The Overstory, A Novel

July and August are hot months in Phoenix, AZ, severe hot like Minnesota is cold in January and February. So for me, it is an excellent time to stay inside and do some summer reading. I started with a novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Richard Powers, The Overstory and it is all about trees!  

I read with a pencil in hand, and I write in my books. This way, I’m ready when the imagery of the language leaps off the page into my soul. I

This is my messy brain

underline, I circle, I write in my “WOW” response, and I add flags extending beyond the pages.  You might not want to borrow a book from me; it could be distracting. My copy of The Overstory is messy, and my mind is messy as I expand my thinking about trees, about activism, protests, and sacrifice. As I write this, the Amazon rainforest is burning, and a line from the book seems prophetic here: “This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”  

An English Chestnut tree

The story begins with the season of chestnuts, in Brooklyn, NY, where immigrants are rejoicing to find these trees. It is the American dream come true in the time of Walden Pond. Food is falling from the trees; it is a time of plenty, hope, and celebration. The nuts are a connection to their life in the old country, but in the USA the chestnut trees will soon suffer and die from a blight. In this 519 page novel, we meet eight different families who connect deeply with trees and over time connect with each other.  

Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and each group offers up wisdom from their unique perspectives.

Patricia is my favorite thinker, but all the characters have much to say to my gardener’s heart. Here are some of my favorite lines. 

Richard Powers, The Overstory

When the world was ending the first time, Noah took all the animals, two + 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. Patricia

Most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species.

Property & 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.

“Trees eat air & sunshine” and give us coffee, vanilla, chocolate, walnuts, apples, peaches and so much more. 

There are trees that spread like fireworks and trees that rise like cones,

The wind blows and the hemlocks wave their feathery leading shoots. Such a graceful profile, so elegant a tree.

The bark gray, the branches beginner green, the needles flat along the shoots, pointing outward and on. The habit tranquil, philosophical, even it is repose, Its cones small downward sleigh bells content in a constant silence.

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.

If these words connect with you, then I believe you will find Richard Powers’s The Overstory a great book. I believe more people must realize trees live in a community with birds, mammals, lichen, fungus, and bacteria. There is a codependency of trees with moss, pollinators, fungi, crickets, lizards, birds and life forms yet unknown to us.

Aspen roots connect underground

Trees are interacting, talking to each other, sending out warning signals regarding imminent danger. Trees share resources when one goes into decline, passing on their legacy to those still living. We can’t just replant Jungles and Forests; they host so much more than trees.

An update:  Sept 27, 2019  Traveling now in Lucerne, Switzerland and I found a stand  roasting and selling chestnuts. People were standing in line to buy them by the bag.  Some bought an entire kilo of them all at once.  This was finally my chance to taste warm, roasted chestnuts.  They were wonderful.  So many levels to go thru to eat these little nuggets.  Gathering, breaking off the prickly outer coating.  Splitting the nut, roasting them just so and then, into a bag, and then pealing them again before nibbling away at this warm nutty treat.

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