Book Review of The Overstory

“New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide.”

The Overstory made me think, cry, care, and ask a lot of questions.  Most of my questions are for the author Richard Powers.  I want to sit down and have a conversation with him over a cup of tea.  I have no idea where I got my copy of this book.  Usually I remember.  It wasn’t a gift or a recommendation or one I picked from a review.  Next to my bed, I keep a pile of four or five books at a time, so I can grab the next one when I’m ready, this one seemed just to appear.  I’m so glad it did.

The book follows some families and people through the history of America and the changing landscape of trees.  It follows the slashing of America’s forests, blights brought from other countries, the fight to plant new trees (and whether or not we’re doing it correctly), and the standoff over the last of the ancient Redwoods.  I’ve always had a dream to see the Redwoods in person.  This book brought that back for me with a vengeance.  The descriptions of the tiny biosystems in the canopies and the trees hugeness reenergized that desire in me.

There’s even a thread about video games, similar to World of Warcraft.  Some of the players in these created worlds of dominance and destruction are content, while others are disappointed.  Once the flaws are shown to the creator of the game, he tries to make something new.  That seems to be a major theme of this book, once you see it, you can’t unsee.  That and the idea of unsuicide.  How do we take steps to stop killing ourselves?  Good question.

I loved the families and their connections to trees and history.  I especially connected with the scientist who wants people to understand better how trees communicate with each other, how forests exist, and the need to let trees fall over naturally and decompose, allowing for those microsystems to help continue life.  Her struggle to get people to listen to her is repeated throughout.  It’s not that she’s wrong, it’s that people are slow to change.  We do often miss the messages we need to hear.  This year NY has enacted a plastic bag ban.  I can’t figure out why it didn’t happen sooner.  My tote bags are cute, and I have no problem bringing them, I’ve used them forever.  I remember when we switch to plastic with the “Save the Trees” campaign.  Plastic wasn’t an improvement.  We should have listened to the voices who questioned plastic way back then.

Each theme and thread of this novel was magical and inspirational to me.  I’ve spoken with a few people who agree and a few who don’t.  I met a woman at a lecture about NYDEC’s goal to control and prevent Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer, elk, and moose.  BTW, CWD isn’t caused by what you think, and it’s worth reading about.  It seemed like the book would be up her nature enthusiast ally.  When I mentioned it, her face dropped.  She said, “Oh, I read it.”  She went on to explain that she was part of the redwood protection movement and was angry at the depiction of the extremists.  I can’t argue if that’s the history she remembers.  However, sometimes when peaceful demonstrations don’t get the results intended, some people turn to extreme measures.  We’ve seen it time and time again.

In my opinion, everyone should read this book, but they won’t.  However, if, for example, you love The Hidden Life of Trees, this is your book.  I guess if you hate nature (yup, read the judgment), then you won’t like it. 

As I said, I have questions for Richard Powers that I’d love to ask him.  If we’re cleared to travel in April (who knows what will happen at this point), I’ll be visiting the Smokey Mountains.  I hear he lives near there.  Hine hint Richard, wanna be my friend?

“He opens his eyes on the trunk of Mimas, the largest, strongest, widest, oldest, surest, sanest living thing he’s ever seen.  Keeper of half a million days and nights, and it wants him in its crown.”

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