In September 2019, think-tank Climate Focus released a report indicating that the rates of deforestation had increased rapidly, when it was otherwise expected for the rate of deforestation to be sliced in half between 2004 – 2020. Deforestation has surged by 43%. Not only that, but there appear to be new hot spots for deforestation across central Africa.
The forests are burning and being destroyed at an alarming rate, whilst the almanac of world leaders act as spectators; nothing other than insouciant passengers watching as the destruction of the planet’s coniferous and tropical biotopes edges us toward a point of extinction. They are the destroyers of the Anthropocene.
Richard Powers is a novelist and his career, to this point, cannot be defined to—nor should it be condensed to—a single stylistic literary buzzword or placed into any sort of genre. He is a writer who participates in a myriad of fields.
For instance, Powers initially trained and worked as a computer programmer and, in his novels prior to The Overstory, Powers explores music and composition theory (The Time Of Our Singing, Orfeo). Powers wrangles with neuroscience and mainstream medical writing in his National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker, and Powers explores late-20th-century concepts of artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2.
Powers, then, is a contemporary polymath: his work encompasses the broad continuum of human experience. However, in his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, Powers turns his attention to the climate crisis.
In an interview with The Guardian’s Alex Preston, Powers comments that, in regard to trees, he is an arboreal autodidact. He further stated that the knowledge he has accumulated on the environment has been from the ‘120 single-volume books about trees’ that he has read, including the non-fiction writer he admires the most: Robert Macfarlane. The Overstory, then, is a clear departure from Powers’ other work, and required a different field of research: The Overstory is, foremostly, an ecologically driven novel.
The text, on a structural level, features a series of eight interwoven narratives alongside a network of characters each featuring distinct destinies and personalities. There is the story of Nicholas Hoel, a product of a long genealogical line of Norwegian-Americans, whose relationship to the natural world is foregrounded alongside a large chestnut tree originally planted by the Hoel’s original patriarch. Hoel —alongside Olivia Vandergriff (another central figure with her own story)—joins a group of non-violent radicals. There is also the academic drama surrounding arborist Patricia Westerford who discovers the ways in which trees are able to communicate with each other.
And there is also the story of programmer and video game developer Neelay Mehta, the paralysed child of Indian immigrants. He creates a series of incredibly influential games built upon a simulation of the natural world; video games charged by infinite regression and marked by their unlimited potential for creation. Though these are just a few characters in Powers’ cast, The Overstory is a novel that is universal in its story world—a cosmos tangled under the pressure of tragedy, drama, love and yet singular in its scope.
Synopsis aside, Powers’ novel is split into four sections that correspond to the fundamental anatomy of trees—the first being ’Roots’, then ‘Trunk’, followed by ‘Crown’, and finally ‘Seeds’— forming a literary nexus that reveals a phylogenetic mapping of trees as the novel progresses. Powers’ writing is indebted to the grammar of trees and the arboreal culture they signify.
The most important character in The Overstory, though, is Mimas the primordial giant redwood tree that Nicholas and Olivia inhabit in order to prevent its uprooting. For Powers, redwood trees are monolithic fortifications harbouring their own unique ecological cultures that stand in diametric opposition to the predatory nature of American fossil fuel capitalism. The giant redwoods are emblems of biodiversity and Powers presents the struggle of these trees—as performed by Nicholas and Olivia—as one of urgency.
Though it is a long novel, and Powers is certainly not afraid of flirting with excess. It is not a surprise, for me at least, that The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. What makes The Overstory sustain its environmental charge is that this is a novel driven by conceptual density in dialogue with Powers’ sense of poeticism. Whilst the Climate Emergency is raging and forests are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, Powers’ masterpiece is an antidote to the damage that has arisen from the Anthropocene.