She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another.
The “she” is Patricia Westerford, a scientist obsessed with trees. (But then, every major character in the novel is obsessed with trees.) Patty’s obsession goes toward research insisting upon the reality of the social order of trees. At first she is summarily dismissed by the scientific community, of course, but as time passes her thesis is taken more seriously. Regardless, the premise of the entire novel is constructed upon this insistence that trees are not what we think they are.
You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways.
Patty’s theoretical construct of the relationship between humans and trees forms the foundation upon which the story expands and grows. It is not just that both humans and trees are social creatures which live within a social condition; they share not just a world, but a history. Thus, one must learn about humanity if one wants to learn the secrets of Nature, and vice versa.
“When the world was ending the first time, Noah took all the animals, two by 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, and concentrated on saving the freeloaders!”
Though The Overstory features nine different main characters, it is perhaps Patricia's groundbreaking theories that really seem to tie everything and everyone together. The reference to Noah and the end of the world is especially significant because of exactly what she says and what the Bible leaves out of the story. How could a worldwide deluge threatening to destroy all life on earth ever recede quickly enough to leave enough flora for the fauna to feast upon? Kill the flora and the fauna will die. On the other hand, if humans go extinct, trees will flourish again, proving we need trees more than trees need us—and that, ultimately, is the message of the novel.
She remembers the Buddha's words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it. And with those words, she has her book's end.
The Overstory is a profoundly intertextual work. There are references to Shakespeare, the Bible, Ovid, the Buddha, Gandhi, and more. Buddha in particular is an important influence on the text. His teachings on the necessity of respecting all forms of life, living sustainably and harmoniously, and being self-aware of the impact of one's behavior and choices are timeless. Powers references many non-Western texts in order to suggest that we have to look beyond the Western canon for counsel, assistance, and inspiration. He has said that his book embraces a "religion without metaphysics," a "kind of bio-pantheism," and a "telos in living things that scientific empiricism shies away from." The Buddha is an apposite example of a figure in this vein.
The stories are old and fluid, as old as humankind. They're somehow familiar, as if she were born knowing them.
Patricia is referencing Ovid's Metamorphoses, one of the most important Roman collections of myths and stories. In it people and trees are often intertwined, without the contemporary demarcation between the species and humans' assumptions that they are more important. Powers includes Ovid purposefully and as part of one of his larger themes. In an interview Powers expressed his belief that "one way or another, we humans are on our way to becoming something else. The question is rather how gracefully or how violently we make that Ovidian metamorphosis."
If memories change the pathways of the brain, then the trail must still be there. It's just a matter of waiting for the wild things to emerge out of the understory.
Neelay is giving voice to what Adam also studies: the fact that humans have an evolutionary connection to their ancestors, that they retain cognitive biases and drives that might hamper them today, but that they also have ways of tapping into their pre-technological, pre-exceptionalist history in order to salvage what they can of themselves and the planet. These collective, unconscious memories are there, and if we can pick up their trail then we can find our way back to a sustainable way of existing.
But he has made her happy in the only place where people really live, the few-second-wide window of Now.
Though the conversation between Neelay and his mother regarding a fictive girlfriend is relatively unimportant to the plot, this succinct quote is a perfect encapsulation of humans' experience and understanding of time. We really only live in the Now, and have difficulty seeing beyond that to a much longer future—the future that moves at the speed of trees, of wood, of forests. This means that we are blind to the impact our behaviors and choices have on ourselves, our posterity, and the natural world. Powers suggests we must start to see the longer view before it is too late to see at all.
Remember? People aren't the apex species they think they are. Other creatures—bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful—call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.
This is one of the most important themes of the novel. As she is speaking to the judge in the hearing for the injunction, Patricia flashes back to her time with her father and how he instilled in her some of the most lasting lessons of her life. In this quote Patricia is articulating a thought most humans are just not ready to hear: that they are not the most important species in the world (perhaps, intimated, just the most destructive) and other species have a much more important role to play than they themselves do. And by extension, even as humans' destruction of those species is actually bringing about their own end, this is rarely something people can understand, hard-wired as they are with their myopic vision of the world.
Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every living organism is bred to be slaughtered.
This is the nadir for the protestors—the ultimate low point, the point at which everything they've worked for seems to have (literally) blown up, and one of their own lies dying because of their errors and mistaken sense of infallibility. Adam despairs in a way he, or anyone else for that matter, hasn't despaired before. He sees a bitter, monstrous future in which the values of property and mastery overcome those of generosity, collaboration, and sustainability; a future where the natural world is destroyed and reshaped by humans to the point of unrecognizability; a future where capitalism is so perverted and grotesque that three people can claim to own the whole world; and a future where every species is meant for nothing other than to be killed for a profit. It's an astonishing vision, and one that horrifies in its likelihood if things don't change very, very soon.
This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.
Nick is given the last words of the novel, which is fitting as he has become an example of the sort of human who sees beyond the temporal. His last art piece, "Still," is done in the middle of the wilderness and is to be viewed primarily from space. It will endure for eons, as will its message. He has come to understand the nature of humans and the natural world, and what their entwined fates will be. Specifically in this quote, he is responding to Olivia's question as she was dying—whether or not what they have will end. Whereas readers might interpret that initially to be about their romance, it now seems clear that it addresses a much larger question, and one much more befitting of Olivia and of Powers' ultimate message.
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.