“It’s huge, it’s exciting, it’s wondrous” – The Overstory by Richard Powers

IMG_2022-7-7-150728First I thought, hey, you can’t go far wrong with Richard Powers, and then I realised that this was a 500+ page tome about trees. I gave myself something of a scathing glance. Luckily, I’m an idiot: you can’t, in fact, go far wrong with Richard Powers – he could have kept it up for another couple of hundred pages and I’d still be delighted, though, given the subject matter, I’d be having major ecological qualms about the additional paper.

The Overstory is, indeed, a long book about trees. It’s also an epic multi-vocal journey across the American continent (and beyond) and through the twentieth century to the present day, following a cast of nine major characters: a plant biologist, a court stenographer, a computer game developer, an IP lawyer, a psychologist, an engineer, an artist, an army vet and a pothead student turned eco-visionary. And the plot? Well, there are various emergent plots – family tragedies, an electrocution in a student flat, an unlikely marriage, a dab of tech-utopianism – but they all converge, eventually, as crisis looms, around the book’s central themes: the majesty and wonder of trees and their ecosystems, and, relatedly, the human-wrought destruction of our biome via deforestation. The characters are all here because, in different ways, they’ve themselves been wrought by trees (they’ve planted them, fallen out of and into them, photographed and drawn them, and listened to them): together, with the reader, they’re now realising exactly how badly we’ve fucked these trees up, and they’re wondering whether there’s anything at all they/we can do to make things better before the few remaining forests are cleared and environmental disaster strikes. The bulk of the latter half of the book, then, explores the forays of many of our heroes into political activism and (what other characters refer to as) eco-terrorism.

It’s a gloriously descriptive book – the scope of Powers’ vision and appeal here is as awesome as the trees themselves, and good portions of the book are given over to describing exactly how awesome (as in: causing terrified awe) the trees actually are – but it’s also action-packed and peopled with a very diverse cast, which makes it a read that’s as engaging and absorbing in terms of its plot as in terms of its theme. Even if you’re not particularly into trees or the environment or eschatological panic, you’ll be drawn in: if you’ve read The Echo Maker you’ll know Powers to be a captivating writer with an enormous gift for making intense scientific research seem not a burden (hello, Ian McEwan) but an enrichment and a joy.

Not every strand is, of course, as breathtaking as its fellows. Neelay (our tech-utopian game developer) isn’t portrayed with the same generosity and tenderness as, say, Olivia (our possibly delusional visionary), and his strand feels less integrated, more of a laborious deus-ex-machina gimmick, than an essential component. Dorothy and Ray’s sections, too – while their individual stories are deeply engaging – feel less amalgamated than the others, though it’s true that had every character shackled themselves to a redwood, the whole novel would likely err on the side of the over-plotted. As it is, though, even if the occasional part lags or feels superfluous, the rest is, indeed, in every sense, epic: it’s huge, it’s exciting, it’s wondrous and – because, after all, this is our world and these are our problems – it’s very, very scary. And yet – with all that science and doom – it’s still a great story.

Any Cop?: It’s not often I’ll say a book changed my outlook, but this one did – it’s done for my awareness of trees and their awful precarity what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did with pesticides and chemical waste. This really deserves to be read.

Valerie O’Riordan

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