The tree family

Print edition : February 14, 2020
Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning fiction emphasises the ecological interdependence of people and trees.

IN the anthropocene, when narratives turn to metaphor to grasp the meaning, deep time and big history, Richard Powers turns to trees in The Overstory. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019, narrates the stories of nine characters centred around trees as theme, motif and species to configure an account where trees begin to matter.

The novel is the saga of generations and families and the trees that have survived the vagaries of human history. The title refers to the foliage that makes the canopy or the trees that contribute to the overstory and represents distinctive character arcs in the novel. Just like the trees that make up the visible foliage, the nine main characters of the story are a set of people whose lives the author selects to chronicle. The lives of these characters are entangled in serendipitous ways without being envisioned through human tropes such as fate or destiny because The Overstory is not a realistic novel attempting to map human social history. Rather, by having the characters understand trees in different ways such that their paths converge, Powers attempts to map a small cross-section of humans from a larger cosmos of multiple species.

Consider the credentials: Nicholas Hoel is an artist whose family has photographed a chestnut tree every month for generations. Patricia Westerford, the botanist, seems to be modelled after Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology who has put forward theories about communication between trees. She writes a book titled The Secret Forest (probably based on The Hidden Life of Trees, the 2005 bestseller by Peter Wohlleben) and all the main characters read it. Douggie Pavlicek is a Vietnam War veteran who participated in the controversial but real Stanford Prison Experiments as a college student. He falls in love with Mimi Ma, daughter of a Chinese immigrant engineer. We follow the boyhoods of two men: Neelay Mehta, son of Indian immigrants, and Adam Appich, who becomes a psychologist. Ray Brinkman is an intellectual property lawyer, and his wife Dorothy Cazaly is a stenographer. Olivia Vandergriff is an actuary student who has an epiphany after a near-death experience.

Powers’ background in computers is an important key to the novel. Neelay Mehta, who is confined to his wheelchair, invents a game that will scour databanks for knowledge about trees, so that armed with it we can engage with the natural world to solve our problems. This kind of transhumanist yearning, where corporeal finitude is an obstacle that can be overcome, is only one of the narrative answers to the puzzle that is the tree.

But how does one begin to narrate a tree? There is a happy coincidence between style and subject in The Overstory. Like the expansive trees, Powers is adept at laying out the story in broad brushstrokes. This is not to say that he mimics Charles Dickens in characterisation. His men and women suffer from a lack of detail but the narrative force allows the reader to suspend disbelief and understand them through their encounters and rendezvouses. For example, Neelay Mehta is typecast crudely, with shades of a cleverer Raj Koothrappali, the character in the CBS television series The Big Bang Theory. On the other hand, Patricia is portrayed as an activist like Greta Thunberg or Arundhati Roy. At the same time, reading about Patricia and her difficult childhood offers an invitation to speculate about the life history of an activist academic. What causes the turn from theory to praxis? Is praxis grounded in actions that shape a childhood and is adulthood a reclaiming of that lost agency? This kind of evocative characterisation allows for an openness that the reader is encouraged to inhabit.

The ecological importance of The Overstory lies in its ability to supplant the human in the story. As the network of people branches out across the interlayered stories through chance and connections, the centre appears evanescent, fugacious and non-human. Unlike other anthropocene novels that document the plight of humans in apocalyptic situations, The Overstory is ultimately about trees and how a set of people try to relate to them.

The difficulty of constructing a narrative that can capture the complexity of ongoing ecological catastrophes cannot be overstated. Should it be inspiring and moving? Or should it merely state the facts and expect the readers to draw their own conclusions? Or should the narrative be experimental and try to mirror nature so that form can provoke action? The hidden premise of the novel is the opening line of The Secret Forest that is recounted by several characters: “You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways.” It is this common ancestral root that makes the trees come alive in the novel without anthropomorphisation and allegorisation.

It is interesting that this exploration does not require trees to be characters in a rhetorical or Aristotelian sense that would embody a particular quality. Trees are not simply innocent victims out there to be preserved in their pristine virtue. This is made evident in the narrative through a clearly phenomenological investigation that the people engage in through various modes of their lives to acknowledge trees. In Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram demonstrates our entanglement with nature by showing how human nature is animal too, and a sensuous awareness can help us realise this dormant essence. Powers does not deny this entanglement of people and trees, but The Overstory upholds a certain distance. People and trees do not belong to the same species. It is this real chasm that the protagonists try to comprehend and decipher.

This is also the source (or shall I say the root?) of the strangeness of the narrative. How do we understand characters or motivations for which trees are not simply trees? The common ancestrality that The Secret Forest professes is what drives the authorial urge to understand trees in the novel. There is an intuition that we and trees belong to the same life process that exceeds our finite understanding because of the brevity of our lifespan and it is this insight that the novel taps into.

Curiously, it is not literature or philosophy that the novel uses to buttress its beliefs but social movements. The novel refers to the Chipko movement in India and the Brazilian Kayapo Indians to understand the concerns that one species may have for another. As the psychology student in the novel remarks, “Who does the tree hugger really hug when he hugs a tree?” Yet, when people interpose their bodies between tree cutters and the trees, the tree cutters always have their way with violent consequences for the dendrophiles.

Bound up with this cross-species interest toward trees is, of course, the legal suggestion of personhood. If trees acquire legal standing, will plant species cease to become resources worthy only of our consumption and exploitation? Perhaps legal standing will flatten barriers of species and language. The novel grapples with this question through activism. Nick, Olivia, Douglas and Mimi together oppose deforestation and stage protests and sit-ins atop trees. At one point, they even carve out an independent state for themselves called “The Bio-Region of Cascadia”. But because trees cannot speak back and be grateful or disenchanted, activism only furthers the life stories of the men and women involved, with the trees registering a woody opacity. The only possible acknowledgement remains with the human: will they cut the tree or not?

Against this seeming passivity, trees have a spectral presence in the novel that makes them resemble impenetrable aliens with whom true communication is never possible. Activism, then, is a pledge of the hope that communication, and action based on faith, are possible, despite the diverse personalities of humans and reasons. And as the novel makes clear, perfect harmony with trees or total empathy need not result in satisfying courses of action. There is no cosmic redemption or a promised messiah that will make our sacrifices worthwhile. The descent of environmental activists in the novel after repeated failures to protect the trees from an eco-terrorist group is testimony to this misjudgment.

This is not to say that the different characters do not attempt to anthropomorphise trees or allegorise them. It could be that human communication, even inner speech, is always already humanised. For Dorothy and Ray, the tree symbolises their child. Olivia and Nick give a human characteristic to the redwood tree, Mimas, during their stay atop it. However, here lies the paradox of writing on the environment: by the end of the novel, the reader is not sure whether the anthropomorphisation is inappropriate and the allegorisation insensitive. This is because one is able to see that the perspective of each character towards trees is shaped by their distinctive experiences and personalities, and the reader cannot obviously fault them for that.

The Overstory refrains from making ethical pronouncements for the same reason. While it is accepted that trees need to be protected, the novel never assumes a science fiction/fantasy fiction mode. Thus, though the characters fight for trees in different ways, the novel does not propose a unique or singular solution. In that way, it is certainly not utopic in its aim or hope. It is also not futuristic or idealistic. But as Maidenhair tells Adam, who is there to study them instead of studying people who believe plants are persons, he should study people for whom only other people are real.

Allies with trees

The characters, whose lives seem entangled with trees, have chosen to become allies with trees and have, thereby, merely experienced a shift in perspective. Indeed, the main characters, especially Mimi, Douglas, Nick and Olivia, seem to experience time and history differently. Cross-species intimacy allows these characters to take on and dwell in the vital circles of the Umwelt of the trees. Realising that the trees have a longer life process that evokes the cosmic processes of life and cycles, Olivia and Nick live in forest time: “They have been on forest time too long to count in mere hours anymore. The work is over in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” The transience of human life poses an urgency to the matter that the characters are aware of: “They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.” The logo of the cross section of a tree trunk showing the concentric growth rings recurs in the novel to alert us gently to human history as it is being shaped today by deforestation and forest fires.

This intimacy is also a dangerous tendency because at least for some characters it often seems to be on the verge of teetering into a kind of unreflective nativism at whose centre is a tenuous figure such as the ecological Indian. Do we have to discard humanity to reach out to other species? By rejecting civilisation and by extension, technology, what kind of return to the putative innocence of nature do we envision? The utopia certainly cannot be an anarchy of chaos and probably not one of jungles and lush verdure either.

The novel ends with an ambiguous message from Nick: “STILL”. While a lot of species may not survive the ongoing mass extinction event, there is something to be said about resistance and the possibilities that resistance enfolds, like a seed, of growth, rebirth and change. This still does not answer the question as to whether art is necessary in the anthropocene. While Powers does not privilege art as the mode through which we can understand trees, there is an element of the creative and the artistic at the core of every story in the novel. Thus, Nick is an artist, Ray and Dorothy act in plays, Mimi recites ancient Chinese poetry, Patricia writes a book, Douglas keeps a diary and Olivia assumes a persona, namely, Maidenhair.

Perhaps, it could be said that at the heart of every activism is a flair for the dramatic as well. Of course, even the activists affirm the need for narrative: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

The narrative power of The Overstory stems from how the stories of the characters make sense, not from one another’s stories but from the unwritten and unread story of trees. This is possible because of a self-reflexivity that is sewn into the novel’s texture, which states that it is impossible to narrativise a tree.

As we read about Ray’s need for fiction, Powers tells us that novels can only cover a few people’s lives and cannot tell a story that is compelling enough to successfully narrate the world that includes innumerable species, and it is precisely for this reason that we are failing the world. Rather than announcing a cliched return to our earthly natures or the reasons to love trees, The Overstory tells us why it is hard to tell a good story about them.

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