Mar 19, 2021 | LIFE | By Brigitte Arcoite | Illustration by Xixi Qin
“Have I recommended this book? — it’s about trees and it’s about people.”
In the past weeks, I have incessantly espoused Richard Powers’ eco-novel “The Overstory.” I have been so enamored by its flowery prose and shiny Pulitzer Prize winning title that I failed to capture the grand issue at its core.
In reality, the book is about people, but not all people. The book is written for people, but not all people.
In “The Overstory,” Powers describes a world in which humans outlive the trees. Fat millennium-old Redwoods come crashing down overnight and the last surviving Chestnut is eaten by a foreign blight that should have taken it a century ago.
The loss is devastating not because these tragic heroes fall, but because when they fall, it seems that no one listens. According to Powers, if trees do not speak that is because we cannot hear them, and if trees do not feel that is because we do not see them. Even when the trees are dying, it seems that they will be the ones who save us.
The opportunity for excellence in this story stems from the fact that it challenges what it means to be alive. Often, Powers’ personification of these trees imbues them more life and meaning than the human characters who share the same pages.
The novel is bolstered by its ability to explain these beautiful yet unsung ecological frameworks — that trees can support, share, heal, warm, and inspire — and have been doing so for far longer than any human has.
Unfortunately for this story, that opportunity is poisoned by an uninspired lack of racial representation and accessibility.
For what is described as such a groundbreaking, stumping, thought-provoking read, this story manages to represent more diversity in its trees than in its people. While Powers writes openly about mental health, sexuality, autism, and disability, it is impossible to identify a race in this novel existing outside of white or Asian.
How is a novel meant to enlighten the environmentally uninspired, uplift the historically underrepresented, and support the currently neglected members of our society when it does not even acknowledge that they exist?
Climate change and ecological destruction, like all other publicly shared problems, tend to impact Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities first and far more tragically. If mass environmental consciousness is the goal of this book, how can it leave out those who have the most stake in the matter?
This trend of explicit disregard for underrepresented communities is common not just in the past or the present, but undoubtedly in the future as well. For a book so socially aware in its heroic displays of tree-sit-ins, tasteful vandalism, and outright displays of federally-punishable arson, I wonder what might have stopped Powers from adequate inclusion of minority communities.
Unfortunately for me, I enjoyed this book. Unfortunate, because I am struck with the dilemma of continuing to promote it or to let the pages settle dust on my corner bookshelf. This book came to me three years late, but it was many years behind where it should have been. Years lacking in action, in healing, and in new growth.
According to “The Overstory,” though, this is “nothing in the time of trees.”