‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers.

Richard Powers is an extraordinary writer. If you’ve not yet discovered his novels, I strongly recommend them. He tackles big ideas which concern all of us while at the same time telling compelling stories about complex and conflicted characters who have a rich inner life and develop over time. He writes beautifully about science and music among other things and I find myself returning to the themes of his books long after finishing them. Reading a Richard Powers novel is like taking a comprehensive course in both the reason and the emotion of a given set of human challenges.

The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of a meta-life form; specifically old-growth forest, in all its richness and diversity. This is built on several overlapping and interlocking human ‘understories’ told at a human level while also being connected to the bigger scale and longer time-span of tree-life.

This is not a book about trees, neither is it nature writing. It’s an attempt to demonstrate, through a web of human and tree stories, that the Earth’s living things are highly interdependent and that the way we are using our planet’s resources is destructive and unsustainable. The focus on trees and forests and the threat they face is a means to make the case.

We seem to be aware that we are careering towards environmental catastrophe – but what are we to do about it? The principal human characters of The Overstory are all grappling with this question and, for various reasons, they are particularly tuned in to a tree-pace and a forest-level analysis. Among the cast, maverick researcher Patricia Westerford is one of the most persuasive advocates of the case; for instance in her teaching:

It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzamatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic-act. The secret of life: plants eat light, air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things… (p.124)

Apparently loosely based on the Canadian professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, Patricia writes a seminal book The Secret Forest:

All winter she has struggled to describe the joy of her life’s work and the discoveries that have solidified in a few short years: how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networked soil. How they build immune systems as wide as a forest…

Something marvellous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together they form vast trading networks of goods, services and information…

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

…Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees… (p.218)

Environmental activists Nick and Olivia, or Watchman and Maidenhair as they rename themselves, spend several months living high up in a giant redwood called Mimas, in an effort to prevent loggers from felling it. While there, they read Patricia’s book The Secret Forest:

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor…A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways…But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes… (p.268)

Testifying as an expert witness to a hearing which could halt logging on Federal land in Oregon, Patricia

…describes how a rotting log is home to orders of magnitude more living tissue than the living tree… The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.

‘Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests than kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel…

Rot adds value to a forest. The forests here are the richest collections of biomass anywhere. Streams in old growth have five to ten times more fish. People could make more money harvesting mushrooms and fish and other edibles, year after year, than they do by clear-cutting every half dozen decades…’

‘I’ve looked at your book’ the judge says, ‘I never imagined! Trees summon animals and make them do things? They remember? They feed and take care of each other?’

In the dark-paneled courtroom her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her – the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety an surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature. (p.285)

Each of the human protagonists of The Overstory finds their own way to speak and act for the trees, the forest, human and non-human life on Earth. They are not always consistent or effective, but their collective story succeeds in shifting our attention from the individual to the system and onwards to planetary survival.

We have no long-term future if we cannot think long-term and act sustainably at the global level or if we believe we can continue to destroy so many of our planet’s ecosystems without consequences. As Richard Powers has said about the natural world: “competition is not separable from separate forms of co-operation”. This book is full of important lessons about trees and forests and also about ourselves; lessons which hold the key to our survival as a species.

See also:

The social origins of human thinking (Mar 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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