Book Report: For the love of trees


An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.”
citation from the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

Pretty impressive right? That’s why I’d been on the wait-list for The Overstory for months, but it kept appearing at inopportune times. I kept clicking “Deliver Later” until finally, in early December, I accepted.

As I began to read The Overstory, I realized it would be neither a quick, nor easy read. I ended up buying a copy, knowing I’d never finish before it was due back at the library.

At first, it seemed to be just a series of stories with trees in them that introduced unconnected characters: Adam, Mimi, Douglas, Olivia, Nick, Neelay, Patricia, Dorothy, and Ray. I double-checked the book. Nope, not a collection of stories. It was a novel. And a well-received and notable one at that. Therefore, I trusted the author and kept reading.

I’d had to do the same thing when I read Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier) and Life After Life (Kate Atkinson). I needed to keep going and trust that a pattern, a story, a theme would emerge. It did.

Essentially this is an epic love story about trees and the humans trying to protect them.

The history of trees:

“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.

“Men and trees are closer cousins than you think. We’re two things hatched from the same seed, heading off in opposite directions, using each other in a shared place.”

“This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”

The value of trees

No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments of pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees—trees are invisible.

“When the world was ending the first time, Noah took all the animals, two by two, and loaded them aboard his escape craft for evacuation. But it’s a funny thing: He left the plants to die. He failed to take the one thing he needed to rebuild life on land, and concentrated on saving the freeloaders!

“To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

The protection of trees:

“As if forests were waiting all these four hundred million years for us newcomers to come care for them.

The best and easiest way to get a forest to return to any plot of cleared land is to do nothing—nothing at all, and do it for less time than you might think.”

“There are seeds that need fire. Seeds that need freezing. Seeds that need to be swallowed, etched in digestive acid, expelled as waste. Seeds that must be smashed open before they’ll germinate. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.”

Richard Powers’ writing is glorious. And the sustained metaphor of trees and branches that he achieves and maintains throughout the book is genius, simply genius. While the book may not be for everyone, I loved it and recommend it highly. Because,

 “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

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