Book Review by Carol Biedrzycki
of The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Overstory is a wild ride. It is written in rich prose. I frequently found myself backtracking to make sure I got the point. I’m also not ashamed to admit I learned a few new words like coeval and ursine.
The Overstory is about the environmental crisis while it examines the human condition and tries to explain why it is not at the top of our agenda every day. The information about trees, forests and the assault of buildings, subdivisions and cities on our forests is sobering.
The Overstory tells the stories of seven individuals and one couple whose lives have a unique connection with trees. In this section of the book I was beginning to think I was reading a collection of short stories. The magic is in how Powers weaves all of their lives together.
Every character is somehow connected to trees and tries to reverse the course of civilization’s destruction of our forests. All of the characters make exceptional life changes for the trees. Their activities are diverse. There are protests. Two protesters live in a redwood tree. A botanist makes startling discoveries about plant communication and starts a forest tree seed bank. A psychologist studies the behavior of the activists. A lawyer reasons that trees should have standing in court. Some of the characters have federal charges hanging over their heads and have to start new lives. A computer wizard designs games that shape behavior and attitudes toward consumerism and the environment. The book takes the time to walk us through their trials, tribulations and successes although successes are few and far between.
The reality of the story is that our problem is not resolved and is getting worse. As a society we can’t change our lifestyle even when faced with the toll we take on the forests, air quality and global temperatures. Despite the sacrifices of the characters in the book, the destruction of the forests continues at an alarming rate. The messages are simple and profound. 1) The world doesn’t have to change. We do. The forests will heal themselves if we can stop cutting and let them grow. 2) When you make something from a tree it should be at least as marvelous as what you cut down. This is an excellent rule of thumb for conserving wood.
The Overstory is about the environmental crisis. I won’t remember the names of the hundreds of species of trees and plants or the specific scientific explanations of how trees live in a community and communicate. What I will remember is this. The world doesn’t have to change. I do. Anything made from wood should be at least as marvelous as the tree that was cut down to make it.
The Overstory changed the way I think about trees and our forests. Changing the way people think is a superpower. I hope that those who are not yet convinced that we need to save and rebuild our forests will read this book.
Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin. She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook. Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 5. Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.