The Overstory




“The business of art,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, “is to reveal the relationship between man and his environment.” Few writers ever match the full scope and scale of that mandate, and fewer still bring such a spectrum of knowledge to the artistic challenge as Richard Powers, whose twelfth novel, The Overstory, now beckons him to Dayton for a long overdue celebration of his extraordinary work.

The Overstory immediately establishes its uniqueness through its interspecies ensemble: an aboreal cast of silent but potent characters — a Chestnut tree, a backyard mulberry, a Douglas fir — share the stage with a Vietnam vet, a college drop-out turned activist, an internet sorcerer, Iowa farmers and other types, each tree earning an intimate form of recognition and allegiance from a human counterpart.

Ultimately the novel can be read as an exploration and dramatization of how resistance to oppression grows. It demands that humans understand they aren’t the only show on earth, and that our mastery over nature, as the Amazon burns and coral reefs wither, has been a delusion. The raping of nature and the ravaging of the planet have customarily been saluted within a narrative of human progress and superiority. The Overstory would have us acknowledge, not through polemics but through brilliant storytelling, that the atrocity of a clear-cut mountain is not only a crime against nature but a crime against humanity itself.

Some critics have expressed surprise that a novelist might know anything about botany, but the marriage of art and science is esthetically, and ethically, at the core of Powers’ grand mission, here at the end of one millennium and the advance of another, to know the world in which we live. And in the case of The Overstory, to understand, as D. H. Lawrence himself believed, how the very presence of trees is vital to not just our existence, but whatever it is we mean when we talk about our spirits and gesture to our souls.

— Bob Shacochis
2019 finalist judge

Book Excerpt

She has searched for a name for the great ancient trunks of the uncut forest, the ones who keep the market in carbons and metabolites going. Now she has one:

Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded….

Before it dies, a Douglas-fir, half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament. We might well call these ancient benefactors giving trees….

The smell of her red cedar pencil elates her. The slow push of graphite across paper reminds her of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of gallons of water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk every day. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

The final chapter eludes her. She needs some impossible trifecta: hopeful, useful, and true. She could use Old Tjikko, that Norway Spruce who lives about midway up the length of Sweden. Above the ground, the tree is only a few hundred years old. But below, in the microbe-riddled soil, it reaches back nine thousand years or more—thousands of years older than this trick of writing she uses to try to capture it.

All morning long, she works to squeeze the nine-thousand-year saga into ten sentences: a procession of trunks falling and springing back up from the same root. There’s the hopeful she’s after. The truth is somewhat more brutal….

But hope and truth do nothing for humans, without use. In the clumpy, clumsy finger-paint of words, she searches for the use of Old Tjikko, up on that barren crest, endlessly dying and resurrecting in every change of climate. His use is to show that the world is not made for our utility. What use are we, to trees? She remembers the Buddha’s words: a tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axe-men who destroy it.

2019 Fiction Runner-Up

Richard Powers, photo credit Dean D. Dixon
Click to see award video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Richard Powers
The Overstory

“No justice, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No empathy, no kinship. Reading and writing are exercises in empathy: How would the urgencies of the world look and feel, if I could get beyond myself? The best way to get beyond the self is a good story. No good stories, no peace.”

— Richard Powers              

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Richard Powers is the author of twelve novels that explore connections among disciplines as disparate as photography, artificial intelligence, musical composition, ecology, genomics, game theory, virtual reality, race, biology, and business. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, Grand Street, Conjunctions, Granta, The Guardian, Common Knowledge, Wired, Tin House, Zoetrope, Paris Review, The Believer, Best American Short Stories, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

His books have won numerous recognitions including The Rosenthal and Vursell Awards; the James Fenimore Cooper Prize; the Corrington Award; a PEN/Hemingway Special Citation; the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, two Pushcart Prizes, and TIME Magazine's Book of the Year. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award. He won the W.H. Smith Literary Award for best novel of 2003, and the Ambassador Book Award, 2004. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award. He has been both long-listed and short-listed for the Man-Booker Prize. The Overstory was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His work is translated into twenty-six languages.


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