Thursday 23 January 2020
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This is a big novel with a big ambition - to change the way the reader sees the world of trees. It starts out brilliantly, with a series of chapters that read almost like short stories, introducing a number of characters and their relationship with trees - the computer geek, the artist, the activist, the scientist etc. These chapters are beautifully written and insightful and feel like a necessary contribution to how we relate to the natural world.
"Adam climbs up into his maple as high as he can and doesn't come down until dinner.Sun passes trhough the foliage, turning the air the colour of a not-quite ripe lime. It gives him bitter comfort to gaze over the neighbourhood's roofs and know how much better life is above ground level. The palmate leaves wave in the gentle breeze, a crowd of five fingered hands.... High above his head, squirrels gnaw at the massed flowers, sucking out their liquid sap then scattering the spent reddish bouquests across the ground below.....there are more lives up here, in his one single maple than there are people in the whole of Belleville."
After these stories there are chapters that bring the characters together to act together to save threatened trees. Adam for example, with one other, lives in a treehouse at the top of a redwood tree to try to prevent the clearcutting of an area of old growth forest. The activism is realistic and inspiring but essentially doomed as so much activism seems to be in real life.
The Overstory is inspired by the real life activism of Earth First!'s Redwood Summer of 1990 and in parts is reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang, written by Edward Abbey, which has been credited with inspiring the foundation of Earth First! (Though this may not actually be the case, please feel free to correct me in the comments below).
This novel puts the reader in the centre of action and thinking about our relationship with the natural world and the non-human relationships that are going on around us, without most of us noticing. The best parts are vivid evocations of the wonders of nature that will inspire many to take more steps to protect our living world, but the latter half felt as though it had a lot less momentum and could have done with some tighter editing.
There's an excellent interview with Powers here.
The Overstory by Richard Powers published (2018) by Vintage.