Kelly Kahukiwa, of Whakaue Pataheuheu and Te Aitanga a Makaki iwi, holding a pūrerehua in the shade of kauri trees. A.H. Reed Memorial Park, Whangārei. (This image has been slightly cropped) (Photo: Michelle Hyslop)

A review of The Overstory, a knockout novel that speaks for the trees

The Overstory, the winnner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is an engulfing, worldview-shifting novel about climate catastrophe and hope, writes Susan Wardell.

(Photographs are from a photo essay on kauri dieback by Michelle Hyslop; captions by Andrea Ewing). 

The year before last, I spent the month of January hugging trees. I picked a different tree each day – some old favourites, some I’d been blindly passing for years – and then took photos and wrote a blog post about it. This year, instead, I read a book about trees which felt like it was hugging me. Right before it punched me in the gut.

The Overstory is a 2018 novel by established American novelist, Richard Powers, who says that he wrote it because of a powerful encounter he had with a giant redwood tree. Powers describes this as a “religious conversation”, and you can truly feel this in the book.

“The trunk turns into stacks of spreading metropolis, networks of conjoined cells pulsing with energy and liquid sun, water rising through long thin reeds, through the narrowing tunnels of transparent twigs and out through their waving tips, while sun-made sustenance drops down in tubes just inside them. A colossal, rising, reaching, stretching space elevator of a billion independent parts, shuttling the air into the sky and storing the sky deep underground, sorting possibility from out of nothing … ”

This quote is typical of Powers’ exultant, endless descriptions of both visible and invisible workings of nature. “That’s the trouble with people, their root problem”, he writes. “Life runs alongside them, unseen.” His ability to defamiliarise us with something we take for granted is really special. Blending natural history writing, scientific description and literary prose as he does in the passage above, he manages to make trees magical, even sacred, again.

Kaumatua Kevin Prime, of Ngati Hine, Ngapuhi, Ngati Whatua and Tainui Iwi. Standing beneath kauri, Motatau (Photo: Michelle Hyslop)

In lush descriptions of “bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks”, Powers writes with a fervour that sits between romance and zealotry. But I have to clarify: if the book is zealous, it is not blindly so. Indeed, in the interlocking stories of his nine central characters, environmental zealotry is dealt with a balanced hand – its logic, its potentially brutal consequences. The consequences of not engaging.

The Overstory was a ‘good’ read, in terms of diverse characters and plotlines full of action and pathos. The language was beautiful, the storytelling adept. It is a huge novel, cleverly structured around roots, trunk, crown and seeds. But by the end I could not tell if it was a work of exultation or of mourning.

The Overstory fits into the growing genre of climate fiction. But it is not speculative fiction; it feels of the now. It is hooked into questions that have been clawing at me increasingly in the past few years, and particularly since I became a parent.

I wonder if this happens to all parents? This thing where you blink and it seems like you can see your children are blurring, in front of your eyes – their every breath taking them further into the future. Into a rather uncertain future, if you read the news. In this ‘now’, more and more trusted people and publications are painting a picture of “irreversible damage to the natural world” (thank you David Attenborough), “an impending mass extinction” (according to National Geographic), a “climate catastrophe” (the phrase used in a 2018 UN report). The era we call the Anthropocene is named, somewhat paradoxically, in reference to the world-shaping force of humans. Yet it seems to present severe constraints now, around what we might be able to do to slow or reverse these changes. How to live with such knowledge? In the everyday? As a citizen, a worker, a parent? What to invest ourselves in, how to care, and to prepare?

Tammy and her daughter Eloise, enjoying the shade of a majestic kauri tree on their property in Laingholm (Photo: Michelle Hyslop)

Last year, these pressing questions took me to a strange corner of the internet. That of the Near Term Human Extinction communities. This is just one brand of ‘environmental doomer’ – not the most numerous, most well-known, or most prominently reported on, but probably the most extreme. NTHE support groups are for those who believe we face an imminent and total collapse of human society, due to ecological change, within decades … or according to some, within a few years.

Despite the dark outlook, compassion abounds in these spaces. The NTHE Facebook groups provided a safe place to wrestle with my anxieties. Discussions moved between practical, moral, and philosophical questions – ranging from what form of education is useful for an uncertain future, to how to experience life richly in the present, to what should be in an emergency kit, to how to interact with relatives who didn’t believe in climate change, to what to invest money in, to whether it was wrong to start a family now.

“A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch,” Powers writes. The internet is a great place for this. In entering communities of people with an extreme view on the imminent affects of climate change on human life and livelihood, I developed a stronger sense of the views I shared with this group, and those I didn’t. There were other groups I discovered, such as ‘Positive Deep Adaptation’. There were intersections with prepper culture and survivalists. There were debates and tensions between these groups and activist-focused groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Each had different, varied approaches to the question of how to live in the Anthropocene.

Despite stereotypes, each person was human, each their own type of ‘normal’, and complex in their understandings. Because of who I am – trained as a social anthropologist – it wasn’t long at all before I was ready to put my academic hat on. I began to try to organise the things I was learning and observing about ecological grief, about moral life in the Anthropocene, using the academic tools I was familiar with. I was nearing the end of pulling together some academic writing about this, and rather tired of thinking about the end of the world, if I’m honest, when I picked up The Overstory as what I thought would be a light fictional distraction from these bigger moral and existential questions. Clearly I was incorrect.

The plot of The Overstory focuses on people’s various intergenerational connections with trees. It coalesces around mass corporate logging, specifically. But in doing so it reaches out into this wider context of environmental loss and change related to climate change and other forms of environmental destruction. And the human questions about how to live in such times.

“She loves her own species, too – sneaky and self-serving, trapped in blinkered bodies, blind to intelligence all around it – yet chosen by creation to know.”

This is what lies beneath a book about trees; a book about humans. A book relentless in its burrowing questions about what humans do: what they have done (to the earth), what they can do (at this point of the Anthropocene), and most frighteningly, what they will do. These are the questions that each of Powers’ characters – a cuckolded lawyer, a Vietnam vet, a Japanese immigrant’s engineer daughter, and a disabled video game magnate, to name just a few – wrestle with in their own way.

Fredrik Hjelm, arborist and tree climber, ascending to the canopy in search of healthy kauri seeds (Photo: Michelle Hyslop)

Each character seems to function as an ‘idealogue’ – as Russian literary scholar and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin suggested – subtly representing a different possible response to the pains of eco-awareness in this age. Activism, acceptance, suicide. Technological solutions, corporate sabotage, or quiet plantings. And a characteristic swing away from anthropocentrism, which I recognised from the doomer writings I had been studying – an ecocentric relocation of hope from the hope in human futures, to a hope in the determined continuation of life in other forms, even when humans have spoiled themselves out of an existence. 

This idea seemed encapsulated in the book’s images of life springing from felled and rotting logs. It was encapsulated too, in the way time itself seemed to shrink and expand as I read.

“But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s 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.” 

The way Powers writes makes the universe feel huge, then tiny. Humans seem awful, then incredible; powerful, then insignificant. Nature seems fragile, then persistent. It is dizzying; discomforting, comforting.

One central character in Powers’ story is the scientist who discovers that trees are social beings. That they communicate, learn, and care. This is a (lightly) fictionalised scientist, but real science, telling us that no tree is an island. Is that what we’ve been missing: the forest, for the trees?

Powers steers his plot through scientific, economic, legal, and political questions around ecologically damaging practices. But again, it is more a set of questions than an answer. Which is probably a good thing, since it is fair to say the choice of subject-matter sets a risk of proselytising at every turn. But Powers is more a mystic than a preacher, and if anything, it made me want to again press myself against the sure and solid, living and miraculous, trunk of a tree. Still, there are stirrings of discontent amidst everything simple, strong, and good that Powers illustrates. His forests are only sometimes generous – at other times ambivalent or carnivorous. His characters are as wild and singular as his trees. They each hold wisdom, but it is seems specific and contextual – not for us. Still, we take what we can.

Richard Powers (Photo: supplied)

What I can take (from the book, from the trees, from all my time with the doomers), is that somehow the end of the world is a ‘we’ problem, not a ‘me’ problem. And any answer should have a ‘we’ in it, too. It makes sense, in Powers’ story, that his lonely, broken people seek other people, in whatever their chosen response to environmental threat is: the groups of researchers camped in national parks; the community of hippy environmentalists chaining themselves to bulldozers in great human circles; the small cell of eco-terrorists barreling down the highway in an old van. The joy, the potential madness, of such groups is not lost on him – in fact, one of his central characters is a psychologist who studies group behaviours and beliefs, both from within and outside these sects, providing a counter-voice even within the pages of the book. Until he himself is subsumed. And then alone. And we are left wondering: which was worse?

In real life, people reading news of fire, melt and storm, of drilling, depression and virus, are also gathering; in joy and madness and determination and grief; in living rooms, in community centres, in secret and in public. Even when stuck indoors, we gather – here, on the internet, where you are hearing my voice now – seeking a ‘we’ in which answers to hard questions of the Anthropocene might be made a little more bearable, whatever form the answer takes.

Would I recommend reading The Overstory? Absolutely. Then I would recommend putting it down, and hugging a tree in one hand, and a human being in the other, and perhaps pondering this question, posed by Powers: “Who does the tree-hugger really hug, when he hugs a tree?”

The Overstory, by Richard Powers (Vintage, $26) is usually available from Unity Books. For now, we recommend buying it as an ebook



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