Review of “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

This book won a Pulitzer Prize and I can understand why. It was a massive work of over 600 pages that literally took me months to read. The research is amazing and so is the theme. Most themes involve man versus something: man vs. man; man vs. himself; man vs. nature, etc. In this case it’s man siding with nature and trying to save the environment from exploitation.

I heard years ago that a moral dilemma always makes a gripping story. If nothing else, they’re thought provoking. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Is there really a difference? Or are both wrong in some way?

This story features a handful of unique individuals from diverse backgrounds whose experiences drive them to try and save the trees. Not just any trees, but primarily those massive giants like the redwoods which have stood their ground longer than civilization itself. Science has learned that trees, even those in the typical forest, communicate with each other. Some of us talk to our plants. I have five live oaks in my yard that I named. I had a bald cypress when I lived in Houston that I also named. I wrote a science fiction story about a telepathic walking plant, so I guess I fall out on the side of the people in the book. Of course their protests were directed toward big lumber companies and the like. To date, I have not gone that far.

Another character in the book was an individual who’d become crippled when he fell from a tree. His response was to become an IT guru creating gaming software that ultimately covered the earth, kind of like the old game SimCity on steroids. In other words, creating worlds while ignoring the one they live in.

The dilemma lies in the question how can our supposed civilization expand and prosper without exploiting the environment? Indigenous people are the only ones who “get it.” They understand that they’re an integral part of nature and honor it, giving thanks for those things they need to survive. Their attitude is more like being partners with the Earth as opposed to its conquerors.

More irony lies in the concept of using “renewable” resources. A tree that is a thousand years old is not exactly “renewable,” at least in our lifetime. They are no more “renewable” than fossil fuel and actually provide far more benefits, such as cleansing the air and providing oxygen. Have you ever seen one of these giants, or even a mighty oak, and wondered what it might say if it could talk?

This book is worth reading as it takes you into a world you have most likely never seen before. Sometimes it gets off in that realm where your unconscious probably understands it while your conscious mind doesn’t. It would have been helpful to me if the author had included a dramatis personae, since there were so many characters. There were only about three I could keep straight, while the other ones tended to blend together, especially the way the author skipped around. The ending almost felt as if Powers simply quit without really tying it all together. Yet that was probably deliberate to let each reader draw their own conclusions. I suppose I should issue a spoiler alert when I state the conclusion wasn’t in the “happily ever after” category. Frankly, if I were the story’s editor, there’s quite a bit I would have cut out.

All that aside, it’s an amazing work that will allow you to see the world around you through different eyes. You’ll probably appreciate nature a lot more, maybe even start talking to your plants. But it’s unlikely you’ll have any answers, either.

You can pick up your copy on Amazon from this affiliate link.

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