“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
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.