Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize
It’s not without a sense of irony that one of Power’s tree champions bemoans that their life’s work – publishing books and academic papers about the wonder of the forests – has cost the trees themselves so much. You can almost hear Powers speaking vicariously, because his “tree conservation” novel comes in at a whopping 502 pages. He has an awful lot to say.
I remember not having much interest when The Overstory was published earlier this year. Not that I don’t love trees – I’ve always been a bit of a tree hugger – but because a novel with tree environmentalists at its core sounded too political. But then a holiday in the Black Forest reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, coupled with Powers’s extraordinary event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I found myself more amenable. It was the novel being structured like a tree that clinched the deal.
First the roots in which the stand-alone family histories and stories of 9 extremely varied protagonists are told: home-grown or immigrants, people destined to become professors of philosophy, world-renowned forestry experts, lawyers, psychologists, technological multi-millionaires …. but they all started somewhere, and not all are destined for such tremendous success. Nor is their success necessarily meteoric. In all cases, it is hard won, and certainly not while their roots were germinating.
Second, the trunk. Here Powers begins to weave these stories together, telling them alternatively. Not all, but a core group are radicalised, outraged by the destruction of the ancient Californian redwood forests. Setting this section during the 1990’s Californian Timber Wars (at the end of which – i.e by 2000 – 98% of the ancient American forest had been cut down) Powers shows how the battle was not for the faint-hearted, how brutal the authorities were in breaking up peaceful protest, and how “logical” it seemed to move onto more violent forms of resistance. Of course, playing for high stakes always incurs losses, and this section ends with what can only be described as a pyrrhic victory.
In the crown, the environmentalists go their separate ways. Some of them branch out into illustrious careers. Others stay on lower
branches rungs. None forget the past and frequently hope it won’t catch up with them. But it does. In a clever inversion, it also catches up with Dr Patricia Westerbrook, (who could be the mouthpiece of Peter Wohlleben), but not in a bad way. Her research – deemed whacky in the 1990 – is proven true, and her life is changed immeasurably. The Timber Wars may have been lost, but now she has the financial wherewithall to create a seed bank of all the trees that are going to be driven/cut to extinction in the near future.
Which brings us to seeds, section 4, in which the crown must fall back. we now move into the 21st century; our protagonists are ageing, the end of their own lives beckoning, The question is have they been able to cast their own seeds. Are they leaving a legacy? What about mankind in general? Will the exploitation of the “just a little bit more, just a few jobs more” mentality continue until the earth has no seeds left to cast and secure a future?
“Our sense of time has collapsed to the specious present,” said Powers at his Edinburgh Book Festival event. “There is a conflict between that and the timeframe of nature and God.” That is one of the philosophical undercurrents. How timeframes of the latter run slower than those of mankind, and how that makes us impatient, willing to destroy in minutes, hours, days the forest networks that have taken nature/God centuries to build, without a thought to consequence. As for the networks of our computer age
They split and replicate, these master algorithms … They’re just starting out, like simplest cells back in the Earth’s morning. But already they’ve learned, in a few short decades, what it took molecules a billion years to learn to do. Now they need only learn what life wants from humans. It’s a big question to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been.
Powers also talked about non-human intelligences at Edinburgh, the forest being one. The Overstory is an engaging, human account of what happens when 9 people become unblinded to that intelligence. It also begs the question “why is the state terrified of the living world?” Other and even bigger questions too. Best leave answers to those for Powers’s next novel.