The Hoel chestnut is the first major tree-as-character that we meet in the novel. Powers describes it as a "sentinel tree," visible from miles away. It directs and orients people, comforting them with its stability and solidity. It is an ancient relic, leftover from some other era, miraculously having escaped the blight. Its size and tenacity mirror many of the Hoel family members, but when it sickens during Nick's era, it then becomes an image of the devastation wreaked on his family and on trees themselves. Even things that seem like they are meant to endure can be brought down by greed, time, or chance.
Patricia and the Trees
Most of the characters have their moment where they experience a calling of sorts—an opening up of their consciousness to the wider world. They receive messages or experience personal epiphanies, oftentimes choosing to henceforth dedicate their life to the cause of helping the trees. In one of Patricia's significant personal moments, she pauses in her drive (of which is a flee from her ruined career) to look at the shimmering, startling aspens. Her walking and musing on the age and vulnerability and operatic nature of the trees' evolution leads her to cry. She is overwhelmed by the drama and by the odds, and by knowing who will lose. This image of Patricia crying amid the forest is a potent one, mirrored by others in the text that reveal how humans' awakening to the plight of the natural world can be a gutting experience.
Many of the most stirring small moments come when the characters come face-to-face with the destruction that has befallen, or will befall, the trees. They see oozing stumps, slashes and burns, decimated hills, misleading scrims. They see numbers spray-painted in white designating which old trees are next to go. They smell the intense odor of freshly murdered trees. They count the rings to see just how old the felled giants were, write messages of despair, or alter the death orders to vex the logging companies. These moments encapsulate the rage, despair, and doggedness of the characters who are on the frontlines of this epic fight.
Nick on the Stump
After Mimas has been cut down and Olivia killed in the failed act of eco-terrorism, "Nick camps in the ghost of Mimas. No tent, no sleeping roll . . . The stump oozes from around its rim, the sap a color that the painter has no name for" (358). In this intensely melancholic image, two shattered beings come together as one. Mimas was cut down and lost the battle; Olivia was killed in what should have been a powerful moment of victory. Now there is just Nick, alone and as viscerally exposed as the destroyed tree. Though Mimas is much more massive than Nick, and much older, they are two equally vulnerable creatures.
The Overstory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Overstory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.