The novelist Richard Powers, I see from this review, has utilized an idea I first heard of in 2016, and that idea disappeared for a couple years (from my view, anyway). But that compelling idea is back, fictionalized and more interesting than ever:
People see better what looks like them,” observes the field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the nine—nine—main characters of Richard Powers’s 12th novel, The Overstory. And trees, Patricia discovers, look like people. They are social creatures, caring for one another, communicating, learning, trading goods and services; despite lacking a brain, trees are “aware.” After borers attack a sugar maple, it emits insecticides that warn its neighbors, which respond by intensifying their own defenses. When the roots of two Douglas firs meet underground, they fuse, joining vascular systems; if one tree gets ill, the other cares for it. The chopping down of a tree causes those surrounding it to weaken, as if in mourning. But Powers’s findings go beyond Dr. Pat’s. In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest—17 are named on the first page alone—trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.
Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier review in the New York Times started the ante on the must-read judgement that Nathaniel Rich (above) upped:
Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder.They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.
And for all that, trees are things to us, good for tables, floors and ceiling beams: As much as we might admire them, we’re still happy to walk on their hearts. It may register as a shock, then, that trees have lives so much like our own. All the behaviors described above have been studied and documented by scientists who carefully avoid the word “behavior” and other anthropomorphic language, lest they be accused of having emotional attachments to their subjects.
The Guardian’s review, by Alexander Larman, also glows:
Migration meets the magical qualities of trees in the National Book award-winner’s mighty story that is richly detailed and shot through with hope
No less a writer than Margaret Atwood has said of Richard Powers that “it’s not possible for him to write an uninteresting book”. On the evidence of The Overstory, he is continuing a remarkable run that began when he came to prominence in 2006 with the National Book award-winning The Echo Maker. This is a mighty, at times even monolithic, work that combines the multi-narrative approach of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with a paean to the grandeur and wonder of trees that elegantly sidesteps pretension and overambition. Early comparisons to Moby-Dick are unfairly lofty, but this fine book can stand on its own.
Powers marshals a diverse central cast of nine characters, dealing with the history of migration to America. We meet, among others, a plant biologist named Patricia “Plant-Patty” Westerford, whose research into the world of trees is controversial and groundbreakingly bold; the Hoel family, a set of Norwegian immigrants whose dedication to a great chestnut tree comes to represent the passing of time; and, most memorably, Olivia Vandergriff. Her surname might suggest a Harry Potter character, but Powers depicts this bored college student, who finds herself fascinated by ecology after nearly dying due to a drug-induced misadventure, with remarkable empathy and interest. Even her romance with a fellow activist who is one of the Hoel boys – which in a lesser book might have seemed like a cheap attempt to reconcile two disparate narratives – is written with a freshness that belies the well-worn subject matter.
As befits a book that spans centuries, there is a richness and allusiveness to the prose that reaches back as far as Thoreau’s Walden, and Emerson – who supplies a wise epigraph, musing on “a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me”, when confronted with the interrelation between man and nature – is an acknowledged touchstone. The Overstory is high-minded but never precious, although it is a pity that Powers does not acknowledge Larkin’s poem The Trees, which, in its final verse, almost anticipates the themes discussed here – “Last year is dead, they seem to say/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”…