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On Stillness and Richard Powers' The Overstory

"What do all good stories do? They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren't."

If you do not agree, The Overstory by Richard Powers might not be the book for you. But it should be. It is the book for all of us, a book that proves itself wrong when it argues, "the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people." In the margin, I have written: until now.

Let us begin with a definition. The understory of a forest is comprised of all that is growing or living or decomposing on the forest floor beneath the canopy of trees. Because of the density of that canopy, the understory remains shaded and humid, flourishing with vines and mosses and ferns and saplings, and this is the part of the forest we can see and feel and tread upon. It's where we go to harvest or hike, to use the trees for our unique purposes whether they be recreation or renovation.

What, then, is the overstory? Certainly, the canopy is the overstory - the collection of crowns that top each towering tree. But here, in the novel, it is that and so much more.

Near the middle of the work, two of the protagonists volunteer for a two-week spell in a tree-sit high above the forest floor. Their hope is to delay (or, even better, stop) the logging company from cutting down this stand of old-growth trees. Due to various calamities and conflicts, they end up living in that tree for almost a year. They eat, sleep, and dream on the small network of platforms dozens of feet in the air. They crawl among the branches and read to each other and draw and discover countless truths they had never imagined, especially this one: there is so much more here to see if we will only hold still.

These months in the treetops are a relatively small part of this complex network of stories and characters. But these months in the treetops are central to our understanding of the overstory, for once you finish the book, you will be like those two young activists, asking yourself:

"Who could stay on the ground, once he has seen life in the canopy?"

That is Richard Powers's wish, at least. This novel is complicated but clear. The narrative voice is consistent and unambiguous. By strapping the reader in alongside nine ordinary men and women, most - like us - with a negligible understanding of trees, we get to participate in their transformative experiences, and we, too, are changed. Some will argue Powers is heavy-handed or aggressively didactic, and they would not be wrong. Powers here is like the best teachers: they have learned something extraordinary, and they can't wait to help us know it too.

Powers divides the novel into four sections, structured like a tree: Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds. The roots is where things that appear unrelated are established, a mysterious intermingling and tangling. So, too, with the narrative. The first section can feel like a series of unrelated short stories; soon, however, you suspect the disconnect is cursory at best. As the novel moves through the remaining sections, the pace and intensity increases, and the clear separations between these characters decreases or disappears. Some will meet, live, and work together; others will be doing vital work at a distance - vital both to the other characters and to the narrative itself.

Throughout the book, Powers draws heavily on the work of research scientists who have begun to observe the truth of the forests. Their representative in the book is scientist and writer Patricia Westerford. It is in her sections of the book that we are taught what she is learning. We read along as she writes her books, and then we delight when other characters find and are changed by her work as well. She knows, as Adam teaches his psychology students:

"You can't see what you don't understand. But what you think you already understand, you'll fail to notice."

The final section opens with a short lesson on the history of the earth framed in the course of one day. All of the slow, deliberate movement of lava and single-celled organisms and yes, plants and insects, and then, "Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight." The final section is the shortest, only 29 pages; it is also the place where the narrative hurtles out of our control. Like seeds, some will take root and others will wither. We can't know how they will fare. But we can hope. If we thought we understood it all, if the answers were spelled out for us, we might fail to notice. The mysteries are what hold our attention, and in so doing, they hold our hope.

Though many reviewers, myself included, will focus on the narrative of the trees, this book is very much about people, specific people with specific pains and desires. We want to understand Mimi as she copes with the loss of her father in childhood; we stand horrified with Nick when he returns home after the snowstorm to find his family dead; we ache with Dorothy and Ray through the ordinary and extraordinary pains of their marriage; we strive with Neelay as he attempts to program something beautiful and true with and for his father. Their stories are the understory, a familiar place. But it is not where we are to stay.

If we stay in the understory, the place where we see trees as ornamentation or shade or wood or paper, the seeds will wither. But if we can hold onto our time in the overstory, and right-size our place there, all things have a better chance to flourish.

Their first morning in the tree-sit, Nick and Olivia are "awed by the view. Sitting still and looking: their new job description. But they're humans, and soon enough their eyes fill up. She says, 'Let's explore,'" and they do. True, this exploration teaches them a lot about their home above the ground, but perhaps the most important thing we can do to stem the tide of damage our human exploration has done is this: Sit still and look.

With The Overstory, Powers tries to bring us into an understanding of our proper fit in the timeline of this world. Our part in it is so very small. He knows that "the best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story." And above all else, this is a very good story.

Postscript: there are so many elements of this novel, both structural and philosophical, that I chose not to discuss because to do so would spoil a new reader's experience. I struggled mightily with how to convey its strengths without revealing its secrets; I even considered not publishing anything at all. In the end, I decided to maintain my distance from those matters even though it feels incomplete because I would rather promote the book in abstractions than avoid celebrating it.


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