So close to the stories we need!
Note about spoilers: this article assumes you haven’t necessarily read Overstory, but might like to. We talk about the book’s general themes, but more specific plot spoilers are concealed like this.
It feels appropriate to the spirit of Richard Powers’s leafy masterpiece, The Overstory, that I should scribble this hot-take a full five years after its publication. A few mere hours in tree-years. The time, he would probably say, for a poplar to reach its full height of 20 metres, or for an ancient yew to murmur something inconceivably wise, or for an elm to finalise its already-unassailable lead in moral superiority over us dreadful bipeds.
This is not a review. As the winner of a whole slew of fancy awards including one Pulitzer, Overstory is not short in critical commentaries: prestigious and popular voices dissecting structure, tone, character execution, thematic balance, unputdownability, etc.
Rather, this is an attempt to fill in some of the conventional commentariat’s blindspots. Two of them, actually (one per eye?): activism, and ‘ecosophy’.
It’s hardly scandalous that most reviewers lack much expertise in either of these areas. But in 2023 – as atmospheric carbon concentrations breach 419ppm, the ecological movement breathes in for what can only be a history-defining post-covid chapter, and the infamous killers of Game of Thrones join forces with Netflix and Hugh Jackman for a big-budget serialisation of Overstory – Powers’s saga provides a potent, painful reminder of how the stories we tell might help save us – or destroy us.
It’s one of the culture industry’s great mysteries that it has yet to find a way to safely sell us activism. Even really subversive tendencies end up tending towards this ghoulish fate sooner or later. Punk? Self-expression? Martin Luther King? All ultimately grist for the neoliberal mill; recuperation is surely one of the ecocidal establishment’s deadliest superweapons.
But apparently run-of-the-mill ‘activism’ just cannot so far be digested by this diabolical machinery. Let’s remember how Pepsi’s valiant effort went down, or that of putative reality TV-show ‘the Activist’. (Credit where it’s due, Nike did a great job packaging up Black Lives Matter in 2018 – but this remains strikingly unusual.)
This relative lack of co-option is probably a mercy – but it does have a shadow: we barely ever see credible activists or activism depicted in the cultural imaginary. It hardly needs saying how much we might lose through this absence: the opportunities for self-examination of all parties, the two-directional sense of connection to society at large, the chance for anyone to interrogate what are necessarily some of our world’s most striking tensions. We need these stories.
But so, in through this window rappels Richard Powers. Already a well-known writer, and therefore guaranteed some level of attention and respect, not needing to prove anything – but also an homme de coeur, a guy with enough beliefs and integrity and skill to trace the logic of his theme (in case you haven’t twigged it: trees) to activism.
Powers, fresh though the window, soars over this depressingly low bar. This raveller can’t think of any mainstream work that does such justice to justice-seekers. Whether it’s Douglas Pavlicek’s lumbering journey from military to civil resistance , Mimi’s dizzying transformations, or the other grumpy male leads’ reluctant journeys to enlightenment, Powers does a solid job of rendering how ordinary people can end up taking extraordinary lengths to defend what they love and value.
He also gives a few compelling snapshots of what this defending can look like. The fun, inviting, cinematic parts: pitched battles, cunning tactics, toe-curling heroics, magical emancipatory vibes, the expanding sense of self, the intoxication of a shared and righteous greater cause, hot tree-sex (that is: sex between humans in trees. Though there is a bit about a stupendously massive aspen on a multi-thousand-year prowl for a good time). But also the gruelling but equally essential parts: the chilling reality of police brutality (against nice white people!), the bleak holdouts and losses to a seemingly invincible machine, the caprices of the press, politicians and public opinion, the internecine squabbling, the personal tolls both direct and indirect of resistance.
But the world needs more. Especially with the looming spectre of the Netflix treatment, it’s worth thinking how these representations risk misrepresenting.
The elephant in this representational room is that the coremost protagonist, Olivia, pursues her journey and leads all the others’, even to the point of serious crime, on the basis of literally hearing voices – trees’ voices.
This whole thing opens her up, along with Powers and the book in general, for a ruthless othering. This is an indispensable tactic in ecocide’s arsenal: paint those crusties up as ‘weird’, as not the public, not like you and me, as not deserving of serious political or legal police treatment. Make them, as has been done through history with basically any threat to ecocidal hegemony, insane.
My best guess as to why Powers even included this whole element is as a part of his deeper metaphysical fixation of making trees ‘protagonists’. Which hey, fair enough (well… we’ll get to the whole ecosophy part shortly), but from a strictly social change-maker’s perspective, I can only see it as an unforced error.
This metaphysical bias runs deeper though.
The more his characters metamorphose into activists, the less they remain people. After some degrees of credible growth, their internal conflicts just melt down into a ready-made evangelical commitment to give <em>everything </em>for this one patch of ground . This transcendence is reflected in small ways: they lose their sense of humour, abandon their relationships with anyone outside the cause, indeed become spookily unempathetic, seem to inhabit a cultural vacuum insulated from the cultural preoccupations and zeitgeist of their times.
The more his characters metamorphose into activists, the less they remain people
This apocryphal otherworldliness follows through more generally: there’s virtually no interest, from characters or Powers, in tactics, strategy, organising, beyond where they can shed the right shade of sacrificial light on the protagonists’ essentially religious battles. There is literally no above-ground movement worth mentioning; even their supposed comrades in the Life Defense Force are barely more than background features. The theories of change animating the resistance actions are as strangely apolitical as Powers’s own occasional diatribes on the woes of modernity.
All of which subtly but meaningfully hollows out the characters’ agency, their ability to understand and engage with ‘the world’, leaving them more as energetic victims than protagonists in the truer sense. And it’s another worrying take-home message for a moment that needs stories of real empowerment as much as anything.
Which it’s weirdly easy to forget exists: again, most reviewers seem to. Powers’s Life Defense Force achieves a fable-like, ahistorical quality, at best a background for some strong-willed martyrs to define themselves by. A harsh reader might venture that Powers too performs recuperation, turning explosive and unsettling history into something neat, toothless and over.
But whatever else The Overstory’s doing, it also offers a way in: after all, here we are now mentioning the real events. Whether you’ve read it or not, if you fancy learning more about this resonant and pivotal moment in ecological history, check out the podcasts Timber Wars for the overview, Burn Wild for a more specific look at the whole ‘ecoterrorism’ angle, or If a Tree Falls if feature documentaries are more your speed.
Perhaps another reason Overstory’s activists don’t seem wholly human is because they don’t (and/or Powers doesn’t) want to be.
With this too, Powers brushes tantalisingly into what I personally think is truly vital work: questioning our deep cultural ontologies of what humanness really means, what ‘nature’ means, of how we think about the status and value of other life-forms. AKA Eco-philosophy, AKA (if you’re really short on time or dignity or paper:) ecosophy.
Much like with activism, the simple fact of someone popularising this topic with any competence is rare and exciting. And Powers has got competence in spades.
A large swathe of the book is an audacious attempt to make readers care a lot about historical developments in the academic discipline of forestry science (in which he absolutely succeeds), eventually getting to the level of bona fide, shit-you-not, lectures, supplemented copiously with extracts from what’s basically a fictional version of The Hidden Life of Trees. If ecofiction be the food of science communication, play on.
But in something like a plot-twist, it turns out that smuggling all this knowledge into readers’ brains was just the means to Richard’s greater ends: engendering in readers a new sense of respect, of awe, or maybe even love, of nature in general and trees in particular. This raveller really thinks it would be difficult to finish reading Overstory and not look at trees with quite a bit more wonder. (At least, for a while… in an interview, Powers himself acknowledges that it can be tricky to keep alive this new kind of perspective. Maybe there are good reasons to love trees – but aren’t there also stonking reasons to keep disregarding them?)
In its best light, Overstory’s ecosophy offers a visionary template for how we might rescue our minds and our shared culture from the deathly-cold grip of extractivism. And to its credit, this template goes way beyond the usual platitudes of ‘maybe we should, like, slow down and listen to the breeze’ (though yes, of course we should) and bravely offers sketches, in the form of the various characters’ trajectories, of what this might actually look like.
Again though, I’m not sure I actually like the proof in Powers’s pudding – nor do I think it will work for basically anyone who doesn’t already despise themselves.
On the flipside he seems totally unworried by – as in like never once mentions – the atrocity internal to humanity of billions of people dying from the selfishness of others: in his version it seems to be just humans getting their comeuppance. (This seems like an appropriate moment to signpost Kim Stanley Robinson’s strangely comparable masterpiece The Ministry for the Future, which does justice much more credit.)
And boy does he believe in that comeuppance. The Atlantic credits Overstory with a “dark optimism” about the fate of humanity; this raveller is not sure what semantics they’re smoking. Powers propounds without a trace of doubt that we (that is, humans) are all completely fucked, that ecological breakdown is now so far gone as to be wholly irreversible, and that we might as well get comfy with these facts in our remaining few spiralling decades.
This raveller is genuinely curious about doomism and its arguments and merits. It has a strange seductive quality, with some intriguing linkage to the martyrdom complex mentioned above. And certainly, it can add some heft to a novel’s conclusion – this raveller was really laid out by it, experienced the book’s close like a crashing wave composed of bad news from the doctor. And maybe, after all, Powers is right – I’m not an ecologist.
But then, nor is he; and even if he was, it wouldn’t be his place to give us Earth’s prognosis in these terms. Not as if he knows. He doesn’t: he’s a person with some knowledge and some guesswork. Only, by the book’s conclusion he has built himself the image of an angry God.
As activist/scientist Ben Carpenter succinctly sketches in a non-review of his own, it’s a long-established irony of nature writing that misanthropy can show up hand in hand with anthropomorphism: disillusioned writers investing indifferent, alien creatures with the very human virtues they suppose humanity to lack. As Carpenter puts it:
I am not a fan of the projection of human values or personalities onto non-human things. Presuming to be the voice for the voiceless is dangerous territory. It naturalizes one’s own values. When Nature, the fundamental law and foundation of all life shares your opinions on overpopulation, for example, it lends unwarranted authority to your argument and discounts other perspectives.
Carpenter, having expressed these fears, then concedes that Powers only half fulfilled them.
I’m not convinced that The Overstory is the breakthrough piece in nature writing that it could have been if it kept the course set in the beginning.
That is to say: It is slips into sentimentality, especially in the second half. But that is a hard balance: making the non-human world seem human enough that the audience can relate to it, but doing so without letting in sentimentality.
When we claim to be the voice for the voiceless we are taking liberties, and inevitably introducing the perspectives and experiences of our own social positions into the narratives these voices are purported to be speaking.
This uncomfortable question of displaced humanness is all the more haunting in a book that many of its plaudits praise precisely for ‘decentering the human experience’. Is Powers really doing this, or is he just exporting or projecting that experience?
How much does any of this matter? Potentially about as much as anything.
More than any carbon capture scheme or solar wizardry or 1 Weird Geoengineering Trick that will Preserve your Biosphere, we need stories which can offer plausibly sustainable new ways of relating to the natural world. Without this, it really is a question of time until we destroy the material basis of human civilisation.
In this light, Powers is a veritable Elon Musk of ecosophy. He’s by no means got the deepest knowledge of the field, is not down in the lab pushing the theoretical boundaries (in this increasingly tortured analogy that would be more Lovelock or Guattari, stirring test-tubes or colliding hadrons or whatever). Rather, he’s applying breakthroughs into innovations, throwing new ideas together to see what might fly.
Overstory might be one of the most promising experiments to come out of this all-important narratological foundry. It offers an enticing glimpse of how new stories might actually save, or at least change, our world.
Not perfect, but well worth a read.
 This raveller has a theory that the powers that be like to extend this treatment out of fiction and into real reality, the newsreel cutting briefly to some colourful levity at COP, the delegates enjoying some of Greta’s brimstone like they might savour the heat of a similarly-aged whisky. But that’s another topic.
 Indeed, one of the many sermons with which Powers enriches the book takes aim precisely at that diffuse meaning in ‘the world’, sometimes meaning human society, sometimes meaning the ‘actual’ world.
 It’s also, incidentally, what happens when a writer turns their characters into hand-puppets and place-holders and symbols, rather than respecting their status and integrity as characters. But then, is this Powers yielding to his love of preaching or could it be that he’s playing some wicked 3D-chess mimetic commentary on how real-world activists themselves might share that very tendency?
(They do, and this is interesting, but no, he’s not.)
 Someone clever in the land of scholars calls it “Pedagogical Misanthropy”, which sounds sexy even before it gets compared to Stranger Things. Sadly, like way too many good ideas, this one resides behind a paywall.
 As a subject with enormous bearing on wider eco-philosophy, posthumanism is, aptly, a total can of worms. This can of worms is also, as far as this raveller understands, a battleground, fought over by what must be tiny but incredibly smart academics. As it happens, one of these academics has weighed in on Overstory in particular, with the enticing angle of “Inhumanism”. Sadly, like some other ideas you might have heard about, this too is in another paywalled castle.