It’s been awhile, no? I’m not silly nor pompous enough to believe you all have been waiting in hopeless anticipation for my next book review. But I do think it’s only right that I provide some form of explanation for my weeks-long absence. Plain and simple…it was life. Or at least, life as we know it in California. Yet another wildfire with subsequent power outages and mandatory evacuations, left me overwhelmed and emotionally spent. Although I always have a book or two on hand, my reading slowed down and my desire to discuss books just wasn’t there. Three years ago, my family and I lost our home due to the Tubbs fire which ravaged Sonoma County. With the onslaught of numerous deadly wildfires since then, my anxiety level has been high. But, I’m back. Reading and writing allows me an escape and provides comfort during difficult times. I turn to it now.
It seems an appropriate time to read a book like Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Layered and rich, reminiscent of dense verdant foliage, The Overstory is a beautifully crafted tale. Expansive in its breadth, the novel is a clarion call to recognize, appreciate, and adhere to the desires of the natural world. The story begins in essence with a series of detailed character studies (Part 1: “Roots”). The reader is introduced to the nine main characters at different stages of their lives. Each has a pivotal connection to trees that can be traced back either ancestrally or in instances in their childhood or young adulthood. As the characters’ individual lives unfold, a broad picture of the human experience is realized. There’s love and success. But there’s also disappointment, betrayal, and tragedy. Each character navigates the ups and downs of life in his or her own way. Interwoven with these character studies are magnificently detailed descriptions and histories of trees. Chestnut, Mulberry, Banyan, Maple, Redwood…they are at the heart of this tale. They communicate volumes through their very presence. Carriers of a wealth of knowledge acquired over centuries…over millennia, trees send messages not only to each other, but to other species in their ecosystems. Even to us. But are we listening?
The next three parts of The Overstory detail how the human characters are brought together. Some form intense bonds. Some only connect tangentially, or have little to no awareness of their influence on the others’ lives. What links these disparate characters is their shared desire to give voice to the natural world. The means by which they try to achieve this goal varies in degree of scope and subtlety, and much of the drama revolves around those chosen methods and their consequences. Powers writes with such skill and erudition, I was awestruck. It’s a 500 page book, but at no point did I feel the story drag or lose its direction. As mentioned earlier, part one is entitled “Roots.” The three subsequent parts are respectively titled “Trunk”, “Crown”, and “Seeds.” This is significant because it does feel as though we, as a nation…as a world, need to reverse course. At the end of the novel, Powers leaves us with the seeds; forcing us to self-evaluate. What do we want, not just for ourselves, but for each other, and generations to come? If we dig down deep enough, we may discover that those aspirations are in alignment with the natural world. That maybe, just maybe, we can co-exist in a manner that is beneficial to all, animal and plant life. But it will take a level of collectivism the likes of which I’ve never witnessed. An additional question is whether or not it’s too late to plant new seeds? Some say the damage is done; that we may have reached the point of no return. I plead with Mother Earth for that not to be true. I will continue to carry the seeds of hope.