The Overstory – Book Review

People and trees and wonder.

Regardless of whether you are a tree hugger or not The Overstory is a gripping tale worth reading.

Near the end of November, I found a key labeled 2P inside of our mailbox that resides in a cluster of mailboxes at the top of our street. When anyone receives a package, the mail carrier places it in one of the two parcel lockers and leaves the key in that person’s mailbox. I opened locker 2P and discovered a package inside addressed to me from my brother.

My brother and I stopped exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts ages ago. What could it be? At home, I opened the box. Inside was a copy of The Overstory and card from my brother saying he hoped I would enjoy reading it.

I was delighted!

After sending my brother a thank-you text, I walked upstairs to our home office, logged onto our library’s online portal, and gleefully canceled my request for the book. Our library system has 38 copies and I had been 97th on the waitlist.

Book Review

Brace yourself. The Overstory is both brutal and beautiful. I know that sounds weird. Read the book and you will see what I mean.

When I opened the book to read it, I did glance at the “Table of Contents” and noticed the four main sections are called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” But I did not understand the structure of the book until I got to the “Trunk” part. Then I realized it is a cross between a collection of short stories and a novel.

You will meet the main people characters in “Roots” and then follow them on a series of converging journeys through the rest of the book. Along the way, you will meet many, many trees.

The narrative in the book is complex so pay attention.

The Overstory Book Cover

On the pages of The Overstory, Powers interlaces observations about what is happening in the world with stories about people and trees. The commentary is subtle but you may run across sentences or paragraphs that make you stop and reread them because they are both eloquent and stark.

Here are a few examples that hopefully will spark your interest in reading the book

After a court hearing, there is a protest demonstration with lumberjacks on one side and tree huggers on the other.

“Enemies shout at each other across the gap, stoked by triumph and humiliation. Decent people loving the land in irreconcilable ways.”

One night a man and a woman are sitting in an ancient tree called Mimas trying to prevent it from being cut down.

“Yet on such a night as this, as the forest pumps out its million-part symphonies and the fat, blazing moon gets shredded in Mimas’s branches, it’s easy for even Nick to believe that green has a plan that will make the age of mammals seem like a minor detour.”

As arson flames race across a construction site a psychologist studying activists has a terrifying epiphany.

“The clarity of recent weeks, the sudden waking from sleepwalk, his certainty that the world has been stolen and the atmosphere trashed for the shortest of short-term gains, the sense that he must do all he can to fight for the living world’s most wondrous creatures: all these abandon Adam, and he’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all the trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

During a strategy meeting, a game programmer responds to a request from his boss to build a game about the natural world.

“Not more plants, boss. You can’t make a game out of plants. Unless you give them bazookas.”

A botanist turns the page in a book and sees this.

“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or 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.”

The Bottom Line

Richard Powers entered college as a physics major and left with an M.A. in Literature. He is an accomplished musician and an avid reader with a curious mind. Powers wrote his first book Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance while working as a computer programmer. Since then he has written eleven more novels and has won numerous awards. His twelfth book The Overstory was the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel dismayed and uplifted at the same time? That is how reading The Overstory was for me. The histories of the main characters are mostly tragic yet they are all touched by trees in poignant and sometimes magical ways.

The underlying thread woven into this magnificent narrative is that we humans are destroying the natural world and other beings that have inhabited Earth far longer than we have.

Each reader will take away something different from reading the book. The message I received is that we can turn back and take a different path. If we don’t, Mother Nature will not care she will just carry on.

There is a reason that the library waitlist for this book is so long. Buy it or borrow it, read it, and then you will know, too.

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

Featured Image at Top

This photo shows someone’s daughter touching a tree and looking up at this magnificent being – photo iStock/stockstudioX.

Related Posts

Horizon – Book Review

You are going on a journey.

Horizon by Barry Lopez will make you hit the pause button on your busy life to ponder what it means to be a human being living on amazing planet Earth.

I believe this is a good thing.

When you give yourself permission to step away from your overbooked calendar and endless to-do list, you give yourself a gift. You make space in your mind to wonder at the world, contemplate what and who is really important to you, and determine what you are willing to do to protect it and them.

That is what this book is about for me. You may find something else that resonates with you. I doubt anyone reading it will walk away untouched.

Book Review

Before you settle into a comfortable chair and crack open Horizon, you should be aware that you are about to become a time traveler. Proper clothing and a spirit of adventure are essential as you will be accompanying Lopez on excursions into the past at some of the most remote places on Earth.

Horizon is a memoir, travel diary, and a treatise on humanity. Bits of history and geography reside alongside commentary about the state of the world and the people who occupy it.

Even readers with a good grasp of vocabulary will probably find themselves looking up at least a few words.

At the beginning of Horizon, Lopez gives readers a brief overview of his personal history and explains why he wrote the book.

Then you will head off to the first of six destinations spanning the globe.

Horizon Book Cover
  • Cape Foulweather, Oregon
  • Skraeling Island, Canada
  • Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Islands, Eastern Equatorial Pacific
  • Jackal Camp, Kenya, Eastern Equatorial Africa
  • Port Arthur to Botany Bay, Australia
  • Graves Nunataks, Antarctica to Port Famine Road, Chile

Lopez uses these locations as backdrops for recounting his own explorations as well as those of famous and not famous people of the past and present. His descriptions of these places are breathtaking making you feel as if you are there. Underlying the geography, flora, fauna, weather, and history of these regions is a running commentary on humanity.

You will find awe and grief and hope among the pages of Horizon.

Lopez does not shy away from making eloquent yet blunt statements about the state of the world as he observes it. Some people may not want to read these words but for me, they speak the truth.

“I read daily about the many threats to human life—chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world, or by people’s attempts to overrun, streamline, or dismiss that world as simply a warehouse for materials, or mere scenery.”

He also embraces all of humanity and delivers messages that I believe are universal.

“It has long seemed to me that what most of us are looking for is the opportunity to express, without embarrassment or judgment or retaliation, our capacity to love.”

The Bottom Line

Barry Lopez is an adventurer, artist, and author. Judging by the opportunities he receives to visit far-flung places to work alongside archaeologists, biologists, and other scientists, he must know an inordinate number of people and be an adequate field researcher who possesses excellent camping skills.

He has traveled extensively around the globe sharing his observations of the non-human natural world as well as the people who inhabit it now, did in the past, or may in the future.

In the beginning, reading Horizon was kind of a chaotic experience. It seemed as if one minute Lopez was describing a patch of land on the Oregon Coast, then he would switch to talking about Captain James Cook’s attempt to land there hundreds of years ago, and the next moment he would be discussing the avariciousness of humans.

Then I realized that I liked this. It was as if I was accompanying Lopez on his travels and having a conversation (all be it one-sided) with him that went on for 512 pages.

I paused often to mark passages with sticky flags or to form my own response to something he had just said. Sometimes I would bring topics to the dinner table to discuss with my family so in a way they were on the journey, too.

All through the book, Lopez acknowledges that each person perceives places, people, and information in their own way. He throws his observations out there and then steps back allowing you to feel and think for yourself.

Horizon is worth the time it will take you to read it.

“We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light.”

Featured Image at Top: View of Cape Foulweather from the Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint on the Oregon coast – photo credit MightyFree/Wikipedia.

Related Posts