Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Black cherry grove...a family of trees on the Kanyoo Trail. Photo by Karin Johnson
Black cherry grove…a family of trees on the Kanyoo Trail. Photo by Karin Johnson

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is the perfect winter read for anyone who cares about the preservation of public lands, and especially trees.  But … it takes reading stamina.  Beginning with a series of short stories with quirky characters from diverse backgrounds, Powers relates each one’s story and brings them together to reveal truths about our relationship to trees.  He seamlessly weaves story with science; how new discoveries about the invisible world of trees connect with our stories.

Nick Hoel, from a farm in Iowa where an American chestnut tree has become a family icon, and Olivia Vandergriff, who survives a harrowing, life- changing experience with death, meet and join with other forest defenders in “illegal” attempts to protect the redwoods from encroaching timber industries.   They reap consequences.  Patricia Westerford, a child who is “hard of hearing” and “hard of speech”, learns to see trees through the eyes of her father.  Patty, watching her father, learns that “real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze … the things people know for sure will change.  There is no knowing for a fact.  The only dependable things are humility and looking.”  

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Making connections. Photo courtesy of
Making connections. Photo by Tom Balabaud on

Through diverse characters like these and their stories, Powers explores the complex ecological, economic, legal and ideological questions of our times, sharing cutting-edge science about trees … how they communicate, nurture their young, relate to each other, share resources and protect one another from danger.  But Powers does so much more.  As Barbara Kingsolver says, he pulls readers “heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size…A gigantic fable of genuine truths.”  

I journaled my way through this book writing lines of those truths in my notebook along with thoughts about them, filling page after page.  Memories of the sugar maple grove surrounding my childhood home surfaced.  I remembered the day it became a sugar maple grave, a clearing for a new house, and I disappeared for the afternoon, alarming my parents.  I could not bear the noise of the saws.  The trees not only provided maple syrup in the spring, but they were the backdrop for our childhood games. In one day the grove became a grave.  

Now … as I hike the Kanyoo Trail at INWR and come upon the black cherry grove, I ponder what is going on underground among their roots and in the air around them that my eyes cannot see and my ears cannot hear. I wonder how the trees are nurturing and protecting one another in ways my senses can’t observe.  And I find I’m moved by gratitude that this family of trees can’t be cut down.  They’re protected.

Books like this, combining science and story, help us experience a heartfelt connection to forests, showing us that trees have much to teach humans.  Powers helps us see that humans need a change of heart followed by a change in priorities… that in understanding our abiding connection to trees, we will resolve to do everything we can to save them.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers
The Overstory, by Richard Powers