Michael Peterman: How demanding is the reading experience of “The Overstory”?


“The Overstory” has received many rave reviews since its release in 2018. Unsurprisingly, it won the Pulitzer Prize as well as other major fiction awards.

For my part, I found myself slightly intrigued by the extravagant praise he received. My hesitation had nothing to do with the novel’s environmental and arboreal aims, which I found powerful and engaging. If anything, I struggled to maintain my interest as Powers played out his eight overlapping human stories.

At several points over the 500 pages of the book, I found my attention span dwindling. When, for example, it was about Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly’s troubled marriage, I wasn’t always engaged. Likewise, my attention has often faded into Neelay Metha’s obsessive game-making story. I was lukewarm at best about the complexity of both stories, regardless of the characters’ relationship to some sort of tree. I could see what Powers was doing, but I knew I had to come back to them to better understand their place in the novel.

I am inclined to compare “The Overstory” to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” (or “The Whale”, as it appeared in England in 1851). It took me many hours of reading and some guidance from a helpful teacher to familiarize myself with Melville’s novel.

It’s a reading experience I cherish now, having gained a fuller perspective over time. ‘The Overstory’ is an equally encyclopedic romance – here ecological attention to the value of trees replaces the hunting of right whales for their precious sperm; that semen oil was used to light the lamps of the pre-electric western world. Many readers of the 1850s must have found themselves drawn to Melville’s narrative breadth and playful delivery of unusual information.

In ‘Moby-Dick’ one encounters a number of exotic characters and one can be bewildered by Melville’s detours into maritime history, whaling lore and comparative religion.

In “The Overstory,” Richard Powers makes similar demands of his readers, pairing his selected tales with dollops of information about tree species and their secret subterranean lives, as he advances his own great novel. In its unique blend of personalized storytelling, scientific information and ecological vigilance, “The Overstory” is a powerful yet unusual book. Powers writes evocatively about the amazing variety of trees in our world and our need to understand their value and importance.

Among his main concerns is the continued and massive deforestation of North America. He insists on the need for enlightened human intervention to stop this destructive process.

While the novel dramatizes the dangers of individual intervention, public awareness and informed action are crucial to our future. But how do you raise public awareness of the issues? How can they become less complacent towards them? As one character aptly puts it, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.” The only thing that can do that is a good story.

With such a game plan, Powers delivers story after story, that is, encounter after encounter with the trees.

Powers’ stories carry the authority of scientific knowledge and the near-catastrophic dangers of resource exploitation to a high level of recognition. Individual stories are divided into short narrative sections designed to engage (and maintain) the reader’s interest. Together, they bring the reader both to recognize a major environmental problem and to realize what needs to be done. That future, however, remains bleak and ominous.

Just as Melville predicted a decline of the whale as a species due to human exploitation, Powers shows us a world that is losing its critical mass of trees at an alarming rate, spurred on by our willingness to trust the agendas uncontrolled companies and our appetite for wood. based products. Our complacency in the face of such a problem is a kind of cultural idiocy.

The stories that make up “The Overstory” are compelling, especially those that point to acts of conscious resistance to government-sanctioned clear-cut logging of West Coast Forests. Powers writes each story with a forward-looking urgency and liveliness that aims to keep her readers engaged.

Several of these stories come together in an isolated act of citizen resistance to the professional logging of “one of the last pocket relics” of California’s “Jurassic Forest”. It is a passion for trees of an extraordinary kind.

Three individuals live two hundred feet above the forest floor in a towering redwood named “Mimas”. They are Olivia Vandergriff (an obsessive dropout who adopts the name of Maidenhair), the artist Nicholas Hoel (nicknamed Watchman) who slavishly follows her, and Adam Appich (a social psychology student who, having come to interview them, chooses to join their vigil); they remain together on their air platform for many months. Imagine that for passion and commitment! With them, we live in the titular “upper floor,” the canopy of redwoods, high above the forest floor, watching life from this dizzying height and peering freshly into some of nature’s wonders. The three are defenders of a shaky faith that persists until, inevitably, professional foresters bring them down.

Later, their shameless engagement, they become eco-terrorists who resort to firebombing of facilities and structures in the northwest that are add-ons to the legally protected logging business. They are joined in their terrorist schemes by characters from two other stories, Mimi Ma and Douglas Pavlicek.

This leaves three other narrative figures to consider. I mentioned two earlier. The most important of all the personalities is Patricia Westerford, a mild-mannered botanist dedicated to her groundbreaking research into the secret life of trees.

She struggles painfully to make her findings meaningful to her skeptical colleagues and a largely indifferent world. At a crucial early stage, his work is publicly refuted and dismissed.

Powers based the story of “Plant-Patty” on the work of a much more solid Canadian forest ecologist named Suzanne Simard. Westerford’s fieldwork provides an enduring undercurrent of knowledge and common sense in “The Overstory” even as Plant-Patty fights her own battle with stage fright when it comes to presenting her research at major events. environmental conferences.

However, it is Simard’s groundbreaking research that provides the underlying scientific authority for Powers’ view. We learn from Simard how trees communicate underground and the complexity of their secret lives; Over the years, in fact, students and researchers have come to appreciate Simard’s enduring research initiatives in his home province of British Columbia.

Here, Powers plays a little loosely with the facts for dramatic effect, particularly aimed at his American readers. It presents Westerford as an aloof but stubborn seeker from Colorado. Suzanne Simard’s personality as a scientist is much more grounded than that of struggling Patty. For the record, Simard brings a more complete understanding of tree felling because she comes from a family of West Coast lumberjacks. Google her and you will find a highly competent and capable communicator, rooted in her Canadian identity and extremely sensitive to both Indigenous knowledge and her own family history. His research on ancient forests is available through Ted Talks.

But Patricia Westerford is Powers’ key to tree knowledge and the hard sell it faces in the corporate-ruled world of 21st-century America. We learn that “men and trees are closer cousins ​​than you think” and that you have to be careful with trees. They “say nothing,” but they have a lot to tell us, if only we can find ways to understand them. Such is “The Overstory”

For the record, Simard understands tree cutting better because she comes from a family of West Coast lumberjacks.


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