers is not only invested in writing from the perspective of trees but also in exploring what it means to write from the perspective of trees. Early in the novel, he renders beautifully several generations of human life on the Hoel family farm in Iowa. Among the weddings, graduations, adulteries, feuds, illnesses, and other all-too-human events, a member of the Hoels dutifully takes a monthly photo of the giant chestnut tree that grows on their land. This monthly photo is family tradition, promised by son to father. But is the chestnut tree enough for a story? Powers writes, “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” Here, in the first 20 pages of the novel, Powers sets up a subtle challenge to the reader, and, perhaps, a warning. This novel is interested in what happens inside the photos’ frames; it will try to make a story of the considerably extended timeline of the trees, not the humans.
By midway through the novel, the challenge becomes more explicit. Take this passage, in one of the sections following Ray and Dorothy, as they work their way through The Hundred Greatest Novels of All Time:
The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they 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.
This passage seems like the novel’s mission statement or, perhaps, its formal defense. A novel need not privilege human character and human emotion in order to justify its existence as a novel. This passage comes as the last third of the book begins — as the human stories begin to wrap up, some satisfyingly, some not-so-satisfyingly. Again, Powers reminds the reader that this novel is up to something different from the “obvious” tendency toward human character and its development. Still, moving away from a reliance on character is one technique, but to say that the prioritizing of character is not only “obvious” but also a “child’s creed” is a bit extreme.
Even if humans form the understory, they are still necessary for the novel to work. Powers himself acknowledges this paradox, through the voice of Adam, the doctoral-student-cum-psychology-professor who begins his career by studying the eco-activists and theorizing the way they come to believe so strongly in their cause. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” Adam tells an assembled group of activists, gathered around a campfire: “The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Powers does tell a good story, especially in the first (particularly character-driven) section of the novel, wherein he lays the groundwork for the nine major characters, giving both their family histories and the intertwined motivations for their passion about trees. Each character gets a section, which functions almost as a self-enclosed short story. As a whole, this first section holds some of the most memorable moments of the book: Mimi’s father smuggling an ancient Chinese scroll into the United States; Adam painting ants with different colors of nail polish in order to map the workings of their colony; Neelay, lying in a hospital bed, realizing why he can no longer feel his legs. These carefully delineated moments help craft the individual stories that will, ultimately, merge into collective action.
There are also places where the story falters. Each of the eco-activists experiences a deeply traumatic event that in some way motivates the extreme lengths they are willing to go to in order to protect the trees they love. This pivot in character development seems odd. Is the novel suggesting that one must undergo such trauma — in most cases, a loss of human life, or, at least, its dire endangerment — in order to appreciate fully the nonhuman life that surrounds us? That fate hardly seems consistent with the novel’s overall message, and yet, the details of each story point strongly toward that conclusion. Furthermore, while Powers paints the opposition — the loggers, the FBI agents — with a respectful humanity, it would add an illuminating contrast to go deeper into one of their points of view.
These are minor concerns, however, in a novel that strives for — and accomplishes — so much, offering a “thorough rethink” of both the way we see nonhuman nature and the way we see the novel form. The novel is still a human territory, but The Overstory shows how humans and nonhumans can coexist within its pages. “Out in the yard,” Powers writes, “all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing.”
This is a book that is listening.
Claire Miye Stanford is a writer and a PhD student in English at UCLA. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Third Coast, Tin House Flash Fridays, Redivider, and elsewhere.
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