September 3, 2021 | LIFE| By Sada Rice | Photo by Daniel de Koning
“A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: ‘If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.’ The pine she leans against says: ‘Listen. There’s something you need to hear.’”
Humanity would be better off if we took the time to listen. But, we’re often too busy heading to appointments, checking notifications, and refreshing our emails. We hardly take the time to notice the trees and we end up looking right past them. We see them as objects, something inanimate, like a rock. Because of this apathy, we view them as a commodity for our own use. However, in his novel, “The Overstory,” Richard Powers reminds us that trees are so much more.
Not only is this novel a love story for trees and all that they can do, it also provides us a glimpse into scientific breakthroughs about their perceptivity and intelligence. Trees can communicate with each other through both the air and their roots. In this way, they are not isolated but operate as a collective organism.
They feed their young and give out resources to take care of each other. They sense the presence of other nearby life, so they know when humans are there. To alert each other of danger, they send out signals.
Trees can solve problems and make decisions. Seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Trees learn to save water. In this dynamic, interconnected system, a forest grows aware.
The message is certainly an important one. It helps the reader completely shift perspectives so as to appreciate the invisible miracles going on around us. The novel paints trees as something deserving agency. After all, if corporations can have legal rights, why shouldn’t trees?
If someone broke into your home and started destroying things, you would have the right to do whatever it took to get them to stop. Why is it any different with our environment? We are destroying the planet around us and all anyone can do is sit back and watch.
“The Overstory” tells the story of the rare people who have become aware of the interconnectedness of humans to the natural world and refuse to be passive while we destroy the world and inevitably ourselves.
Part One begins each chapter with a new character, reading like a series of short stories. The only apparent connection is that all of them are introduced through their relationship (or lack thereof) with trees.
In the second part, the stories begin to overlap as the characters meet one another, and their adventure to discovering the wonders of the natural world begins. The novel is about the people, a.k.a. the overstory. But really, it’s about the world happening around us that we hardly take the time to notice (the understory).
The characters are well-developed and easy to connect with, which puts the reader in a position to understand their radical behavior. It’s hard not to share the passion for saving the trees. While the characters valiantly sacrifice themselves to make the world a better place, it’s the trees who are the real heroes.
This is a great story about activism and resistance. It allows the reader to feel the pain of development and creates a new appreciation for trees and the natural world.
In the words of Powers, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.