Despite my penchant for speculative fiction I tend to read a lot of what’s usually categorized as literary fiction. These tales don’t fit into any genre and are often colored with realism. More than one person had recommend Richard Powers’ The Overstory, not least the Pulitzer Prize committee. In the style of novels these days it’s pretty long and that meant I had to build up the courage (and time) to get to it. I support the environment. I have a great respect for trees and try to support conservation any way I can. The Overstory is, however, a bleak vision of what we’re doing to the planet and to other living beings. It certainly helps to have read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees first. It helps to know the main premise of the novel is based on non-fiction. There may be spoilers below.
The first part of the book, Roots, introduces us to the various characters—most of whom will interact in the remaining pages. Most of them are marked by tragedy in their lives and come to realize the longevity of trees has a perspective that can make sense of what, to our lifespans, seems inexplicable. Several, but not all, of them end up in a conservation group trying to defend old growth redwoods from the insatiable greed of lumber companies and politicians. The novel ends happily for none of them. Trees, however, have the ability to outlive us. While we cause real damage, they have the ability to regenerate, but in ways that none of us will live to see. Trees see beyond the short, tragic lives we lead, into what may be a more hopeful future.
The other sections of the book, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, follow events chronologically as the people age. Some notable deaths among the group have a great impact on the small coterie of those protecting trees. An unfeeling state and the corporate nature of laws are clearly on display. They serve the will of those who can’t, or won’t, think differently about the world and our place in it. Although the novel doesn’t ever cite the source, one of the eco-heroes finds a verse from Job to be of tremendous consolation: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.” I was glad to see the connection made, but the book left me emotionally exhausted. With speculative fiction at least you can escape the real problems of this world for awhile.