The Overstory: a Novel

I‘ve read many of the best novels ever written. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, may be the most eye-opening of all.

In the first section of the book, in eight short stories, Powers creates diverse, interesting characters who are all impacted by encounters with trees. A banyan tree saves a soldier who falls out of a burning helicopter; a woman wraps her car around a linden while reading a love letter; a boy who loves computers falls from an oak tree and cracks his spine. When a beautiful but self-destructive young woman returns to life in the midst of dying, she is changed into someone with a mission, a Joan of Arc whom others are eager to follow. It turns out that the trees have been mysteriously drawing these people into startling actions and commitments. By the middle of the book, three of them are camped on a ledge built high in a huge, ancient redwood tree slated to be cut down for timber. The quirky, wonderful characters and the intricate plot draw us in, but the art is all in service to a much larger Story.

The book continuously serves interesting, cutting-edge facts about trees and the ecology of the earth. It paints a picture of a natural world which is startlingly alive. Though a gradual weaving of story and scientific information, we learn that if human beings want to have a future on this planet, we need to keep our remaining old growth forests alive. Large old trees sequester huge amounts of carbon in their bodies. When they are cut down, they not only stop absorbing greenhouse gases, they release what they have stored. The more large trees are cut, the faster climate change accelerates. In addition, after a forest is decimated, planting new trees does not restore the intricate ecology upon which so many different species and life-giving processes depend. It is suicidal for the human race to choose short term timber profits over the crucial benefits of keeping our old trees alive and our forests intact. This knowledge motivates some of the characters to engage in radical protest against cutting down old forests. When their nonviolent actions are met with futility and police brutality, some engage in protests that involve significant property damage. The consequences alter their lives forever. Other characters choose different paths—studying trees and saving seeds, letting their yards grow wild, creating virtual realities.

Richard Powers may be the best novelist I’ve never heard of before. One of his novels won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Literary critics note that he is skillful in all the elements that make for good novels: plot, characters, and use of language. He includes scientific information in a poetic way, gently opening the reader to a new understanding of the awesome nature of trees.  But The Overstory is more than a compelling, informative novel. Like gorgeous spring blossoms, the characters‘ stories entice us, but their ultimate purpose is not entertainment, or even information, but a transformation of awareness. They draw our attention to a view of our earthly reality that we desperately need to see: the self-destructive nature of our consumer way of life. For the sake of temporary conveniences and sterile comforts, we are rapidly, recklessly destroying vital necessities upon which human existence depends. By the end of the novel, we can see how saving our remaining forests is an urgent pro-life issue for our whole species, and many other species, as well.

Several wonderful love stories tug at readers’ hearts. Although the characters do not engage in organized religion, the book is also deeply spiritual, showing what can happen when people awaken to their place in a profoundly sacred world. We watch the gradual transformation that occurs when self-centeredness is replaced by purpose, and how the vitality that springs up when people begin living for the sake of something larger and more whole than themselves alone. The book provokes the reader to consider the nature of life, death, healing, and enlightenment.

The Overstory offers only a slender hope that humanity will survive our destructive progress. Yet at the same time, it leads us toward the kind of awareness necessary to make the life-giving choices that are still possible and reveals powerful truths about the intelligent fertility in which we are immersed. In the way it celebrates life and the power of love, it’s a heart-breakingly hopeful book

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

In the same week that a report recently released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that governments around the world must undertake “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming, some members of Congress are actively working to cut down more ancient trees in our largest remaining old growth forest. Senator Lisa Murkowski and others are trying to reverse earlier legislation in order to permit new roads and more old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the USA. For more information, see a brief summary on the Alaska Wilderness League’s blog or read a Guardian article subtitled: “Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, with trees more than 1,000 years old. But a pro-logging effort could uproot them.” It details the climate change dangers of increasing the amount of old growth logging in contrast to the very short-term benefits that would be gained from cutting trees hundreds of years old, all for the sake of preserving jobs at a lumber mill whose saws are only sized for huge trunks.

The Sierra Club writes that the trees in Tongass Forest hold more than 10% of the carbon stored by all national forests combined. It is home to, “an astonishing breadth of wildlife: brown bears, bald eagles, humpback whales and sea lions.If this new legislation is passed into law, the Sierra Club promises to contest it in court and asks for donations to help increase their “legal and legislative teams and [organize] allies in other states where similar deals would imperil forests and wildlife.

Twenty-one young people have sued the U.S. government and the current administration to advocate for their constitutional right to a safe future. Their case, Juliana v U.S., alleges that the U.S. government has knowingly contributed to climate change for fifty years. The trial will begin on October 29th in Oregon, and rallies all over the country are being organized for October 28 and 29th. It’s being called the Trial of the Century.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
This entry was posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Stories that Heal and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Overstory: a Novel

  1. Rachel Howell says:

    Dear Marcelle,
    Thanks for alerting me to this book – I’d never heard of Richard Powers either. I have reserved it from the library. Unfortunately, because it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker prize I’m number 15 in the queue! But the paperback is not out till April next year and I don’t buy hardbacks so I might as well wait. There are many other wonderful books on my shelf. I am currently reading essays by Tolstoy on civil disobedience and nonviolence.
    Love Rachel in Edinburgh

  2. Pingback: A Hand Across the Ocean | A Whole Heart

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