The new novel by National Book Award winner Richard Powers (“The Echo Maker”) follows the lives of a small group of eco-activists, as viewed against several encyclopedias’ worth of trees. It contrasts human time with arboreal time. It pits human intelligence against plant-world ingenuity.
By turns visionary, exhortatory, and doom-stricken, “The Overstory” is a big, ambitious epic, spanning the last half of the 20th century and asking what we’re doing to our planet. It’s too heady, too rhapsodic, too strange to be characterized as agitprop fiction. But it does have a sobering message.
As one character puts it: “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”
That strategy, Powers clearly believes, isn’t sustainable.
The first section of the book, “Roots,” reads like a short-story collection as it devotes eight chapters to figures from across the country who will partake in an ever-more tangled web of action. In Iowa, three generations of a farm family eccentrically document the life of a lone chestnut tree that has escaped a blight that wiped out whole chestnut forests. In Wheaton, Ill., a “silk tree” dominates the memories of the daughter of a Chinese Muslim engineer. During the Vietnam War, an American pilot running supplies to Cambodia is attacked and, after managing to turn back to Thailand, free falls into a banyan tree that saves his life, though it leaves him mangled.
The most extraordinary story belongs to Patty Westerford, a young girl with hearing and speaking problems, whose father teaches her that “plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people.” Later, in forestry school, taking her cue from both Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and her own field observations, she grows convinced that trees are “social creatures.”
That notion gets her laughed out of academia.
Some figures in this opening section later become friends or lovers as they occupy treetops or confront the authorities (led on their crusade by Olivia Vandergriff, a hard-partying actuarial-science student who, after a near-death experience, becomes an ardent eco-activist). Others have only tangential contact with this inner circle of anti-logging conspirators.
On the outermost fringe is Neelay Mehta, an Indian-American computer-game inventor, wheelchair-bound since adolescence after a fall from a California live oak that leaves him paralyzed. Lying on the ground his vision of the branches spreading above him before he passes out is as heady as anything Patty experiences. It offers him a glimpse of 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: the most perfect piece of self-writing code that his eyes could hope to see.” Soon he’s trying to create a cyberworld that can match nature’s intricacy, spontaneity, and malleability.
Finally, there’s a fascinating hinge character: Adam Appich, whose earliest experiences convince him that “[h]umankind is deeply ill.” He becomes an expert in the field of “confirmation bias,” skeptical about believers of any sort. Yet he’s lured more deeply than he ever expected to be, via his studies of “radical environmentalist temperament,” into the struggles of the activists he observes.
Powers juggles the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity. The human elements of the book — the arcs his characters follow over the decades from crusading passion to muddled regret and a sense of failure — are thoroughly compelling. So are the extra-human elements, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’s prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species.
“All the ways you imagine us,” they say, “are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.”
In a saga with so many strands, some story lines inevitably are more gripping than others. The confrontations between activists, logging-company personnel, and law authorities supply ample surface drama. Adam’s analytical bent provides a tonic counterpoint to Patty, as he argues that humankind simply isn’t “wired to see slow, background change, when something bright and colorful is waving in our faces.” Other characters fall somewhere between cool analysts and epiphany-driven visionaries.
But it’s Patty’s progress, as she goes from being a pariah in the scientific community to a prophet embraced by younger generations of botanists, that makes the book sing, even as she’s torn between her love of pure research and her deep discomfort with being a public figure.
“It could be the eternal project of mankind,” she suggests, “to learn what forests have figured out.”
We’re left to wonder how much will be destroyed and how irreversible the damage will be before that “eternal project” bears results. Powers and Norton are doing their part: “The Overstory” is printed on 100-percent recycled paper.
By Richard Powers
Norton, 502 pp., $27.95
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Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.