The Great American Novel has been written many times. From Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) to Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), American authors have produced works of sweeping grandeur that attempt to capture a people at a point in history. Yet these national epics have — you might conclude after reading The Overstory — failed to see the wood for the trees. They’ve been too wrapped up in the lives of mere humans.
Richard Powers’ 12th novel is a rare specimen: a Great American Eco-Novel. It begins not at a tumultuous, epoch-defining ballgame or amid the cacophony of Jazz Age New York, nor is it concerned with the petty, suburban issues of an everyday family or the energy of a country under construction. It begins beneath a tree where a “chorus of living wood” sings to the woman resting there: “if your mind were only a slightly greener thing,” it seems to say, “we’d drown you in meaning.”
In fact, “everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame”, as one character puts it of a collection of obsessively made images of a single tree shot each month over decades. Or as another character says succinctly, “humans are almost beside the point”.
The novel (built like a tree from the ground up in four sections: “Roots”, “Trunk”, “Crown”, “Seeds”) introduces nine unconnected characters, before bringing them together through their shared love of and desire to save the last tracts of ancient, old-growth forest in the US — only a fraction of which still remains.
The story begins in the mid-19th century with a chestnut. It is brought to rural Iowa from New York by Jørgen Hoel, who plants it beside the house he builds. There, the lonely sentinel grows on a featureless plain, as Powers, in a single paragraph, charts the highs and lows of generations of human experience flickering away beneath its spreading boughs.
Years later, Jørgen’s great-great-great-grandson Nick, an artist, meets Olivia Vandergriff, an actuary student who has an epiphany after she is accidentally electrocuted and now hears the voices of trees. The pair set out for the Life Defense Force camp in the giant redwoods of Solace, California.
Their stories converge in the forest with those of others who see the crisis: Adam, a psychology student; Douglas, a veteran whose life was saved by a 300-year-old banyan tree when he fell “like a winged seed” from his C-130 transport plane when it was shot down over Cambodia; and Mimi, whose father left Shanghai for the US in 1948 and planted a mulberry in Wheaton, Illinois. They picket the logging companies that are levelling these 1,000-year-old giants, before Olivia and Nick find themselves camped out 200ft up a redwood named Mimas for almost a year to prevent it from being cut down.
The message here is that of Dr Seuss: like the Lorax, these clear-eyed activists (Powers, too) “speak for the trees” while short-termist Once-lers go right on “biggering” their logging operations.
Yet the literary greats that really inform Powers’ thinking and writing are the Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, as well as the metaphysical poets. Powers quotes from Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” — “Fond lovers, cruel as their flame, cut in these trees their mistress’ name. Little, alas, they know or heed how far these beauties hers exceed!” — and from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: As Jørgen plants his chestnuts, “a poet-nurse to the Union dying writes: ‘A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.’”
But the great literary tap root that grounds his sprawling novel is Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. “Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things” goes the opening line that Powers quotes several times from a translation for children; each of his nine characters undergoes a transformation of sorts too; Olivia bears a tattoo that reads: “A change is gonna come.” And two of the cast fall in love during an amateur performance of Macbeth (“Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane”) in 1974.
As the trees fall, and humanity inexorably encroaches on wilderness, it is hard not to see homo sapiens as a doomed species. “Humankind is deeply ill,” thinks Adam. “The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment.” Wheelchair-bound tech-whizz Neelay Mehta “knows something certain, before almost anyone else: people are in for it.” Yet there is also a vein of hope, that change is possible.
The myths of Ovid, Powers says, are “memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives . . . saying, ‘Remember this, thousands of years from now, when you can see nothing but yourself, everywhere you look’”.
The great fork that took us away from our natural environment and other living things, that led us to a place where we have unthinkingly destroyed forest after forest and species after species must be challenged, argues Powers, and challenged through stories. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” he writes. “The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
This is a good story. It will change the way you look at trees.
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