At the center of the world is a tree connecting the nine realms. A squirrel runs up and down its trunk delivering news from the gods to the giants, dwarves, and men. At the center of a garden is a tree. A snake offers its juicy fruit. Outside the bathroom window is a Colorado Blue Spruce Grandpa Mac planted for his grandkids.
The Overstory by Richard Powers, awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, tells the stories of nine individuals as their lives branch together. At the center of each story is a life marked in someway by a tree. The opening section, “Roots,” seems like a collection of short stories in an anthology about trees. The first story traces the growth of an endangered chestnut on a family farm in Iowa over the course of four generations, each generation photographing the tree’s growth and compiling a flipbook over the course of a century. The Overstory develops like the tree of this flipbook, each page progressively revealing the growth of a great tree. The opening stories are spread deep and wide like roots over generations and geographies, eventually growing together into a trunk when all the stories converge, then branching out and spreading into a leafy crown. Every page a ring in the book’s trunk, every character a seed.
How quick our lives must be from the perspective of an ancient tree. The Overstory spans the time from when a family of European settlers in North America moved west and settled in Iowa to today. Throughout the novel monumental cultural touchpoints of the last century or so—the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Vietnam War, 9/11, Occupy Wall Street, the birth of video games—all warrant mention but are only passing curiosities to the life of redwoods, oaks, and spruces. What is a century of war and industrialization to the Ankerwycke Yew which watched the Magna Carta be sealed? Or, to the already ancient olive tree in Gethsemane that witnessed Christ sweat blood in anguish?
At over five hundred pages, The Overstory develops at the pace of a tree. It plants itself in the soil of your soul and grows deep and high. One character in the book is an author who writes a treatise on trees and when her nameless, faceless editor in New York reads it they have a conversation analogous to my reading of The Overstory:
“Unbelievable. Who knew that trees got up to all those things?”
“Well. A few hundred million years of evolution gives you a repertoire.”
“You make them come alive.”
“Actually, they were alive already.”
“[You] wouldn’t believe what you have me seeing, between the subway stop and my office . . .”
After finishing The Overstory the world seemed much more green, the ground charged with glory. You wouldn’t believe what I saw. The walk from my apartment in a busy city center to my office on the other side of a church garden teems with life I had never noticed before.
But as I read, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant. And not just personally insignificant, I felt all of humanity’s insignificance. What are our lives? Seventy, maybe eighty years? The world’s oldest tree is a five-thousand-year-old bristlecone pine in California. The human characters in Powers’s novel are like the acorns, underbrush, and leaves on the ground of a forest from which the true story grows. The humans of The Overstory are there as our eyes to the story of trees. Three activists climb a twenty-story sequoia named after the giant from myth, Mimas, and it is there, in myth and story, where humans try to find meaning. Powers muses through one of his characters, “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.”
This sense of human insignificance is most evident in how trauma, particularly death, is the catalytic experience in the lives of these humans we spend the novel with. Death lingers everywhere in The Overstory. A father commits suicide, a family dies on Christmas Eve from carbon monoxide poisoning, a marriage falls apart and just as one spouse serves the other divorce papers the one being served has a stroke. People live and die quickly. One character, in the midst of self-medicated hedonic ecstasies, is electrocuted and dies. She’s resurrected and in the twinkling of a wall outlet is changed. But death is not the end in The Overstory. A Douglas-fir, when it falls, becomes a new ecosystem rich with life. But the novel leaves the reader wondering, what of man?
For there is hope of a tree, if it goes down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender branches will not cease. Though the root grows old in the earth, and the stock dies in the ground, at the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs. But man, man wastes away and dies and gives up the ghost, and where is he?
When my Grandpa Mac died, my aunt, grieving in her own way, said, “He’s an angel now.” It felt like losing him again. I hid in the bathroom and, beneath the shadow in the window of the Colorado Blue Spruce that Grandpa Mac had planted decades earlier, I cried while reading a joke in an old Reader’s Digest. (“When I turned forty a friend sent me a UB40 CD. When they turned forty I sent them Joshua Tree by U2.”) What had Grandpa Mac become? An angel? Chaff in the wind? Where had he gone?
Humans are like new grass, in the morning it springs up new but by evening is dried and withered. What are our lives? In the shade of God’s eternity, under the branches of ancient trees, we are dirt. We come from dirt and return to dirt. But answering mine and Powers’s doubts about our significance the Apostle Paul writes:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. . . So will it be with the resurrection of the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42a
Though Paul says it’s foolish to ask I wonder what kind of body Grandpa Mac will have. Will he be a young man again, waving goodbye to his sister and mother as he ships out to the Pacific Theatre? Or will he have the tree-knot red nose and mossy crown of hair he had the day we dug with spades in the backyard and planted a tree? I suppose we can no more know what kind of bodies we will have than acorns can know what will sprout when they fall to the ground. Perhaps we will be like the towering oaks at Seyller Park watching a grandpa play with his grandson, that grandson playing with his own son, and someday that son playing with his child. When we die our bodies are like seeds. When our caskets are lowered in the ground we’re not being buried and forgotten but planted. We will grow into mighty forests.
The Overstory is the sort of book that changes you like a walk in the woods. As a psychologist in the novel argues, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Richard Powers’s prose is verdant and lush, it invites you to linger. Like the California redwoods The Overstory draws your eyes up from the page and beyond the self to the vibrant world all around.
Cover photo by Ian Matyssik.