By Chet Yarbrough
By Richard Powers
Narrated by Suzanne Toren
RICHARD POWERS (AUTHOR, AMERICAN PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH)
Humanity’s years of life are but a blink of an eye. Richard Powers, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, tilts at a windmill that neither generates power, grinds corn, or pumps water.
You love Powers way with words but come away from “The Overstory” feeling like Quixote’s relatives–mourning his loss of sanity but rejoicing in his belief of love and life.
Humans think themselves the center of the universe. To we puny creatures, no life is more important than human life. Powers argues otherwise.
Humans are not the center of the universe. Humans are part of an ecosystem; a system millions of years older. A conclusion drawn by “The Overstory” is that the earth’s ecosystem will live millions of years after humans are gone.
Powers tells a story that offers slim hope for humanity. A congregation of misfits grow to understand the frailty of humanity and its essential need to support nature. “The Overstory” begins in seemingly random stories of disparate characters who become part of a group of revolutionaries. In some parts of the country, they are called “tree huggers”.
Powers forcefully develops the argument that trees are the foundation and future of life. Every tree tells natures’ story of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Every character in Powers’ story either supports forest preservation through protest or example.
A protest results in an accidental death. An example is the story of a husband and wife who symbolize the importance of a singular tree that cannot speak in a language that people can understand.
Powers’ story is about the preservation of all life.
ECO-TERRORIST INCIDENT IN CALIFORNIA 2006
The protest is by a disparate group of eco-terrorists who sabotage a lumber harvesting company’s property. One of the rebels dies from a firebomb meant to stop the harvest. The consequence is the death of one, and the guilt carried by surviving rebels. Those who survive, get on with their lives. Many years after the incident, two of the participants are caught. One chooses to implicate another to receive a lighter (7 year) sentence. The other is sentenced to two seventy-year life sentences.
A stroke is an example of ecological ignorance to Powers.
Powers’ symbolic example of human ecological ignorance is a highly successful corporate lawyer who has a stroke and cannot communicate with his wife. He deeply loves his wife, but she insists on being free of any ownership by another, whether from love or physical possession.
The lawyer reminds one of trees that live but cannot communicate with humans. His wife chooses to stay with him in his tree-like existence and begins to realize how he sees and understands without being able to clearly communicate. She is free and begins to comprehend what freedom means when she looks out the window and interprets what her husband sees.
If there is revelation in Power’s story, it is not human centered. The only slender hope Powers offers is for the language of trees to be understood by humanity. The disparaging term “tree huggers” implies there is no hope.
THE LANGUAGE OF TREES
In travels around the world, one witnesses China’s ecological crises when everyone, including indigenous Chinese, drink bottled water. Our guide in India notes his country is teetering on the brink of ecological catastrophe. And, our American President denies global warming by calling it a hoax. It seems unlikely the world will wake up before it is too late.
Trees may have a language, but technology is unlikely to provide any translation that humanity will accept. One hopes Powers’ imaginative story is a Cervantes’ tale; not a prophecy.