Powers, Richard. The Overstory. London: William Heinemann 2018. RRP: $19.99, 502pp, ISBN: 9781785151644.
First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.
It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering. (3)
There are no individuals in a forest.
Four people from different walks of life are drawn deeper and deeper into an underground rebellion to save the trees. Elsewhere, a researcher is driven to the brink by the dismissal of her theory: trees communicate. A couple watches their backyard return to the wild, as suburban rule-makers issue court order after court order to get it under control. And a game developer realises that the urge to grow an empire is just not satisfying in the end. There are limits in every system.
In Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one character after another realises what we should have known all along: now is all there is. Everything is interconnected. Here is all we have. This message is delivered by the heroes of the novel, the trees themselves. The narrative is scattered, and diaphanous, like the dappled light that reaches the forest floor. A series of family portraits, generations snapping by as a single sapling reaches up, grows, thickens out. But gradually, a cast of characters hear the call and are plunged into a life and death struggle with a fervour they don’t fully understand.
‘We need to stop being visitors here,’ Olivia, otherwise known as Maidenhair, says. And time after time, the novel reminds the reader that humans are part of nature, not above it. Instead of living with and within the plant’s ecosystem, colonial-capitalist civilisation attempts to change it, to use it, to pave it, to farm it. Living with the forest means acquiring less. But more importantly, it means patience. The trees operate on a different time frame. History is young, the land is ancient.
‘It’s so simple,’ she says. ‘So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.‘ Maidenhair fixes him with a look between interest and pity. Adam just wants the cradle to stop rocking. ‘Is the house on fire?’
A shrug. A sideways pull of the lips. ‘Yes.’
‘And you want to observe the handful of people who’re screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.’ (321)
Somehow both timely and timeless, The Overstory reads at times like a parable. It is both a meditation and a call to arms, artful and meticulously researched. Written from shifting perspectives, interspersed with reflections that may be narrated by trees themselves, and shot through with ambiguity, the novel encourages the reader to see the world differently. Is the modern-day prophetess truly communicating with superior beings? Does the scholar drink the poison, or spill it? Is humanity terminal? Nothing is certain. Time is unfathomable. Who, exactly, are we encouraged to save here? The trees? Or ourselves? But of course, it’s the same thing.
Novels with a clear message can tend towards the didactic. See, for example Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, which I enjoyed but many others did not. If the intention of fiction is to explore emotional landscapes, to imagine worlds so that we can avoid, or create them, a book about the environmental precipice, and the actions that have brought us to it, has a heavy burden to bear. But The Overstory manages to carry that burden lightly, to my mind, despite its immense scale. It takes a step back and observes the way the environment is pitted against lifestyle, jobs, the economy; and urges us to find another way. It identifies the immense variety in humanity, the different worlds we live in and the quite ordinary people inspired to fight, lose everything, and still continue. It calls us into the bush, onto the riverbank, and into the streets. At its heart is a simple message. Be still. Stop being a visitor. Learn to live here.
There is a beating, living heart at the centre of this novel, that is its great success. As is the way Powers somehow, despite everything, leaves the reader with a sense of hope, and a direct instruction. Trees are, of course, living creatures. Vital and alive and so commonplace, yet somehow The Overstory encourages you to see them again, as though for the first time. And not a moment too soon.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.