Overstories

When Richard Powers' The Overstory arrived three years ago in 2018, the book triggered a collective swoon across the literary world. It wasn't just any book on forests, woods, and trees, but 'the best novel ever written about trees', 'an extraordinary novel …(and) astonishing performance.' The following year the book won the Pulitzer Prize.

Old Tjikko, Dalarna – a Norwegian Spruce tree, claimed to be the oldest tree
in the world, by age of its root system. The visible partis much younger
- Photo Karl Brodowsky Wikipedia CC By-3.0

What was puzzling, though, was that no-one seemed to tell the architectural, engineering and construction world, despite that world being abuzz with enthusiasm regarding wood, and timber in construction and architecture.

So we invited four colleagues working across the related worlds of architecture, timber promotion, wood work and forest activism to pen their own Overstory reviews. And here are the results.

 

I - the Architect                                             

Kat Scott is an architect at the London studio dRMM. Kat is a founding member of A-CAN, the Climate and Architects Network.

 

II - the Tree Hugger and writer

Mandy Haggith worked for many years as an environmental and forest activist, and as an award-winning novelist and poet.

 

III - the Timber Sector PR person

Christianne Lellig – is communications director for WoodKnowledge Wales and before that worked in a similar role at Wood for Good, the ConFor/Swedish Wood promotions organisation.

 

IV - the artist-maker wood worker

Lucas Wilson is a fine art graduate who gravitated into making and building, and recently completed an MSc at Hooke Park.









The Overstory I

Kat Scott

A banyan tree is at once ghastly, ghoulish and beautiful. Great limbs of timber intertwine, with almost intestinal hanging forms reaching across one another, wrapping into and around other, to form aerial root systems that finally submerge within the earth. I had the inadvertent privilege of encountering two of the most prolific banyan trees in the world in 2018, that are some 5430 miles apart - one, in the Garibaldi Gardens of Palermo, planted in 1863, the largest specimen of Ficus macrophylla in Europe. The other was in the ancient ruins of Ayatthaya, a once prosperous centre of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in Thailand, and the site of an iconic banyan whose roots have grown into an ancient brick wall and absorbed a Buddha head. Both trees were sites of war and bloodshed in the 19th century, but some 250 years since the banyans have flourished. It was therefore a timely coincidence to have picked up Richard Power’s The Overstory, around the same time, a book, which among its many narratives includes a man whose life is saved by a banyan tree. This book is itself much like a banyan tree, whose narrative limbs intertwine and entangle, such that they in reality appear as one.

The Ficus macrophylla (banyan tree) in the Garbibaldi Gardens,
Palermo, as taken by Kat Scott

This vast novel had me enraptured on long journeys while on my travels between banyans, and as I read, I fell in and out of love of it. At some points I was exhausted by the almost unbearable repetition of the motif of humans who in simple terms often do not appreciate trees at first, and over the arc of their story, learn to appreciate them. I found the depictions of humankind’s assaults on ecosystems almost unbearable. I must admit, that at moments I tossed the heavy paperback to one side and declared ‘I can’t read any more of this’, only to pick it up again a few hours later. By the end of the book I was pleased to have endured however. Richard Powers rewards the with a sense of awakening to the ecological forces that are far beyond man's control, and that without which we'd be lost. The irony of reading a book where I myself had flown from one country to another for leisure was not lost on me, and jarred. The repetition and multitude of narratives at play, across places and times, while at points frustrating, become comforting as characters start to appear in each other’s lives, and take on unexpected roles as they grow to understand the interconnectedness of their lives with nature and time itself. As Powers writes, ‘Someday you’ll need to take down a worn-out volume and flip to that passage on the lower right-hand face, ten pages from the end, that fills you with such sweet and vicious pain’, and on returning to the book afresh to write this review, I find seeking out discomfort this book can bring is only even more satisfying.

The Overstory draws much from science, making poetic the science of trees, with strong reference made to works such as Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World’ and the work of Dr Suzanne Simard. The Overstory seems to very much draw on Wohlleben’ writings and Simard’s research on how trees communicate with one another through root systems. This knowledge is primarily shared by way of a dedicated female researcher character, Patricia Westerford, who manages to construct a career out of writing a book very similar to Wohlleben’s, after an accidental discovery in the forest. Westerford’s life and story not only educates the reader on the wonderful ways trees support life on planet earth, but also helps to teach us the importance of patience, and the value of slower paces of living. 

As an aspiring architect, Powers’ depictions of forestry, and the felling of near-extinct redwoods are particularly harrowing to read. The lengths some of the characters go to as tree-protesters to protect trees acts as a reminder that we all have the capacity to challenge the norm if we so wish, and to use our agency to ask how we can better protect and nurture nature. A particular narrative I found myself personally drawn to was of a professional woman, Mimi Ma, who after a traumatic event, almost overnight and drawing upon the Chinese heritage of her father’s teachings, becomes an activist, to begin defending the rights of trees. From a life of repetitive office drudgery to a tree protester, her story becomes wrapped up with The Overstory’s other tree protestor activists, leading to an explosive resolution. that left me wondering where the line is for man's defence of nature, and what the rights of trees and ecosystems are. Is it all too late for humans to rectify their poisonous relationship with nature? I hope not. Reflecting on the Overstory especially now, in October 2020, when only a couple of months ago, HS2 tree protesters were injured in taking direct action against the felling of trees here in England, the book’s relevance feels stronger perhaps than on first reading. When will we take Polly Higgin’s Stop Ecocide campaign into legislation, and start to value as we should trees and ecologies?

Powers writes: “Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters,
feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who
destroy it.” The Ficus macrophylla (banyan tree) with Buddha’s head in
Ayutthaya, photograph as taken by Kat Scott

Another narrative from The Overstory that has stuck with me, is that of a computer game designer, Neelay Mehta, who sets out to develop a game that can portray the richness of the forest, and our natural earth. Disabled after a fall from the banyan tree, Neelay constructs a digital world he is able to explore and live as a fully able-bodied person again. However, he starts to realise that human behaviour towards nature begin to be replicated in the digital world he has constructed, and that competitiveness and capitalism are engrained in the minds of those who play his game. We also learn that the richness of nature itself is more intelligent than any artificial replication can deign to shadow, with Neelay fatiguing himself in pursuit of the impossible perfect replication. Neelay’s story echoes somewhat the themes of the recent student work of Jordan Whitewood Neale, who has developed an incredible, and RIBA Dissertation Medal nominated dissertation project on non-normative embodiment and forestry, The Floor Is Lava: An Autoethnographical Study of Non-Normative Embodiment and the Entangled Ontologies of Body, Tool and Landscapeas part of his masters’ studies in Architecture at the University of Brighton. Jordan’s words echo the mindset of Neelay’s frustrations, of a presumption towards normative embodiments. Here is an extract of Neale’s thesis capturing this sentiment ‘When we think of movement, progression, entering, exiting, from going to the kitchen to wander through a forest, we, and even myself seem to consistently use the term walk. Going for a walk, stepping in, stepping out, walking up, walking through. Just as humanists embrace the anthropocentric convention of embodiment, here we are embracing the normative. To say I wheeled out of a car sounds alien and unfamiliar even to myself, but it is what happens, what did happen; and I believe a detail imperative to the continuity of discussion.’ Just as we humans are anthropocentric, we do not have a suitably diverse enough perspective on what it means to be human, and the multitude of experiences that coexist. This shortcoming is in need of reconciliation if we are to not only mitigate the climate and biodiversity crises, but if we want to move towards climate justice.

I am continuing to understand The Overstory since reading it, and constantly seem to find parallels between its themes and my own life, and in the works of others, such as Neale, Higgins, and Wohlleben. Revisiting this book now, a year after first reading it, I can see that the work I am doing as part of the Architects Climate Action Network’sWhere the wild things aren’t’ group has been in no small part inspired by the themes of The Overstory, and that reading this book has served as an ecological ‘enlightenment’ for me - a lesson in the banyan-like way humans exist intertwined with nature. Ultimately, the interconnectedness of the human characters in The Overstory only serves to help us understand how trees and nature too is interconnected in ways we may never fully understand. While not all characters stories’ result in happiness or a neat resolution, we are left with hope that as humans better understand nature, we will be able to change our behaviours for the better, and if not, that ultimately nature will find its own balance whenever humanity exhausts itself into extinction.

As we now work through the implications of a pandemic, that itself emerged from the fringes of a forest, and man’s exploitation of creatures there, The Overstory feels more relevant to read than ever. I would urge anyone who like me, finds moments of the book tempt them to snap its spine shut and move onto the endless scrolling of the light of a mobile phone, to push past those urges, and to bear the unbearable, for the long-lasting shift in thought the Overstory has the potential to offer is well-worth that. And for climate activists, The Overstory is a masterclass in the power of story-telling to change the world.

Kat Scott is an architect working as a senior architectural assistant at dRMM Architect and is coordinator of ACAN’s Where The Wild Things Aren’t, and a member of the UK Architects Declare Steering Group.

 

The Overstory II

Mandy Haggith

There are three things I love about this book: how like a forest it is, how like forestry it is and how like forest activism it is. It’s a crucial book at a critical time.

I have been a tree-hugger all my life, and between 1998 and 2018 I made my living as a researcher and activist focused on supporting forests and the people who live in them. I worked with people in most of the countries where there are substantial forests – everywhere they are under threat. In 2018 I quit fighting and decided to dedicate the rest of my career to reading and writing and helping other readers and writers to read and write. Partly this is because I was close to burning out: a soul can only take so much despair, can only find hope-against-the odds for so long before the scales start to refuse to tip. Partly it is because I have come to believe that the written word is the most powerful way we have, as humans, to create a viable future. I noticed recently that while I was working as an activist, I was completely unable to incorporate into my poetry any of the fury and outrage that fueled my eco-warrior days. I wrote nature poetry that was simply full of wonder. Since I gave that work up, I find my environmentalist concerns bubbling up in my poems. Writing this review is, I guess, another instance of how the tree-hugger in me won’t be suppressed. I’m normally paid to write reviews. I’m writing this one on Sunday, for love.

Old Tjikko, Dalarna, Sweden
– the world’s oldest tree

Before I get to the three things I love about this book, why I think it is one of the most important books written so far this century, I will concede to some criticisms that can be levelled at it. First and foremost, it’s an American book, filled entirely with the concerns of USA citizens about forests in the USA and written from an American cultural mindset. I have worked with forest researchers and activists in the USA and one of the things that many of them do not readily recognise is how culturally specific their way of seeing the world is. There can be a tendency to assume that what is true in and of America is true more generally, which clearly isn’t the case. More specifically, in this case, the relationship between people and forests in America is not the same as in other countries. Indeed, how people relate to their forests is one of the most fascinating areas of cultural diversity I know. This book is full of characters who are moving towards a state of living and spiritual entanglement with forests from a more ‘normal’ American view of them as economic resources and/or unpeopled wild spaces. People who live in cultures that are already deeply enmeshed with and rooted in forests, such as Estonians, Indians or Germans, where forests are places inhabited by people and spirits, may find this strange, I guess. A second criticism is that it is a long-winded book. Again, I put that down to its cultural origin, in the literary world of the big, American novel written by the middle-aged American white man. A third criticism I have come across is that it is structurally flawed, untidy in its interweaving of multiple narrative threads. This brings me to the first thing I love about the book.

It is like a forest. Although obviously a literary artifact the book does a good job of feeling like it was grown, not built. It consists of a set of initially disparate narratives, each introducing us to a different character, or pair of characters, setting them on arcs that will eventually intertwine, much as the different species within a forest live interrelated lives. Some of the story lines mesh tightly together. Two pairs of characters, Olivia and Nick, and Mimi and Douglas, are introduced to us separately, then brought together into a coherent plot-focused unit. Then Adam joins them and they become a unit of five at the novel’s dramatic climax. The other four main characters, Ray and Dorothy (a couple from the start), Neelay the computer whizz-kid and Patty the ecologist, have different roles in the book’s ecology.  Dennis, not named in the list of characters that forms the content page, proves essential, just as no doubt there are as yet unnamed species in every forest playing a vital role in the pattern of life there. The dramatic climax is followed by dispersal, in the same way as a feeding frenzy or convergence of species at a food or water source. The associations between the people, the trees they find themselves interested in and the overall story pace and shape, is organic, irregular, pulsing, asymmetrical, alive. Like a forest.

The book is also like forestry. It is dense with tree knowledge and different ways of listening to trees: scientific, computer-based, artistic, spiritual, crazy. Each character comes to learn about trees using their own method, and every page seems to have some physical or ecological nugget of tree lore. As a gatherer of tidbits of tree knowledge, I love this about the book.  It feeds my inner squirrel. Yet it is also true to forestry, which, as an industry, uses its knowledge for decimating forests all around the world. That forestry maxim, ‘For every tree we cut down we plant three (or five or even ten) in its place’ is actually a recipe for felling ancient trees and replacing them with monoculture plantations. As you read the book, you can watch this reality unfurl, tree by chainsawed tree, clearcut by clearcut. It is a requiem.

Thirdly, this book is like forest activism. Time after time, I find myself nodding ruefully at the accuracy of the portrayals of the conservation movement. There is so much reality in the activist stories, the tribal aspect of tree-hugger camps and protest movements, the camaraderie, the mad actions, the stupid mistakes, the elaborate ways of locking-on, the huge efforts in organizing blockades, the maddening disinterest of the media and the horrible ease with which protest is squashed by police in service to the forestry industry. The police brutality reaches a pitch that I have not witnessed, although recent films from the Black Lives Matter protests in several USA states show it is a real phenomenon. But the basic fact of police-industry mutual support is true worldwide, with the police and state apparatus protecting ‘the economy’ from those who want to protect our ecology, our home on earth. I also smell reality in the novel’s heart of doom. All these protests don’t actually work. The giant redwood is cut down. The pines are cut the day before the public meeting about whether they should be protected. Hillsides are clearcut behind a cosmetic road-side curtain. Everywhere forests are converted to plantations. I recognise that feeling of needing to become a criminal in order to try to stop what should be criminal destruction by a corporation, knowing that you will fail in the attempt but doing it anyway, trying anyway, in vain hope of our species’ ‘unsuicide’. I even recognise Neelay’s attempt to create an artificial intelligence (AI) that can do what we humans seem incapable of doing. I have a doctorate to show for my decade spent seeking the answer to the question of whether AI could save the world’s forests. The answer, I concluded, is no.

The hope in the book lies in the book itself. Within the story, Patty, the ecologist, is also a writer and her words percolate through the experience and thinking of all the other characters.  Her ideas are at first ridiculed, then eventually used as evidence in court. They bring meaning to pointless lives. Like the artworks created by Nick, Patty’s words bring about new ways of seeing and listening to forests. They inspire life. There, here, among thickets of words, is where hope is hiding.

Mandy Haggith lives in Assynt, northwest Scotland, and teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her books include four poetry collections (letting light inCastings, A-B-TreeWhy the Sky is Far Away), a poetry anthology (Into the Forest), a non-fiction book (Paper Trails) and five novels: The Last BearBear Witness and a novel trilogy set in the Iron Age, The Walrus Mutterer, The Amber Seeker and The Lyre Dancers. Her current writing project, ‘The Liminal Zone’, funded by Creative Scotland, explores shorelines as a metaphor for boundaries in our lives. www.mandyhaggith.net

 

The Overstory III

Christiane Lellig

Roots - Trunk - Crown - Seeds. Ashes to ashes. The cycle of life. Richard Power’s The Overstory demonstrates the parallel between humans - our values, our religious beliefs, our societies - and nature, using the example of trees. Warning systems between trees, protecting the spread and continuity of a species’ genes up to the point of giving up life (the decaying trunk provides nourishment for seeds and saplings), so that the new generation can go on living. These are all motives you could equally find in a novel about human tragedy, and yet it’s all about the wonder of trees and our duty to protect them. Or isn’t it?

Our modern societies are taking more than our planet is able to provide, and the question is what, if any, are we giving back and will it be enough to secure the future of our species on Earth? Whether we actually share a quarter of our DNA with trees or not as the book repeatedly claims, unlike the much-cited Tachigali Versicolor, or ‘Suicide Tree’ which grows in Ecuador, the human species is no longer making sure its future generations can prosper.

Del Norte Titan one of California's Grove
of Titan's, a group of the largest (and
tallest) coastal Redwoods  - Photo
MD Vaden/Wikipedia CC By 3.0

Much in tune with Britain’s media driven land-use debate about the increase of tree planting, Powers creates dangerous antagonistic action between the ancient tales and fairy driven ‘do-gooders’ fighting to protect the forest and the ‘unhinged capitalists’ driving deforestation in the name of progress and prosperity. Here’s the direct parallel with today’s political tendencies in our individualised societies, where we see polarisation of opinions and hardening of ideological positions when, as a matter of fact’ a more pragmatic approach of working together, bridging gaps and finding practical solutions to mitigate the impact of the climate and biodiversity emergency would be crucial to protect us and future generations.

In this context, the plot also alludes to societies in transition that need to move from old practices to new solutions to create resilience. In the book, the rural communities are dependent on jobs and income from the big forestry companies. Despite all their empathy for the campaigners, they become complicit in the action whilst also being the most immediate to suffer from the consequences of the clear-felling of ancient and protected woodlands. It is the only solution they currently see. Tragically, their livelihoods depend on destroying their fathers’ land, and consequently their future source of income.

Living within planetary boundaries requires some sacrifice from our current consumption patterns which is hard to accept. Whilst resource efficiency is a concept widely discussed and seemingly accepted for good economic reason, ‘sufficiency’ is a word that doesn’t easily roll off the tongue and is rarely used in political debates of our time. So, is Powers right that we have to live outside of society (or at least its mainstream expression) to achieve this as the main protagonists of The Overstory do by tying themselves to trees, and then resorting to violent, destructive action to make the case for life?

The notion of ‘scarcity’ is exempt from our vocabulary, none of our Western societies has experienced the lack of material since WWII. Even now, despite empty flour shelves, eggs turning to ‘gold dust’ and reports of potentially severe impacts on food harvesting that the Coronavirus pandemic is likely to have, social media are brimming with images of daily cakes galore and mass consumption of goods like there is no tomorrow. With the introduction of the Sempervirens game and its magic draw on people, The Overstory forces us to expose ourselves to a possible interpretation of modern day life as a full-time denial of increasingly depleted, monotonous landscapes that surround most of us via the means of virtual reality. We have lost touch with the basis of life which is the soil we live on, the air we breathe and the water we depend on. We cannot see the direct connection between our behaviours and their direct or indirect consequences on the planet or our fellow human and non-human inhabitants.

Our alienation is what drives the depletion of resources which in turn makes us alienate ourselves further. We’re accepting the facade, the very thin veneer that protects our view from the ‘clear-felling’ and hides the bare face of the earth. Somewhat unknowingly maybe, we have decided to commoditise life and thereby devalue it: from cheap fashion items with super-short lifespans that inherently teach us to disrespect the manual labour and care the person at the sewing machine put into it, to food provision which we spend less than 15% of our disposable income on, to plants and trees, and anything in between, except maybe pets. With a certain brutality, the author unmistakably shows us that our hubris to see ourselves as masters of the system Earth without accepting that we are as such an integral part of it, sets us on the route to self-extinction.

In an odd way, the book points out our slightly twisted relationship with nature, and woodlands in particular. A ‘theme park’, i.e. an accessible amenity - yes. True wilderness that excludes human access - rather no. A working forest, with trees as crops to satisfy our material hunger - many of us will hesitate to nod. And yet we’re using materials all the time without questioning what and how much we really need. Richard Powers forces us into this uncomfortable space where we have to question our own beliefs: How much of what he describes in relation to forestry is a thing of the past across the globe? Clearly, this is also a plaidoyer for forest certification. How much are we as consumers driving deforestation and other forms of resource depletion? Are we giving nature - and ourselves - enough time to recover and regenerate from our consumption craze? What do we actually know about the forests and their doings on our planet? How much should we as citizens engage in the agenda to protect our future resources? How much do we actually value and hence are willing to protect the uniqueness of a habitat, including ours? Or do we see biodiversity as a tradable commodity of higher complexity as some might interpret the concept of natural capital? How much is nature’s beauty worth? And how much are we willing to take back our own perceived needs to allow for this beauty to persist?

Shiva’s tree sprawls across the planet and encompasses everything. A system and belief that was created to respect life turns into an online pandemic in the shape of Neelay Mehta’s ‘Sempervirens’ that keeps us glued to monitors and prevents us from engaging with the real world, even worse, it becomes reality. Maybe this is our best excuse for our daily crimes: How can we possibly respect, cherish and look after something we do not experience ourselves? Interestingly, protagonist Neelay Mehta’s final vision to change the course of action and help re-create a healthy planet through mass data collection seems to be taken up by tech giants (see here).

Overall, rewilding campaigners might feel to be on the high ground in this story that centres around the wild, ancient forests of America. However, The Overstory is far more. It is a multi-facetted tale of wonders about life, human interaction, loyalty, betrayal and collaboration around a common goal. Forests are cherished for their own sake but not alone. They are a high-value resource of life. As protagonist Patricia Westerford points out at several occasions: ‘When you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down’. Maybe this is a call for growers and sawmillers to turn trees into homes rather than fence posts that hinder communication between neighbours in our petty suburban structures.

Far from it being a self-purpose alone, the ancient forest or the forest left to grow at its own pace is seen to also serve the survival of humankind - for the discovery of future medications and future resource solutions. As a living vault that holds answers to questions not yet posed: ‘The past has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past’.

The most vulnerable element according to The Overstory is humankind. Nature will find its way back long after we’ve gone. It’s time for us to rethink our story in real life. Seeds long sown need tending to.

And of course, this is a book devoted to the life wonder of trees: ‘Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven’ (Tagore). Life begins with a tree. Life ends with a tree.

Christiane Lellig is a strategic marketing consultant specialised in social change for a sustainable future. She has led national research programmes and campaigns in various fields, ranging from environmental concerns to labour and social justice issues since 1999. She has worked for government agencies, local authorities, trade organisations, NGOs and businesses in Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK, most recently focusing on timber, forestry and the built environment.

 

The Overstory IV

Lucas Wilson

Depictions of trees appear throughout literature, three examples appear at the start of The Overstory, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Lovelock and Bill Neidjie are brought in to lend some of their gravitas to Richard Powers’ 12th book. That writers should want to write about trees should come as no shock, trees have been central to our development as human beings, they provide us with the air we breathe, with food, fabric, material, company, shade and more. They form the basis for belief systems, and are still cherished, even in today’s technologically advanced urban world. Writers, not blind to their importance, have exploited this potency. Consider this, one of my favourite descriptions from the beginning of Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse:

 “It was a sweet chestnut, with a sturdy trunk and a full round crown that swayed gently in the wind, brought from Italy many years earlier by a monk who had made a pilgrimage to Rome. In the spring it waited until all the surrounding trees were green, and even the hazel and walnut trees were wearing ruddy foliage, before sprouting its own first leaves; then, during the shortest nights of the year, it drove the delicate white-green rays of its exotic blossoms out through tufts of leaves, filling the air with an admonishing and pungent fragrance.”

Del Norte Titan one of California's Grove
of Titan's, a group of the largest (and
tallest) coastal Redwoods  - Photo
MD Vaden/Wikipedia CC By 3.0

In writing about the tree Hesse is able to infer other things, the chestnut tree, out of place (being from Rome) and out of time (it is older than us yet still young) is a useful way of mirroring the traditions and values of that society back onto itself. It stands witness to passing generations of novices and monks who live and die within the walls of the monastery and it serves to situate the reader in a time and a place. At its best The Overstory manages to do this as well, there are poignant scenes including one atop a huge Douglas fir where characters are forced to confront the clear felling of the forest surrounding them whilst aware that the tree they sit in sustains them. “A tree as thick as Adam is tall tips away and smashes down the slope below. The earth at the place of impact liquefies.” Richard Powers is able to combine a deep and up to date scientific understanding, with an obvious love of the subject, and a gift with words to create vivid images of trees and a powerful message to save them.

But Powers doesn’t stop at simple descriptions of tree, simile and metaphor will not suffice when it comes to creating the treeiest of tree books: “The bole of the fig put forth branches, and branches built their drip-tipped leaves. Elbows bent from the larger limbs, which lowered themselves to earth and thickened into new trunks [..] and his body tumbles into the branches of the banyan , that one-tree that has grown up over the course of three hundred years just in time to break his fall.” Powers is using the Banyan not just for its symbolism, but as a vehicle to drive the narrative forward. Trees are not metaphors but play themselves, if not quite characters, as actors in the story. Throughout the book Powers is trying to persuade us of his way of thinking, that trees are sentient organisms that demand to be treated not as objects but as complex beings. The man whose body tumbles into the branches on the Bunyan is assured that the “Tree saved your life”. The young student who dies and then comes back to life in a drug related accident is “spared from death to do a most important thing” her mission, to save trees. Neelay the Indian-American programmer is introduced as “The boy who’ll help change humans into other creatures” but only after a fall from a tree paralyses his body. Their destinies are all tied up in a narrative guided by trees and about saving trees. But in giving sentience to his trees, Powers also strips away the agency of his human character, reducing them to puppets and in doing so undermines his novel. He employs many of the tropes of Magical Realism, but all this achieves, is to leave the reader unsure of the real and the transcendent, the line between the fictional character and the real event, the tree from the human is blurred and one begins to disbelieve.

Real life historical events, scientific discoveries, and protest actions are woven into the book throughout and the trees are the glue that holds everything together. To a large degree this is what Powers is known for, the deep dives into subjects, creating stories from modern scientific and technological advancement exploring paths not taken in his own life. Powers says he read 120 books on the subject of trees over the course of writing this book and it shows, the book overflows with facts, which are for the most part inconspicuously inserted. Although I can’t claim to have read 120 tree books I certainly recognised many of the ideas, characters, and events that appear, and often found it frustrating that many were left uncredited. On character, Patricia a biologist who seems to be an amalgamation of the real-life scientist Suzanne Simard, writer Peter Wohlleben and Powers himself, is one such example a character defined entirely by the information that Powers would like to impart. But it’s patronising to be lectured to by a character as two dimensional as this.

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang has become synonymous with environmental activism, supposedly inspiring many of those who took part in the ‘Timber Wars’ protests of the 1990s so thinly disguised in The Overstory. It’s easy enough to spot versions of its protagonists ‘Hayduke’, ‘Abzug’, ‘Doc’ and ‘Seldom Seen’ in The Overstory, but the book fails to inspire in the same way. Whilst both books rally against man-made destruction of the natural world, the characters deal with environmental destruction by corporate forces in different ways. Whilst The Monkey Wrench Gang are driven by a powerful anger, exemplified by Hayduke, the psychopathic maniac keen on explosive destruction, in The Overstory the vigilante group seem to fall in and out of activism for no particular reason at all, “We accomplished nothing [..] Not one thing.”

Ultimately like the activist protagonists, Powers fails to accomplish. He may be commended for creating a well-researched and multi-faceted narrative that entwines with the trees he creates on the page. Yet his call to arms to appreciate our natural world, ever more precarious as climate change threatens the earth’s ecosystem, and appreciate trees for the first time, doesn’t quite hit the mark. Trees have been companions to human life from our earliest ancestors to the present day. They are completely entwined with our own life as they are with all life on earth, the mass of books on the subject at the moment disprove Powers’ fatalistic view.

Lucas Wilson is a disillusioned fine art graduate who knows how to hammer a nail and saw a plank and subscribes to the London Review of Books. He recently completed an MSc in timber technology at Hooke Park and currently works as a carpenter and a tutor on various projects.