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The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) 471 p.

overstory

I finished this the same week the IPCC warned the world in very polite terms that we’ve ignored climate change for so long that we now need to shift to an all-hands-on-deck, Hitler-is-on-the-march campaign of intense carbon reduction and clean energy transition, which of course we won’t. The morning after the report was released I woke to the voice of Australia’s environment minister (and former mining industry employee) telling ABC Radio that it would be “irresponsible” to commit to moving away from coal by 2050. These people make me incredibly fucking angry, as do my fellow Australians who keep voting for them because they refuse to believe that something they can’t personally perceive – something which is occurring on a timescale of decades and centuries rather than weeks or months – is actually worth paying slightly higher prices on their power bills or only making 4% instead of 6% on their stock portfolio this year.

So The Overstorey is a timely novel, a Booker-nominated* environmental saga following half a dozen people whose stories become intrinsically linked after they spend time as radical activists in the early 1990s trying to prevent old growth redwood forests from being logged in California. I thought, at first, it was a collection of short stories, these various characters only connected in the sense that their lives had been influenced by trees in some way – but after the first third of the book, it shifts to a more traditional fashion as the characters all slowly come together, join the movement and face down the overwhelming power of state-backed commerce and natural exploitation.

Powers is, first off, a lyrical writer. There are passages in this book that genuinely shine:

She reads to him of how the English first swarmed a continent that rose from the ocean overnight, seeking masts for their leviathan frigates and ships of the line, masts that no place in all stripped Europe, not even the farthest boreal north, could any longer provide… It’s a story to match any fiction: the well-wooded land, succumbing to prosperity. The light, soft, strong, dimensioned boards, sold back across the ocean as far away as Africa. The triangular profit making the infant country’s fortune: lumber to the Guinea coast, black bodies to the Indies, sugar and rum back up to New England, with its stately mansions all built of eastern white pine. White pine framing out cities, making millions in sawmill fortunes, laying a bed of rails across the continent, building and pitching warships and whaling fleets that wander out from Brooklyn and New Bedford into the unmapped South Pacific, ships made of a thousand trees or more. The white pines of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: split into a hundred billion roof shingles. A hundred million board feet a year, splintered into matchsticks.

And his message is an important one, because even if we’ve heard a message a thousand times before, it’s always worth hearing it again in a beautifully written way. Deforestation, environmental degradation, climate change, the endless human lust for growth: all of these things are connected, and all of these things are leading us towards a world which will at worst be unable to support our own survival and at best be unlikely to contain the wonders of the natural world which we’ve enjoyed over the past few centuries: the redwood forests, the coral reefs, the enormous variety of wild animals.

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 trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.

The Overstorey tends towards the mystical, possibly at the risk of harming its message to a large swathe of readers. I can believe that the human race is turbofucking the planet without believing that trees are sentient, that Manhattan is a less marvellous place now than it was 500 years ago, or that we should (as several characters do) rename ourselves after trees and go live in a forest. It’s still a good and important book, and I finished it with much more appreciation for Powers as a writer than I did for the first third or so. Besides, it’s possibly worth re-examining how much of our disdain for Earth Mother hippie types has been drilled into us by 60 years of capitalist messaging. Considering what the world’s climate scientists keep telling us in increasingly desperate reports, maybe the hippies were on to something.

 

*I continue to be irritated by the Booker’s decision to open itself to American writers, and was amused when this novel kicked off with a Pulitzeresque intergenerational immigrant family saga in the Midwest. There’s an argument to be made that the Booker only being open to the Commonwealth countries is, like the Commonwealth itself, an imperial anachronism, and that the English language is a more natural jurisdiction for the award. But in a world were most of the moneyed authorial classes who speak English as a first language are going to be found in the US anyway, I think it’s more important to have a major book award which is reserved for the rest of us. Or, as Peter Carey put it, the notion of the Americans opening up the Pulitzer to the rest of the world is inconceivable – so why on earth have we gone and done this?

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