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The Overstory

Trees communicate, spread their seeds over impossible distances, learn, remember, have wants, compete and interact with other forms of life, care for their own, drink, feed on the air, and have been around waaay longer than people, who have used and exploited them for food, shelter, tools and almost everything else. In The Overstory (2018), by American author Richard Powers, tree are also the heroes, not so much personified but rather revered by the narrator so enormously that the novel's humans come across as secondary both in nature and in the plot.

"Once you’ve bought a novel in your pajamas, there’s no turning back," writes Powers, obviously referring to mega-company Amazon and pointing out how convenience has and will always trump conservation. We're all doomed! But didn't we know this already? Regardless, there's too much of this end-of-the-world pessimism in The Overstory, I thought, with one character even creating a Minecraft-like virtual reality game world where people (the players) there too recklessly devour resources to further conquer and destroy—seemingly an unalterable side of human nature. The book got me down.

Probably what made getting through it even harder for me was hearing news about the Amazon rain forest burning over the past week, with little to no hope for the environment inspired by the recent G7 meeting either. I don't regret reading the book; I learned a great deal about trees, and respect and love them even more. But the characters and story arcs are faint and the overall narrative disjointed, and I had to reread more than a few pages just to keep myself on track.

Surely it won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted last year for the Man Booker Prize, because its theme is the environment. Not because of the writing or artistry, which isn't remarkable. Am I wrong? I'm not sure anymore, but I know I really wanted to like this one because it is fiction taking on environmental problems, and because Powers has a deep knowledge of nature and clearly put lots of research into the project. By the end, though, the word that came to mind more than "overstory" was "overkill" because it's unnecessarily long and repeatedly, didactically reminds us that trees have been around countless ages more than us and that most of we seven billion humans are catastrophic for them. I couldn't glean any message of hope, except the rather dark promise that if we leave at least one patch of trees on Earth, those lone survivors will replenish themselves and prevail, long after the human race has rubbed itself out.


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