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What Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ means to me.

A Book About Trees

A story like no other…

At the risk of sounding like an M&S advert, this is not just a novel, this is Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’–and if you have not heard of it and are not frightened off by the fact that the paperback has over six-hundred pages– then I’d urge you to read it.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, this is an epic tale of trees as well as of nine individuals all with their own unique connection to them. It is a story which spans centuries in the telling, thereby giving us the most incredible sense of time and which will leave you in an altogether different place at the end to where you began. Most importantly, it puts our lives into a new and not particularly flattering perspective. Yet I think we need to be reminded, now more than ever, that “to be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.”

A Book About Time

It takes time to grow this gnarly.

The story opens (and closes) with the Hoel family: Norwegian immigrants moving west from Brooklyn to take up land in Iowa that is being given away free to anyone who will farm it. There they plant a chestnut grove, the Hoel Chestnut becoming a local landmark, which can be seen for miles. This prompts the son to start a project that will continue for generations to come: with his black and white Kodak no.2 Brownie camera he photographs the chestnut on the twenty-first of every month documenting “what time hides forever in plain sight”.

And the true magnitude of time is one of the many wonders which this book slowly reveals to us, a lesson that is particularly pertinent to today’s world. These days, we are so caught up in the frenetic rush of our own lives. Everything is about now. We capture our ‘nows’ and post them on social media so that everyone else can see how well we are doing, how happy we are, how photoshop-perfect we look and how gorgeously filter-fabulous is our ‘now’. But unlike the flip book of images of the Hoel chestnut, the sheer weight of posts flooding down our feeds 24/7, and the transitory nature of social media, mean that our moments are all but forgotten a week or a month from today, buried under a new ‘now’.

Trees, however, have a different sense and scale of time and this is captured, so eloquently, by Powers on any number of his pages. For example, when Nick Hoel beds down on the severed trunk of Mimas, an ancient redwood that he has spent over a year trying to protect from loggers, he lies across its giant girth “his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn…”. What a wonderful way to visualise and really appreciate time! But Powers is right: more often than not, we don’t! People think, he writes, of time being a “line spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”.

It’s time for us to start thinking more like a tree! This is your three-second warning, people!

A Book About Happiness

Not only does this wonderful book give you a sense of everything that has brought you to this one single moment of where you are right now, but it also encourages you to re-examine what is truly important in life. Happiness is not about how much you have or how fast you can get it, or how many likes and followers you can attract in the virtual world. Nor is it about searching for that next big fix, be it a pay-rise, a holiday, an adrenaline-rushing hobby, a more exciting lover or moving to a bigger house. The real freedom you seek is “to be equal to the terrors of the day”, no more, no less as Dorothy Brinkman discovers only later on in the novel.

Dorothy Brinkman and her lawyer husband, Ray, are in some respects minor players in this story. They are introduced to us as they put on an amateur dramatic production of Macbeth, in which the forests are on the move (if you know your Shakespeare) and which is initially their only connection with nature. Dorothy is having an affair while Ray is resolutely trying to ignore this reality. In between so-called ‘rehearsals’ where she nips out to meet her lover, they fill their time pretending nothing is wrong, reading books and planting out their garden. That is until Ray suffers a stroke and becomes an invalid, frozen inside his own damaged body. Of course, now Dorothy can never leave! And yet, over time (tree-time perhaps more than people-time) they discover a passion for identifying the wild plants that grow outside Ray’s window. The freedom and happiness they have both been robbed of was actually there inside their ‘prison’ all along.

Take time to enjoy nature.

‘Plant Patty’ who lives most of her life ‘off-grid’ gives us a similar perspective on what is truly important in life, as does Neelay Mehta. Having broken his back falling out of a tree at the age of eleven, Neelay dedicates his life to his passion for computer programming, ultimately developing a global, online, world-building game that makes him one of the richest men in the States. Millions are addicted to it. His company, Sempervirens, grows way beyond his control so that when he finally questions what the point of continuing to play the game is, he is powerless to stop it. The game, it seems to him, has become “faithful to the tyranny of the place it pretends to escape”, people forever searching out more, building more, filling their world up with things until someone comes by to destroy it or the gamers introduce a new continent for them to spread into so that they can mindlessly continue their quest.

A Book About Saving The World

Sound familiar? We are using up the world’s resources faster than we can replenish them, all in the name of progress and happiness, with the aim of having rather than being.  Or as Richard Powers writes: “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”. This isn’t a call to halt progress, to stop felling trees, but as Olivia Vandergriff (one of the eco-warriors committed to saving the giant redwoods) tells the loggers “cut like it’s a gift” and make sure that “what you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”. What a great way to evaluate the things we bring into our lives!

“Cut like it’s a gift.”

I don’t want to spoil the story for you but some of the eco-warriors come to a bad end. Adam Appich, for example, a respected psychologist, initially plans to spend no more than a day or so studying the eco-warriors camped two-hundred feet above the ground in the branches of the giant redwoods. But he is irrevocably changed by the experience and ultimately pays the price for their actions with his freedom when he is finally sentenced to two consecutive life-sentences for the damage inflicted trying to protect our natural world. But one hundred and forty years is nothing, he thinks, in the real scheme of things. “A black willow plus a cherry. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew.”

A Book You Really Have to Read

So we need to make our time really count. After all, we as human beings have considerably less of it than our woody counterparts. My advice in all this? Slow down. Hug a tree. And whatever else you do, read Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ to discover what wonderful lessons this book has for you. (Of course, if you are worried about the carbon-consequences of buying a paperback, I guess you could give it an e-read instead!)

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