Nature as Main Character in Fiction: 2. The Overstory

The Overstory—I didn’t know for sure what the title alluded to when I first encountered this novel by Richard Powers. I interpreted it in terms of the usual conventions about books, especially fiction. I guessed “overstory” referred to an overarching theme, the most important one that subsumes some more obvious sub-themes. You, the reader, must venture into the depths of a multilayered story to tie the sub-themes in order to access that overarching theme. See the larger picture.

My misconception proved, in the end, that I knew nothing about forest growth. Only later, fascinated by the story that transpired and having finished reading it, did I decide to look up the meaning of overstory.

Merriam-Webster defines “overstory’ as:
1 : the layer of foliage in a forest canopy. 2 : the trees contributing to an overstory.

I believe I have a fairly wide vocabulary but I was dismayed to find I had no inkling at all of this literal meaning of “overstory.” That when it came to trees and foliage, I was an ignoramus. A humbling realization for one who lives at the edge of a county park rich in vegetation.

I picked up the book, in the first place, because it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner (2019). I don’t read every Pulitzer prize fiction but the prize makes me curious enough to check out a book. Like any other novel, I read the first few pages to see if The Overstory would appeal to me before I spent any more time with it.

The beginning of the novel wouldn’t let go of me. The imagery, the lyricism. The promise of something unique. Some new way of looking at life, at nature. The Overstory compelled further attentive reading.

Those first paragraphs hold the key to this novel. In passages such as:

“The tree is saying things, in words before words.”

And:

“Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind’s gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather.…”

These passages tell you in a poetic way about the wisdom of trees, the deep and long experience they have. How much they are a part of the story of man, of the world we live in. They constitute the overstory (in a figurative way) of life, of the understory (the vegetation that lies underneath). Fortunately for us who aren’t aware, there are people who wake up to these truths.

Knowing the meaning of overstory made me understand the story better. As in Drive the Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the main protagonist in this novel is Nature. But whereas Olga Tokarczuk focused on animals, Richard Powers’ passion is trees.

Tokarczuk’s approach to animals is more emotional, almost mystical. Powers looks at trees with love, but also with keen knowledge. He admits to not knowing much about trees before he wrote his novel but he dug deep into them. By the time he finished writing, he could write about trees with authority. From the chestnut tree at the beginning of this multi-generational tale. To the old majestic redwood inhabited by tree-loving characters who protect it from being cut down.

Trees have lives and histories. And in the case of trees that make up the overstory, these histories are much longer than those of individual humans.

There is tragedy in Powers’ story just as there is in Tokarczuk’s, a Nobel-prize and Man Booker prize winner. And those tragedies reek of man’s ignorance, neglect and violence towards other forms of life around them. Forms of life that have helped protect and nurture humanity.

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