There’s a moment in Richard Powers’ The Overstory where the visionary botanist Dr Patricia Westerford thinks back on the years she and her colleagues have spent at the Dreier Research Station where “slow, long observation makes a laughing stock of what people think about trees.”

She describes their team, consisting of professions from birders to soil experts, as simply having been “looking” and sharing that data in a manner that resembles the way trees communicate learned knowledge to one another. The growing evidence that trees, an ancient life form, have processes and collaborative protocols that humans know little about came at a time when only two or three percent (per the novel) of America’s old-growth forests remained.

Caring about the invisible

Old-growth is that which has evolved without human interference. In the novel, for every 300-year-old tree felled by a lumber company, the company has ten compensatory saplings planted. It’s a trade the company insists is fair, but the group of activists and local residents barricading the old trees marked for felling know otherwise – the diverse, intelligent systems of an undisturbed old-growth forest cannot be replicated by a human-maintained plantation. A man who once worked for such a company planting seven days a week now stands on the opposite end of the standoff and points out the trouble with tree plantations: “Ten little paper seedlings for each one of these varied, ancient geniuses.” As the protestors hold the line at the site, Dr Westerford testifies in court about the forest’s irreplaceable value in generating the soil, water, and clean air of the future.

Richard Powers | Lannan Foundation via YouTube

With The Overstory, Powers is tasked with the unenviable – asking people to care about invisible, taken-for-granted benefits of protecting trees over immediate employment and profit. In over-simplified (and oft used) terms, it can be seen as advocating for the protection of nature over people, but as the novel goes to great lengths to show – there isn’t a habitable world without healthy, diverse forests.

Converging stories

The Overstory opens with, “Root”, a set of eight stories that introduce seven individuals and a couple whose lives are variously touched by trees and wildlife – sometimes peripherally so. Making up a third of this sprawling novel, “Root” is a rewarding experience in itself, written powerfully and sparsely.

Adam grows up in a family where the birth of every child is accompanied by the planting of a new tree. Mimi’s father takes his family on camping trips through the national parks of America. Ray and Dorothy vow to visit a plant nursery each year on their wedding anniversary and to grow a garden together. Nicholas inherits a box full of photographs taken daily of a tree on his family’s property. Patricia grows up with a profound appreciation for the wisdom that lies outside of humans. It’s a section that’s driven almost entirely by a pure love for the outdoors, and through a series of anecdotes shows how a particular tree can hold personal significance for someone.

The characters move independently along the ordinary course of work and relationships till the proposed clearing of national forest lands brings them onto a shared canvas as protesters, researchers, and far-away observers. It helps that we spend time with the characters in their own stories before they converge at the protests. We are allowed to watch them fall in love with trees by way of accident, upbringing, experiment. When their paths finally merge, the characters begin to blur into one another and are seen only in the context of their relationships to each other, which can be a little frustrating.

An urgent tale

The Overstory is a nod to the work of real-life botanists and activists who have been fighting for the preservation of old-growth forests and of the diversity of native plant species whose ecosystems enriched over time cannot be replaced by reforestation attempts. As Powers mentioned in an interview, Dr Westerford in the novel, who is among the first to uncover that trees communicate with one another in order to, amongst other things, safeguard their continued existence was inspired by the work of Suzanne Simard and Diana Beresford-Kroeger. The occupation of the trees marked for felling by the protestors also resembles numerous examples (both successful and otherwise) of groups that have sat in shifts in trees for days and weeks on end while legal options were sought to stop the felling.

Powers started work on The Overstory after a year spent living with the redwood forests of California to one side and Silicon Valley to the other. The obvious and calamitous clash between the two worlds sent Powers travelling across the country, studying the trees of North America and the people who have worked to save them as well as those who have led their destruction. Who migrates towards activism and why? How can more people be persuaded to join the effort to preserve the planet? If led to the proverbial water, who among us would drink? In many ways, The Overstory read to me like a pursuit of those questions – will we gather before it’s too late?

There are aspects of the novel that may alienate some readers – the mystical call to arms that a character receives from the trees, another character sobbing at the death of a tree. There are entire threads and characters that never truly become a part of the story. The Gujarati-American character isn’t adequately sketched out. But the novel is ultimately a love letter to trees, to beings that grow miraculously and provide much of what we need, to plants that hold personal significance for us, and the rewards of the novel do outweigh the smaller defects. At a time where the events of the novel are urgently relevant to us, as we continue to cut down forests despite the knowledge that we are rapidly running out of natural resources that keep life on earth sustainable, The Overstory is a novel well worth turning to.

The Overstory, Richard Powers, William Heinemann.