The Overstory: Magic is real, and it's found in nature
Updated: May 18
Just before I get into the blog topic for today, I wanted to let you know that for the entire month of April, I am dedicating my online spaces to awareness of climate and environmental health. It's an issue that we all know cannot go untouched - can no longer sit on our back burners - so I'm bringing it to the forefront. Not only will it be the main topic of conversation, but I will also be hosting another donation giveaway centered around some amazing organizations this month. For every new subscriber to the blog, I will donate $5 to the Clean Air Task Force. For every rating on the podcast (on any streaming service), I will donate $5 to Project Drawdown. Both of these organizations have been praised for their incredible outreach and integrity in their missions, and are both truly making a difference in our global environmental health. If you want to help out, this would be one of the easiest ways to do so. Share the blog/podcast with friends who may enjoy it, spread the word, and let's pledge to work on this together. I love you! 🌎
When this book was first recommended to me, I was in a really pivotal point in my life. Everything was changing - I had just experienced the death of my grandmother and while mourning her loss, I was fighting with my parents nearly every day, hoping to find a way to move out. I had just gone back to therapy after a rough winter locked up in that same home, dealing with OCD symptoms and violent intrusive thoughts that had never been diagnosed. The news was always on, blaring the latest about COVID, politics, murder, war, radicalization, riots, and, of course, undertones of the climate crises. As I recall this, I have always found it interesting how, for as large an issue as it is, the climate crisis seems to still get swept under the rug. My dad and I would have frequent heated debates about it, as I felt I needed to shout at anyone who would listen to me about it, even if they didn't agree. This book took me away from all of it. It lifted me into a treetop higher than the rest of the canopy, lifted into silence and reflection to rediscover the one thing that surrounded me in that volatile home, the one thing I kept returning to without processing why.
This book called me to rediscover the forest, just as all of its characters do. As Earth Day approaches, what better way to celebrate than by diving into what is perhaps the most incredible environmental fiction book ever written?
To lay out this sweeping story simply is not an easy feat. The entire 500-page book, written in the present (and sometimes future) tense, covers the complete lives of nine different individuals - none of which, except for two, know each other in the first chapters. Their humble beginnings are all vastly different: Nick's begins with the story of his family's lineage and migration to the Mideast, Ray and Dorothy's flourishing relationship in their theatre days, and my personal favorite, Neelay's memories bonding with his father over building one of the first computers together. The only thing that tethers them all to each other is a connection with a singular tree. They each have their own, but this spiritual bond (whether or not they see it as spiritual) is what brings them all to eventually intertwine. Some of their personal relationships become extremely close, while others remain on the fray throughout the novel, leaving the reader wondering how some of them ever fit into the larger narrative at all. But that's the remarkable thing we learn about trees, and people, through reading this book: their roots speak to each other. They are all connected.
Without giving too much away, one of the most direct events that occurs in the novel is a deforestation rally in the California redwoods, calling themselves the Life Defense Force. The reader can assume this is the 1970s: hippies smelling of body odor and patchouli while they live in tents and occupy the area, hoping to ward off loggers in the greater Humboldt area. While we follow Mimi and Doug driving there together, Nick and Olivia are already involved, having renamed themselves "Watchman" and "Maidenhair." Maidenhair seems to be the driving force of this rally: the brave, tree-hugging battle-crier who stays in the action well past law enforcement involvement. She speaks to, and for the trees much like the real-life Lorax. Patricia makes herself seen there as well, though she is already well-known from her studies of trees being able to communicate (a note on her character below, because I absolutely adore her arc).
These conversations, protests and rallies that accompany the larger story are where its reader begins to feel the gravity of our own world. The one in the book is fictional, but not really. These protests happen every day, all over the country, all over the world, to the same results. Law enforcement wins, people get arrested and killed and illegally held in prisons. Trees get cut down, even when humans cling to them. They are more valuable than we are, but only when they are dead. When the details are revealed, it makes me question how Powers had the stomach to complete this novel. The injustice is gut-wrenching. And the worst part is that this is happening to us, out here, too. This is reality screaming from fiction.
But it's not all politics and death and the bad guys winning, which is what I hope we can realign ourselves to believe about the real-world climate circumstances we face. There are moments - so many moments - in this book that bridge the gap between the natural world and the spiritual world. Powers shows us how the most palpable truths are capable of being magic if we allow ourselves to see it. Fiction screaming from reality, if you will. There is a span of time in the book where, as part of the ongoing protest, Watchman and Maidenhair must live atop a tree. They do not come down unless they are forced. Though Watchman is initially terrified to bring himself up into this new home, eventually, it is the only way either of them knows how to live. "Soon enough, an afternoon, half an hour, a minute, half a sentence, or half a word all feel the same size. They disappear into the rhythm of no rhythm at all. Just crossing the nine-foot platform [their base in the tree] is a national epic. More time passes. A tenth of an eternity. Two-tenths" (267). Their entire understanding of the world around them recalibrates and simplifies. Their capacity to observe magnifies by a million.
Neelay builds his virtual empire around the powers of nature. He obsesses over making it more real.
Mimi and Douglas fight in smaller corners of the Life Defense Force's agenda, until Doug is critically injured.
Patricia, once ridiculed over her studies to the point she almost ends her life, comes to find likeminded people who believe in her work. The hypothesis that trees communicate with one another, and with us, is not fairytale bullshit - it's as real in our lives as it is in this book. She gains notoriety and yet keeps her ground. She is recognized and yet remains in the forest. She is the harbinger of truth when few would glance at her findings for longer than a few moments, only to scoff after. To me, she is the hope of change and belief.
All of the intertwined stories in this book symbolize the tethered roots of trees, and I think that's entirely the point. The singular story is not enough - it's not any one character's journey or impact. Whether Richard Powers intended for this to parallel our own lives, I'm not sure, but I believe there is a clear connection between all the weaving paths within this book and the tendrils of our real pasts, presents and futures. This book is meant to stay tethered to you, years after reading. Though I have only glanced at passages of it since reading in 2021, I still feel its truths are melded with my own.
As I revisit it today, I feel much like Maidenhair with her ability to communicate to the trees. I feel a calling to get back out and communicate myself. It's not something so obvious or fantastical as the dogwood in my backyard saying "Hey, Erin, get out here and enjoy life!" It's a much more subtle call - too low to pick up if you do not listen very, very carefully. Easy to ignore with the endless distractions we have going on elsewhere. But that is precisely what The Overstory is trying to snap us out of: we as humans are not meant to interact all day with bright, artificial colors and metal and plastic. We do not always need music filling our eardrums. We do not serve anyone - ourselves or the outer world - by clamming up and cramming ourselves into a cubicle desk to stare at a screen. The trees need us, the soil needs us, the water needs us, the Earth, in Her entirety needs us.
And on a personal note, I am so damn tired of feeling crazy for feeling or speaking this way, as these characters do. Who made it unnatural to enjoy mud between the toes, or smelling like a mixture of your own body and river water? When was it decided that people who appreciate nature and establish a relationship with her were weird to the point of needing to be hidden away? Why is it that hiking and gardening are socially acceptable, but protecting trees, walking barefoot in the forest, swimming in rivers, or cultivating healthy soil with vermicomposting are seen as strange? I guess I don't need to know the answers to these questions, but know and stand confident in the fact that I will not succumb to their expectations.
The Overstory, though it reflects the harsh realities of the mounding obstacles we "tree-huggers" face in protecting Earth from Her decimation, also reminds us that without those who care, and continue to care, and relentlessly fight for climate justice, we would stand no chance at all. The integrity of Earth's population would be so devastatingly weak. Who knows where we would even be right now? Powers shows us that as we mourn, we can step aside to let others do the work while we recover. As we fall to doubt, we still have magic surrounding us at every moment, embedded in every fiber of the universe. His book urges us to never, ever forget that.
Interested in reading? Here is some additional info you might want to know:
🔴🔴🔴🔴⚫ The Overstory frequently makes use of long, lofty and esoteric descriptions that some may find difficult to parse through. Changes in character focus without chapter markers, as well as changes in tense may also be hard to follow (but I love a change-up, personally).
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Others say that despite its incredibly important message and beautiful use of language and story-weaving, it can become quite boring if you don't appreciate long expanses of description. Some say it is a long road to an anticlimactic ending. On a personal note, my partner took so long to finish it that he said he ended up losing interest in any of the characters by the end. I fully disagreed 😎
About the Author
Richard Powers (born June 18, 1957) is an American novelist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction. He has also won many other awards over the course of his career, including a MacArthur Fellowship. As of 2023, Powers has published thirteen novels and has taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.
Have you read The Overstory? Did you enjoy this book review format? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! Let's converse! LOVE YOU!!