The Overstory

So I first heard about Richard Power’s The Overstory last week through a tweet by Naomi Klein. A review in the replies called it “the decade’s most important novel”, and my local library had a copy of it, so I picked it up. I barely put it down over the next 24 hours, and plowed through all 500-pages while ignoring my family. 

It’s basically a story about trees, but ultimately a story about humankind’s relationship with nature. It’s about expanding our concept of time, and understanding our puny lifespans in comparison to the lives of the kings of the plant kingdom. It’s about activism, environmental destruction, tech and artificial intelligence, and so much more. Powers draws on science that shows that trees are not solitary organisms, but that are able to communicate through their root networks and via the release of chemicals in the air that affect not just their neighbors but perhaps us as well. 

The plot is interesting, the characters as well, and Power’s prose is quite amazing. There’s so much science and literature quoted in here that it feels quite educational. The breadth of the story, mainly the multi-generational setup and ensemble casts reminds me both of Cloud Atlas and Neil Stephenson (Anathem, The Baroque Cycle, &c…)

I’m waiting for my wife to read it next, to see what she thinks of it, but it has already affected my thinking in some ways already. I’ve decided to let part of my backyard go wild, and I’m no longer looking at the weeds in my lawn with quite the same vindictive rage. 

The book also makes me recall Paul Stamets 2008 TED talk about mushrooms. Paul was first brought to my attention through Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. These sub-surface networks of mycelium are perhaps the largest organisms on earth, transporting minerals between trees and may form the basis of some sort of nervous system for the forest. 

As one who is very distraught about the state of the world when it comes to climate change, the urgency of this book is very critical. What is perhaps the most telling or affirming part of the book is that no matter what happens — even if we lose — that what comes next will prevail, even if it is beyond the span of a human lifetime, or event the lifetime of the human species. So even while 400+ pages of the book seem to be ultimately fatalistic about our heroes being on the losing side of battle after battle, even after the majestic chestnut and redwoods are felled by disease or loggers, there is still the sense that nature will survive, and renew itself after human society has ceased to be. 


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