Book #1 of 2019, The Overstory by Richard Powers

In his bestselling book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond, when talking about the history of human settlement in Easter Island, wonders what went through the mind(s) of the person/ people as they cut down the last tree on the (now barren)island. He outlines a horrific tale of humans mindlessly cutting trees for agriculture in what was once a lush island with millions of trees, to a point where the entire ecosystem of the island collapses and the place becomes uninhabitable and stripped bare of every tree. This is of course only one among many theories about the island. I read another one involving rats (that hitched a ride on the settlers’ canoes) eating tree roots and thereby killing the trees and the islanders finally having to eat the rats to sustain themselves. Both scenarios are pretty awful and both scenarios ended up with the island becoming denuded and the human population ultimately plummeting.  Are we collecting inflicting another Easter Island scenario, but this time on the entire world?

The door draped by the roots of a massive fig tree at Ta Phrom Temple
The door draped by the roots of a massive fig tree at Ta Phrom Temple

One of the characters in Richard Powers’ book imagines a scenario of aliens landing on earth.

“They’re little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolise like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.”

But it’s really easy to see who are the aliens in this scenario and who the humans are. Trees live in a time frame that is different from that of humans. What for humans is one generation or a lifetime may be but a season in the life of a tree that lives many hundred years. One of the more brilliant books written in recent years about the brilliantly vibrant life of trees is Peter Wohlleben’s “Secret Life of Trees” where he describes how trees communicate with each other and live as a community full of meaning and feeling. I loved the book. Although I was not surprised by the fact that trees could feel or react, the intensity of their interactions amazed me.

So it was no surprise that out of all the books that made it to Booker Prize Shortlist in 2018, the only one that really caught my attention was ‘The Overstory’. In my opinion the core question that Power wants to raise through his book is expressed in the following lines:

“We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And what Doug Pavlicek wants to know is why this is so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on a status quo.”

You couldn’t be farther from the truth if you thought that the paragraph above made ‘The Overstory’ feel like a dry preachy non-fiction book on the perils facing humanity through willful ecological destruction. It isn’t. In fact the first part of the  book is a carefully constructed set of parallel narratives which puts you in the same frame of mind as when you read David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’. The first chapter on the Hoel Chestnut tree alone deserved the Booker Prize in my opinion. Reading it on my commute to work I was literally blown away by Powers’ style which feels like poetry made into prose.

Powers is an expert wordsmith. He has this extraordinary talent to string up a set of completely disparate words to create an image in your head that makes perfect sense. Constructions like “All around them spread a phantasmagoric Ordovician fairytale” when describing an old forest; or “They look like the work of an autistic neolithic pantheist weathered by archaeology” when describing some tree art.

Tree Root Growing out of the Temple
Tree Root Growing out of the Temple

The Overstory also brings out Powers’ vast breadth of knowledge in fields that aren’t only trees (for which he must have obviously done lots of research and it shows throughout the book). When he suddenly drops phrases like “Her public reputation like Demeter’s daughter crawls back up from the underworld,” or “The death…had compressed them like shale into slate,” you just wonder how much Greek mythology, geology and any other subjects Power must have in his recall.

At just over 500 pages, The Overstory isn’t the shortest weekend read (especially when you have to take into account reading some passages twice to appreciate their beauty). Neither is it all heartening and amazing all through. Even as a work of fiction, it is very real and raw, so it is infuriatingly frustrating to have to read about human greed continues to wipe out tracts of old forest land. Reading about the fictional Dr Patricia Westford’s (the lady of Persephone like reputation) experience in the book when she is discredited after publishing her initial research that trees can talk to each other, reminded me of what it must have been like in real life for Rachel Carson to publish her book “Silent Spring” on the harmful effects that pesticides like DDT were having on the environment.

But the book is incredibly worth the read. In fact I would make it compulsory reading for everyone if I could. Because there aren’t enough voices screaming out the fact that we’re hurtling towards oblivion. We’ve passed the point of no return but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can’t salvage if only we could see a bit more green. We need to go back to our roots.

“She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground There are a hundred thousand species of love separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.”


The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Overstory by Richard Powers

One Comment Add yours

  1. Nirmala says:

    I like the way you have written this. Can feel your passion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s