The Overstory

The Overstory Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why does Mimi become involved with the activists?

    Mimi is drawn to the trees because they remind her of her father; he committed suicide and, as she loved him deeply, it affected her very badly. She feels that the memory of him planting a mulberry tree in their backyard is something that both binds them together and also represents something that was very important to him. This is why she not only notices when the trees across the street from her office are being cut down, but also why this has such an impact on her. She wants to make sure that the deforestation does not turn the entire state into a concrete jungle and, not long after her initial piqued interest, maintaining the redwood forests shortly becomes the most important thing in her life. This is a void that was left when her father died, and she is attempting to fill it with something that she feels is associated with him.

  2. 2

    How do the environmentalists change as their fight to save the trees continues?

    At first, each of the environmentalists is a law-abiding citizen with a passion and a mission to save the redwood trees before they become completely extinct. They are a little more driven than the majority of people with an interest in something, but by and large they act and react in the same way as most. This changes as they spend more time together. When Olivia and Nick decide to live in the tree for a year, this begins the shift in their thinking from rational yet passionate to, arguably, irrational and lacking in judgement. They give up almost everything in order to live together and protect the forest and are generally considerate and lawful but when they feel frustrated about the continued logging and destruction of trees, they cross the line into unlawful, starting fires and becoming so committed to their arson that Olivia's life is lost. This is something that would not have happened if each of them had been working individually and it would not have occurred at the beginning of their quest.

  3. 3

    Powers initially thought he would have only trees as characters, not humans; why do you think he chose not to go this route?

    Powers did initially plan to have nonhuman characters who were not anthropomorphized, as indigenous and pretechnological people did in their stories and myths, but he realized that it would be hard to grip readers with these creatures that seemed so alien and that operated under such different principles. Humans are necessary for the novel to connect to the readers in a meaningful way. We need to see the human characters as reflections of ourselves, as potential versions of ourselves. We need to understand what we've done to the planet through simply giving way to "human nature." Thus, as we are "plant-blind" and can usually only connect with things that seem like us in some way, the human characters in Powers' novel help us see how we can understand trees and work to change our behavior and beliefs.

  4. 4

    What role does psychology play in the text?

    Adam's intellectual awakening comes when he reads Rabinowski's account of cognitive biases that are evolutionary holdovers and can impede our ability to truly see ourselves and the truth around us. We embrace "in-group" thinking and tribal allegiance, caring more about our species and both its individual and collective endeavors and drives and needs than those of other species. This helps explain why otherwise good people can care so little about the natural world, and why "bad" people get away with so much destruction. It explains why people double-down on their own, as when Adam's wife encourages him to turn in others to save himself and his family, and he ponders, "there it is: the ultimate commandment. Take care of your own. Protect your genes. Lay down your life for one child, two siblings, or eight first cousins" (461).

  5. 5

    Why is one of the central characters a coder, and what is the important of computers in the fight to save the trees?

    Powers himself lived and worked in Silicon Valley, and the neighboring Santa Cruz Mountains were where the seeds of this novel germinated. Along with, and more important than, the personal connections to the world of coding, Powers also has a purpose in making Neelay a coder who grapples with what his creations can do for humankind and the natural world. People increasingly live their lives in the digital universe, which could be said to remove them from the natural world, but computers allow us, as Powers says, "to build model events of scales of time far outside our pwn and to translate and visualize the changes that take place in ecosystems at the speed of trees. That's why Silicon Valley also plays an important role in The Overstory . . . " Powers adds more to this, explaining, "It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands. The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things."