‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers

A total slog – a book that ‘ought’ to be read rather than ‘want’. It’s a heavy going environmental undertaking with the stories, spread over many years, of nine Americans whose different connections with trees bring them together to address, in different ways, the destruction of forests and the environment.

Nick Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman, Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford and Olivia Vandergriff are the nine. Different ages, different backgrounds, different geographical locations. Yet their stories intertwine and intermix.

A college drifter, Olivia is electrocuted and momentarily dies: on revival, she believes she is invincible and that higher powers are messaging her. She heads west and California to a group of activists trying to protect the remaining three percent of giant redwoods. On the way, she meets Nick, equally aimless.

Nonviolent radicals, engineers turned activists, computer programmers, academics, dendrologists: loggers, company men, journalists, police. All lock horns throughout The Overstory as peaceful demonstrations teeter on the edge of violence, as sit-in protesters, handcuffed together across forest access tracks, are violently manhandled or long-term squatters in ingenious makeshift platform encampments high in the trees are forced out by company helicopters.

It’s a narrative of protest, a call-to-action awareness: You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes …

The human narrative is the overstory. But the thousands of years below the surface of the earth is the understory – of the interconnectedness of trees and, as expanded by dendrologist Patricia Westerford through her research, the fact they communicate with each other. Initially derided by colleagues and peers, Westerford drops out of academia and eventually becomes a park ranger in the isolated wilds of Oregon. She later discovers her work has been redeemed and even expanded upon: she becomes something of a environmental cause celebre and dedicates herself to the eco-cause.

People die, marriages collapse, children are born, jobs are lost throughout the arc of Powers’ narrative. Yet the struggle continues. In the life span of tree, the human expectancy of three score and ten is but minor. It’s a tangled narrative, epic in scale, high in concept. It’s also stunningly well written. But to be honest, there were too many times of gritting teeth to continue reading to the end. The end of the 512 pages seemed a very long way off on a few too many occasions.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, The Overstory lost out to Milkman by Anna Burns. It did, however, win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.