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13 June 2012updated 11 Oct 2021 10:15am

Richard Powers’s eco-novel The Overstory urgently challenges our ideas about humanity and nature

Descriptions of trees and people begin to merge and blossom, as Powers novel opens up questions about the “personhood” of plants.

By India Bourke

Global ecological collapse is the biggest story of our age. Broken cycles of air, water and earth are challenges against which trade wars pale in comparison. But it has also proved one of the hardest narratives for writers to tell. Novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road have offered powerful warnings about the aftermath of disaster, yet few writers have grappled with how the journey towards catastrophe unfurls. Any agency the natural world might possess – its ability to feel, communicate and adapt – has rarely provided more than background to humanity’s self-centred toil.

Thankfully, The Overstory, the latest book from the American novelist Richard Powers, a writer who puts science at the heart of his fiction, has taken that last assumption and shaken it by its roots. Tracing the lives of nine individuals as they attempt to save the virgin forests of North America, the novel ties together the struggles of humans and plants, and reveals a world “where the wrong people have all the rights”.

Doing so requires a fable-like narrative that sprawls across decades. In one early chapter, we meet a young artist whose great-great-great-grandfather planted a chestnut seed thousands of miles away from its native range (allowing the tree to survive a species-decimating blight). In another, the California-born son of a computer engineer from India has his life rebooted when he falls out of a “crazy cantilevered oak”.

Throughout this introductory section, entitled “Roots”, descriptions of trees and people begin to merge and blossom. The language of the computer programmer (a job Powers himself once held in the 1980s) is riddled with “dendrites” and “branches”, and a pilot in Vietnam floats “down to earth like a winged seed”. The way that trees communicate between themselves is said to provide “an underground welfare state”.

By the time five of the nine central characters meet in the late 1980s, as a core of radical, anti-logging activists (or “domestic terrorists”), their very names have transmuted into plants. A girl who undergoes near-death experience is rechristened “Maidenhair”; a PhD student becomes “Professor Maple”.

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In such ways, Powers collapses the idea that human consciousness is paramount. The novel opens up questions about the “personhood” of plants, how ecology has shaped our minds, and the potential for digital life to shift our consciousness again. It also challenges preconceptions about hippy tree-huggers.

Most importantly, Powers queries earlier representations that might be cluttering our relationship to the natural world. In a section entitled “Trunk”, the activists camp out in the branches of an ancient Californian sequoia, and the tree’s monumental scale is an echo of the 19th-century romantic-sublime. Yet far from portraying nature as an “other”, to be conquered and surveyed, Powers gives us the experiences of daily, tree-top living (from urination to reading), pulling the tone back towards the intimate and entwined.

By focusing on questions of science and sentience, he also renews romanticism for the contemporary age; making space for the sentimental to breathe freely again, and challenging us not to be afraid to care: “Every star in the galaxy rolls out above them, through the blue-black needles, in a river of spilled milk. The night sky – the best drug there was, before people came together into something stronger.”

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Such emphasis on reviewing inherited worldviews (be they political or literary), can at times can flatten the characters into rhetorical tools. Yet Powers’s mission is urgent: not only are we living through an age where science is rewriting what comprises consciousness, but we are simultaneously exploiting non-human life to an unprecedented extent. Just this month, as man-made climate change fanned wildfires around the world, Donald Trump called for yet more of America’s forests to be cut down. Economic growth is fuelling ecological crisis, and the novel suggests it is clear “which side will lose by winning”.

Powers’s place as one of the few established writers longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize is well deserved. The novel’s description of a scientist’s work could equally be applied to his own: “Words of hers that she has all but forgotten have gone on drifting out on the open air, lighting up others, like a waft of pheromones.” And if Powers himself was a tree, it would surely be a mature oak, for The Overstory displays the kind of abundant creativity that restores faith in human endeavour.

The Overstory
Richard Powers
William Heinemann, 502pp, £18.99