The Overstory by Richard Powers

The OverstoryThe author Richard Powers came to my attention very recently, even though he has been writing for years.  The subject matter behind this, his most recent book, is extremely timely, considering the continuing decimation of old growth forests.

The Overstory begins with a series of disconnected chapters, each almost a short story in itself.  All concern an individual or couple who develops a kinship with trees.  Just what these folks have in common with each other is not always tangible, although some of them do connect, and there is a book written by one of them that manages to influence all or most involved.

Our unlikely heroes are a Midwestern artist pressed to continue a photography ritual of a lone chestnut tree on his family’s farm, a Chinese-American engineer spurred on by her father’s memories and a set of antiquities, a hearing impaired scientist whose ground-breaking work with trees invites scorn and then acclaim, a paraplegic computer game mogul whose online games evolve life forms quicker than his own body deteriorates, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, an unlikely union of a lawyer and a free spirit who discover the joy of unbridled natural disorder after a long-suffered tragedy, a quiet youngest child of peculiar abilities grows up to pen his dissertation on tree huggers, and a hard-partying college student who finds a second life, and voices in her head directing her to her destiny, following a near death from electrocution.

The Overstory ranges over several places in the United States, with the Pacific Northwest, home of immense redwoods and logging companies trigger-happy to harvest public lands, a main focus.  There’s great heartache here as a dedicated group of outlaws fight against the law and the grind of big business to save thousand-year old giants and their ecosystems.  Certain passages contain horrific violence, and there’s a strong sadness that runs through the book.

I found The Overstory to be a sprawling, well-written eye-opening paean to the preservation of old growth forests, and a strong reminder to humans that we are not the center of life on earth.  Worth reading?  Definitely, but expect to immerse yourself in the book.

You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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