Book review and highlights: The Overstory, by Richard Powers

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

“Do not hope or despair or predict or be caught surprised. Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.”

In “The Overstory,” Richard Powers takes a small idea—writing about trees—and grows and twists and branches it out, using a series of inter-connected short stories and characters to create a novel as complex and rich as any forest.

Powers is an established author with a dozen books focused around science and technology. Using heavy does of poetic prose, The Overstory discusses and describes dozens of tree species. It spans numerous decades as it dives into family legacies, technological progress, tragedy, love, ecology, man’s place in this world, and more.

While covering a lot of ground, The Overstory gathered a lot of awards, winning a Pulitzer Prize and spending nearly a year on the New York Times Best Seller List.

At first, the book seems like a collection of short stories, related only in theme: trees. But as the book progresses, we begin to see hidden connection between the characters. This storytelling style is a vehicle for one of Powers’s main themes: trees are also interconnected in ways we can’t see, through the air and underground. This relationship means that culling one tree has a ripple effect we don’t understand. And in our ignorance, man has done more damage—possibly irreparably—than we will ever realize.

The book takes a strong stand on ecology and climate change, but never seems to get preachy. While we shout at each other with conflicting data and facts about climate change, Powers uses a time-tested strategy: the best way to make a convincing argument is with a good story. He lets the history, passion, and knowledge of his characters make the case for climate change and forest preservation for him.

It’s not a perfect book. A couple of character arcs left me perplexed, their stories not working out as they had envisioned or been promised. But maybe that supports Powers’s clear stance that nature, and the universe, needs something from each of us, and that delivering on that need doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for all. In the end, Powers proves that small is big. That a small idea—the ecology of trees—told through a series of small but ever-more-entwined stories—can build into grand ecosystem of themes and characters that leave us wonder, and wanting more.

The Overstory: Kindle highlights

My favorite highlights and insights from “The Overstory.”

It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.

Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

Citizenship comes with a hunger for the uncut world.

Extinction sneaks up on the Hoel farm—on all the family farms in western Iowa. The tractors grow too monstrous, the railroad cars full of nitrogen fertilizer too expensive, the competition too large and efficient, the margins too marginal, and the soil too worn by repeated row-cropping to make a profit.

almonds. “Listen. I made a promise, and I kept it. You don’t owe nobody. Leave

One more flip through the magic movie, and faster than it takes for the black-and-white broccoli to turn again into a sky-probing giant, the nine-year-old cuffed by his grandfather turns into a teen, falls in love with God, prays to God nightly but rarely successfully to keep from masturbating to visions of Shelly Harper, grows away from God and toward the guitar, gets busted for half a joint of pot, is sentenced to six months in a juvie scared-straight facility near Cedar Rapids, and there—sketching for hours at a shot everything he can see through his steel-webbed dorm room windows—realizes that he needs to spend his life making strange things.

Their eyes smiled at the best joke in creation, while their shoulders bowed under the weight of a thing too heavy to bear.

“So you’re not coming home for Christmas?” But something in her tone is as good as a signed confession. Home has gone wherever their father went.

“He’s a little socially retarded. The school nurse says to keep an eye.” The word, he thinks, means special, possibly superpowered. Something other people must be careful around.

branchlets. A woodpecker ducks in and out of a hole it made while grub-fishing the year before. It’s a stunning secret that no one in his family will ever know: there are more lives up here, in his one single maple, than there are people in all of Belleville.

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.

The judges award him no medal—not even a bronze. They say it’s because he has no bibliography. A bibliography is a required part of the formal report. Adam knows the real reason. They think he stole. They can’t believe a kid worked for months on an original idea, for no reason at all except the pleasure of looking until you see something.

There are girls, but they baffle him. They pretend to be stupid, by way of protective coloration. Passive, still, and cryptic. They say the opposite of what they mean, to test if you can see through them. Which they want. Then resent when you do.

A seed that lands upside down in the ground will wheel—root and stem—in great U-turns until it rights itself. But a human child can know it’s pointed wrong and still consider the direction well worth a try.

Again and again, 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.

Outside the window are what remain of the children’s trees. He remembers how he once believed in some magic link between the trees and the children they were planted for. How he made himself into a maple—familiar, frank, easy to identify, always ready to bleed sugar, flowering top-down in the first sunny days of spring. He loved that tree, its simplicity. Then people made him into something else.

Something is happening to me. Something heavy, huge, and slow, coming from far outside, that I do not understand. He has no idea. The thing that comes for him is a genus more than six hundred species strong. Familiar, protean, setting up camp from the tropics all the way up through the temperate north: the generalist emblem of all trees. Thick, clotted, craggy, but solid on the earth, and covered in other living things. Three hundred years growing, three hundred years holding, three hundred years dying. Oak. The oaks swear him in as temporary deputy in their fight against the human monster.

Cong are overrunning everything, like the summer rains.

the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.

Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.

The boy thinks: Something slow and purposeful wants to turn every human building into soil.

In a few years, a kid like him will be given cognitive behavioral therapy for his Asperger’s and SSRIs to smooth out his awkward human interactions. But he knows something certain, before almost anyone else: People are in for it. Once, the fate of the human race might have been in the hands of the well-adjusted, the social ones, the masters of emotion. Now all that is getting upgraded.

The more people steal from him, the better Neelay feels about his chair-bound life. The more he gives away, the more he has.

He’ll unfold the creation in gradual, evolutionary stages, over the course of decades. The game will put its players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething, animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the players’ help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.

And down in cool riparian corridors smelling of silt and decaying needles, redwoods work a plan that will take a thousand years to realize—the plan that now uses him, although he thinks it’s his.

Note:This book is about the unseen invisible force guiding all living things, a story often told through trees.

plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people.

People have no corner on curious behavior. Other creatures—bigger, slower, older, more durable—call the shots, make the weather, feed creation, and create the very air.

The only dependable things are humility and looking.

He tells her how the word beech becomes the word book, in language after language. How book branched up out of beech roots, way back in the parent tongue.

She remembers what he told her about the species. People, God love ’em, must write all over beeches. But some people—some fathers—are written all over by trees.

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. Bitter irony: here she is, with her people, at last, and even they can’t see the obvious.

The trees under attack pump out insecticides to save their lives. That much is uncontroversial. But something else in the data makes her flesh pucker: trees a little way off, untouched by the invading swarms, ramp up their own defenses when their neighbor is attacked. Something alerts them.

The particle of her private self rejoins everything it has been split off from—the plan of runaway green. I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

It’s amazing how far a little war chest will go, once you learn how to forage. This country is awash in food free for the eating.

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

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

The phone rings on. She has no answering machine. Who would use a device that leaves you responsible for calling someone back?

He has always been alien to her, a man of procedures where there should be passions. Now she wonders if he might have died, once, too.

Her mind has nothing even faintly resembling a plan. But she remembers what Jesus said about the flowers, and not worrying about tomorrow.

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

And here’s the thing about an apple’s seeds: they’re unpredictable. Offspring might be anything. Staid parents generate a wild child. Sweet can go sour, or bitter turn buttery.

trains like this, this very minute, thread the country in every direction, feeding all the great metro sprawls and their satellites. She thinks: They have arranged this for me. Then she thinks, No: such trains pass by all the time. But now she’s primed to see.

Only now she knows where she’s headed. Solace. The air all around sparks with connections. The presences light around her, singing new songs. The world starts here. This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.

Olivia looks out on the motorists gathering in the court for breakfast. Curious beyond saying: In one life, she dies of electrocution. In another, she’s in the world’s largest truck stop, explaining to her father that she’s been chosen by beings of light to help preserve the most wondrous creatures on Earth. The voice on the other end of the phone turns desperate. Olivia can’t help smiling: the life her father begs her to return to—the drugs, the unprotected sex, the psycho parties and life-threatening dares—is hell itself, while this trip westward is bringing her back from the dead.

And still they overflow, the cruel, indifferent colors of Now.

the world’s trunks come from the same root and are rushing outward, down the spreading branches of the one tree, trying for something.

The branch wants only to go on branching. The point of the game is to keep playing. He can’t possibly sell the company.

He sees the next project, and it’s the simplest thing. Like evolution, it reuses all the old, successful parts of everything that has come before. Like evolution, it just means unfolding.

And we know what’s coming—thanks to the fruit of the taboo tree that we were set up to eat. Why put it there, and then forbid it? Just to make sure it gets taken.

depends on a person’s ability to say nevertheless, to do one small thing that seems beyond them, and, for a moment, break the grip of time.

She pops out into the pond’s clearing. The starry sky erupts above her, all the explanation a person needs for why humans have waged war on forests forever. Dennis has told her what the loggers say: Let’s go let a little light into that swamp. Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky.

She hates the phone. Handheld schizophrenia. Unseen voices whispering to you from a distance.

What Patricia Westerford would like to earn back is her solitude, her anonymity, which she begins to sense—the way trees can sense an invasion still far away—will never be hers again.

“I don’t think . . . It might not be so bad, to destroy a little productivity.”

Anyone who gets righteous . . . doesn’t understand.” “Understand what?” “How hopelessly fragile and wrong we all are. About everything.”

This is what people do—solve their own problems in others’ lives.

“It’s not my life’s work. My life’s work is listening to trees!” “No. That’s your life’s play. The work part is telling people what they’re saying.”

“Then why doesn’t the market respond?” Because ecosystems tend toward diversity, and markets do the opposite.

Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest.

Thousands of these storms have blown through this crown, tens of thousands, and all Mimas ever had to do was give.

“You’re studying what makes some people take the living world seriously when the only real thing for everyone else is other people. You should be studying everyone who thinks that only people matter.”

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

“If people knew what went into making trees, they would be so, so thankful for the sacrifice. And thankful people don’t need as much.”

But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.

On this mountain, in such weather, Why stay here any longer? Three trees wave to me with urgent arms. I lean in to hear, but their emergency sounds just like the wind. New buds test the branches, even in winter.

The breakfast tree is budding too early. The snow is going to kill it. And her father, just smiling. The new leaf always there. Even before winter. A fact that Mimi, in her sixteen winters, had somehow missed.

The past is a lote. Prune it and it grows.

“Just want to love this place again. Thought it was heaven when I first started playing. A million ways to win. Couldn’t even tell what winning meant.”

Spray-painted on the concrete are the words he once helped formulate: CONTROL KILLS CONNECTION HEALS

Ease is the disease and Nick is its vector. His employers are a virus that will one day live symbiotically inside everyone. Once you’ve bought a novel in your pajamas, there’s no turning back.

No one can ever be abandoned, anywhere, ever. Full-out, four-alarm, symphonic narrative mayhem plays out all around them. She has no idea, and there’s no way he can let her know. Civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way.

Is it the towers? I think it might be the towers. I’ve been so brittle, like frozen glass— Towers are always falling.

Then they’ll never see each other again, except for always.

Mastery Online is now a mammoth, expanding, ever-evolving enterprise. But it’s rotten at its core. “We have a Midas problem. There’s no endgame, just a stagnant pyramiding scheme. Endless, pointless prosperity.”

When a person makes a choice, so much happens by night, underground, or just out of sight that the chooser is the last to know.

“You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice.”

And that’s all we want: to eat and sleep, to stay dry and be loved, and acquire just a little bit more.”

“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us!

The best and easiest way to get a forest to return to any plot of cleared land is to do nothing—nothing at all, and do it for less time than you might think.

Do not hope or despair or predict or be caught surprised. Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.

There are seeds that need fire. Seeds that need freezing. Seeds that need to be swallowed, etched in digestive acid, expelled as waste. Seeds that must be smashed open before they’ll germinate. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.