The Overstory

by Richard Powers

I found this review difficult to write. Not because I didn't like this book, but because I found the tone of the book so unique that I had a hard time putting into words how I felt about it. I think the best word to describe The Overstory is 'sprawling'. It is a story told from the perspective of several different characters, spanning over the course of decades, focusing on organisms that massive in their size and interconnectedness. At surface level, The Overstory is about trees. When you dig a bit deeper, you see that the book is actually about connection; the many connections between people and the natural world that often get disregarded in the modern day.

The plot overall was pretty good, it had an especially gripping climax but I did find that it started to lag a bit after that. There is a certain energy in the first two thirds that is amazing; the book does a great job reflecting the tone of the conservation movement in the 90s through its pages. I could also have done maybe with one or two fewer perspectives. There were 5, or maybe 6, core characters that seemed to have a lot of cohesion and the rest were... also giving their perspective but didn't have nearly as mcuh impact on the story. This books biggest strength is its writing. Powers employs some of the richest language I have read in a longtime, with every sentence carefully crafted and kept in line with the serious, overarching tone of the novel.

While the book follows the perspectives of people, the true main character at the heart of the book are the trees. Several different aspects of trees are explored; their sense of community, their stalwartness, their healing presence. The Overstory paints an almost mythical picture of trees as the story unfolds. What I loved about that is that it wasn't even mythical, the book was just putting into context many truths about trees that I hadn't thought about in a long time and it all came to feel as though it was mythical. There are indeed trees older than Jesus, trees that span miles with their roots systems, trees that house entire ecosystems both through their lifes and deaths. It si easy to forget that trees are not only living things but fantastical things, and they are capable of much more than the average person gives them credit for.

Conservationism is a huge topic in this book, and it definitely made me feel a lot of different emotions while I was reading. Ecosystems are extremely complicated systems. They have evolved over millions of years and are balanced by an immense amount of variables. There are even ecosystems much more granular than we traditionally think; forests are ecosystems but we rarely think of topsoil as independent ecosystems. However, a tree can, throughout its life cycle, house thousands of species of insects, mammals, and funghi, and when that tree evenutally dies and falls and begins to rot it can house and entintely new set of thousands of insects, mammals, and funghi and it can fertilize the topsoil that gives life to new plants and the interconnected root systems beneath. All these organisms relying on each other, helping each other, and living together is in a delicate balance.

These ecosystems can be completely destroyed in a matter of weeks. A logging crew with modern equipment can cut down miles worth of forest every day, lakes can be poisoned with one dump of toxic materials, species can go extinct by one change to the balance. What leaps out through the pages of this book is just how quickly human actions can destroy these complex systems that have matured centuries, and how much potential knowledge could be lost along the way. There is so much about the natural world that we do not understand, so many species that we have yet to find, and despite that we continue to disregard and destroy our environment around us.

There is a lot packed in this book, which is why it feels difficult to break it down into a single post. I liked so many things about it. The writing itself was superb, the story was compelling, and many of the characters felt connected beyond just their interactions. Ultimately, the biggest praise I can give this book is that it made me feel a lot of different things. There was anxiety. There was anger. There was joy. Most of all there was wonder. Wonder about the sheer scale of nature itself, how intricately tied together everything is. The closest I can compare it to is if you have ever stood at the base of an incredibly old, incredibly tall tree and tried to imagine how long it has been standing. Thats the feeling this book gave me the whole time I was reading it.