The man looks up into the sky as the trees around him share their messages with each other. He is sorrowful, knowing his life will never be the same. A sense of the doom of mankind fills him, but the creatures around him tell him that since he is here, it can be different.
The memories of what happened that day are not easily excised. The group put Olivia’s body into the fire to send it into the forever. On the way out they argued amongst themselves about what to do, Douglas the only one who advocated for turning themselves in. Instead, they bid each other goodbye, promised to never turn each other in, and dispersed in Portland.
Nick camps on the ghost of Mimas, unsure of what to do now. Olivia’s voice is gone, as are those of the trees. Douglas wants to stay with Mimi but she refuses. The media assumes what happened at the site was the work of a deranged killer. Adam returns back to academia and becomes a noted figure in his field.
Nick cannot stay at Mimas; he knows that. He also cannot get picked up for anything. The thought of some message, though, weighs on him. He rents a cabin nearby and watches the rain. Things become dangerous, though, when the mountainside loosens and starts pouring down. Amazingly, he and his neighbors are saved by a line of redwoods that are slated for destruction.
Douglas pressures Mimi to let him be with her, but her answer is still a definitive no. He decides to drive back to the site where it all went so wrong, but as he nears, he seems to hear Maidenhair and Mimi telling him to turn away. He drives aimlessly away for miles and miles. Something strange catches his eye and he turns off an exit. He drives down to a poplar grove, parks, and walks out. There he finds what is clearly an abandoned, invisible town, all of it being subsumed by nature.
Mimi decides to sell the scroll and meets with Mr. Siang, an art dealer. He tries to obfuscate the value of the piece but she does not let him and threatens to take it to a museum. He caves, and gives her a tremendous amount of money—enough that she and her sisters and their children can live comfortably forever. She is ready to assume a new identity.
Dorothy is taking care of Ray, who is buried alive in himself. He seems to implore her to let him end it but she stubbornly refuses to even hint that she understands his request. She thought she could not do it; the first weeks were hell but practice made her manage minute by minute.
He cannot really communicate other than with muddled words, but today he says he wants to do their traditional morning ritual of the crossword. She is chilled but it turns out to be easier than parking him in front of the TV. After lunch she reads War and Peace, her eyes often filling with unbidden tears. After dinner with Ray she goes out and meets with her new boyfriend, Alan. When she comes home, she greets Ray in surprise, thinking he’d be asleep. He asks for the crossword again, and as usual, his patience exceeds hers. She remembers how loving he was when she told him she was leaving him before the incident. Tonight, though, he surprises her—he is able to painstakingly write out the word “releaf,” an answer that had eluded them in the morning crossword. She cries in joy and sadness, commending him.
Twenty springs pass. Patricia writes of disappearing species, Nick hides and works, Adam teaches and writes.
Neelay has issued Mastery 8 now, and is wandering around the game doing a little private r&d. It is market day in a town he has not visited before; trading used to be bartering, now it is with cash. He hears someone say “Idiot” and looks to see an avatar. He asks what the man means. The man says that people shouldn’t do this stuff when it’s also all outside the game, and that this whole thing needs an overhaul; he used to love it but now it is always the same. Neelay suggests doing something else but the player scoffs that he tried that and there’s nothing. In fact, he says bluntly that the game has a Midas problem. To his growing despair, Neelay realizes this is true—“everything is dying a gold-plated death” (377).
Adam is promoted to associate professor and every moment of every day is busy. He is eating and working and watching the news at the same time one day when he sees reports of more environmental activism and arson. He does not know if it is his old friends or new people, but, shockingly, he does know that he is ready to get back into it himself. Mimi, in San Francisco, also hears of this and fears that she will be arrested at any moment. Nick never hears of it. He is a stockboy in Bellevue, Washington, working fast and mechanically to stave off his thoughts. At night he works on the murals he is painting around the city’s neighborhoods. The new one is a chestnut, marked with a barcode. Olivia haunts his dreams nightly, always asking her question.
Ray tells his wife to leave him daily but she pretends not to understand. He wishes her happiness when she is away but cannot help but be happy himself to see her in the morning. They are still reading together, but for many hours he is staring outside into the backyard. He is entranced by the drama of squirrels, insects, wind, branches.
Douglas is out in his Bureau of Land Management cabin that he has been allowed to live in to work as a caretaker for the handful of tourists that come during the warmer months to this ghost town. He is not at all connected to the world outside, the year 2000 and its purported end of the Information Age. He has been working on a “Manifesto of Failure” about how he became a traitor to his species. He uses only his compatriots’ forest names but he is honest. It keeps him busy, and he pours his frustrations into it. He wonders “What the Fuck Went Wrong with Mankind” (386) in his writing, penning thoughts on humans cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds for worthless detritus.
Later Douglas goes out for a walk, and, for the second time in his life trees save his life: something he thinks is a solid ridge collapses, and he is tossed down the cliff, managing to snag a savior in the form of a tree. He imagines Olivia comforting him and telling him that he is not done yet.
Though Patricia is past retirement age, she is working as hard as she’s ever worked before. She frequently speaks about her project to garner funds for it, then travels the world collecting seeds to preclude the doom of some of the planet’s species. The press loves her enterprise and writes favorably of it. She speaks to journalists often, who glaze over when she discusses the fatal things humans are doing. Inside her vault, which feels like a chapel crossed with a high-tech library, it seems like the seeds are singing to her.
She travels to Brazil, where she marvels over the new species discovered and how vastly such trees disperse. She thinks of Dennis, waiting for her at home. He never asks the question that he wants to—who will do the replanting of all these seeds she’s gathering? One day her team points out a tree with an image of the Virgin on it, and Patricia is struck by something not often part of the discussion nowadays—myth. She shows Dennis at home and they both laugh at how amazing and eerie it is. He suggests that they make a poster and have the words, “They’re Trying to Get Our Attention” on it. That night, Dennis passes away in his sleep.
Dorothy’s boyfriend Alan asks her to finally make a choice between himself and Ray, telling her he is tired of sharing. She responds that it is share or nothing, and he leaves.
Mimi Ma, who goes by Judith Hanson now, is waiting for her last client of the day in San Francisco. She is one of many unconventional therapists in the city, but she is a popular one. Stephanie, the client, arrives and they begin their session. Mimi’s approach is complete and utter silence—hours and hours of it. They look into each other’s eyes and the truths begin to tumble out into wordlessness. Mimi is just as affected as Stephanie is, crying and trying to come to terms with her own demons. Stephanie finishes up, a changed woman, and steps outside.
Nick returns to the site of the old Hoel family farm, but it is much changed. The chestnut is gone the house itself is decrepit. He peeks in and then waits on the porch; he is used to waiting. It is silent and lonesome out here; a massive agribiz machine tills the earth in the distance. Finally Nick begins to dig, unearthing his art and the flip book of the chestnut. His thoughts go to Olivia and how they met here.
Nick begins to transport the work to his car and back. Suddenly police sirens disturb him and he knows he can do nothing but politely acquiesce. He can document why he is here and he does so. The police are less than impressed when they see his “art,” but his Hoel name is recognizable to one of the cops. He is let go because the business manager of the property does not care about the buried treasure, and the cops warn him to stay away.
Neelay sits with his five project managers, telling them of the Midas problem in Mastery. They are young millionaires, skeptical of his claims of problems with the game. One of them concedes there could be an issuing with the leveling up, and suggests they just raise experience level caps again and add new technologies. Neelay states that this is just postponing—“Lather, rinse, repeat, until you die of consummation” (411). The young tech wizards humor Neelay, listening to him extol the merits of good stories and his ideas for the game—a place with atmosphere, water quality, prairies, the richness of the real world. The players would search for truth in the way the real Earth searches for truth; no new continents, faster growth rates, rising from the grave, etc. Instead the players learn how life really works and what it wants from a player. One man, Kaltov, bursts out that their players will all walk because they’ve built up too much. Neelay shrugs that they have nowhere to walk; they’ve invested years and gained fortunes in the game. He asks them to imagine a game where the goal is growing the world, not just themselves.
Each project manager votes no and Neelay is not surprised. This parallel world he has created will keep going on, “faithful to the tyranny of the place it presumes to escape” (414). He now knows what it feels like to be eaten alive by his own offspring.
A young woman adventuring out in the area stops in to talk with Douglas. He tells her old stories and she feigns interest. She attempts to seduce him and he graciously declines, but says she can stay the night. Later he sees light under the cabin door in the room where she is staying, and he wonders what she is reading. It will turn out later that she has come across his writing, and it is going to be everything the government needs. He didn’t use real names, of course, but the tree names are familiar enough, and all the crimes they committed are there.
Dorothy and Ray have been through some gut-wrenchingly terrible times, but now he is quite calm. Today he gestures to a tree outside and manages to ask what kind it is. Dorothy does not know but when he says to see what it is, she finds a book of Easy Tree IDs. She reads an inscription from Ray she does not remember, and flips through the book. Together they follow the questions about needles and cones, going back and forth from outside to inside, traversing a path as well-worn as the path of love. Triumphantly, they discover it is the eastern white pine. That night Dorothy reads to Ray of the tree and its history. She tells her husband—the husband who spent his life protecting private property—of the bitter history of the wood. This is a history that includes colonization, slavery, Revolution.
On a warm night Patricia talks to Dennis as she often does. She knows she will never see him again but she cannot help but feel him wherever she goes. She has finished her second book, which concerns her travels, short bios of her favorite specimens, passages on how trees have being trying to reach them but they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. After getting the manuscript ready to send to her editor, she reads Wang Wei poetry before she goes to sleep, and does not forget to bid the absent Dennis good night.
Adam is now living and working in Manhattan as a professor at NYU, and today he is wandering around the Occupy Wall Street movement that has burgeoned in the Financial District. He sees mostly young people as expected, but there are older people as well. He passes signs and manifestos, and espies the gaping wound of 9/11, visible in the footprints of the towers.
As Adam is perambulating Zuccotti Park, he sees someone he knows—Douglas. With shock and delight, the two embrace. They walk together, sharing stories of what they are up to now. Adam asks if Douglas is in touch with any of the others and he says no, and Adam says he feels like Nick is near because he sees street art like what Nick used to make. At one point Adam remembers with piercing affection how much he loved Douglas and trusted him with his life.
Near the bronzed bull statue, Adam muses aloud that they burned buildings and thought no one else could see what they did. Douglas agrees and says sadly that Gaia is taking her revenue. Adam rues that they accomplished absolutely nothing but Douglas replies simply that she—Olivia—would do it all again. Adam is weighted down by the heaviness of history and realizes he has to get back uptown. He was once younger and did these things, yes, but he was a failed experiment.
Before they part ways, Douglas asks why he did not go get help that night. Anger fills Adam briefly, and he replies that she would have still been dead and they’d all be locked up. Douglas sighs that he did not know that for sure. The two men stop walking, hug goodbye, and it is clear they will never see each other again.
Neelay is back in Stanford’s inner quad but he feels bereft because the trees are not speaking to him. In a shady spot in the Oval he sits with his phone, a device which buzzes constantly with updates and reminds him humans now live only in symbols and simulation. He and others like him made this pet, and now it’s making them. A recommendation from his bot pops up and he clicks it. Words of Air and Light, it is called, and it shows twenty seconds of a hundred years of chestnut, rising against the sky. It is tremendous, transformative. Neelay is struck as if he has seen God.
Sitting on her Shaker chair in the Great Smokey Mountains cabin she inhabits, Patricia looks ruefully at the invitation to speak at a conference about “any role trees might play in helping mankind to a sustainable future” (436). These people simply want dreams of some technological breakthrough and Patricia does not feel up to giving it to them. She also feels her agoraphobia acutely. The guest list, though, is incredible and she wonders if just maybe she can tell them all what she feels to be true.
There is enough time for an evening walk, and Patricia sets out. The chestnuts are decimated, their places filled by maples. The hemlocks are dying from acid rain, the Fraser firs dead at the Appalachian line. It’s a Code Red every third day. Yet under the trees she is cleverer and clearer and she asks Dennis in her mind what she should do—be the illusionist these people want her to be?
Though Adam has essentially been waiting for this day for years, he is still surprised when it comes. He is lecturing to psych students when he looks up and sees his captors standing there in FBI jackets. Everything becomes clear to him—his chance meeting with Douglas, the extracted confession. Oddly, he feels a sense of relief. He finishes his lecture and walks up the aisle past stunned students to the agents. He is put into a car, his wrists chained in his lap. He sees a tree waving outside his window.
Dorothy and Ray have a new game. Now an old man and woman, they look at parts of trees Dorothy finds outside and identify them. This leads to more reading, specifically about the American chestnut that should have vanished but seems to be right in their yard. They read The Secret Forest every evening. Ray tries to tell Dorothy something and she does not understand at first, but then she realizes he is indicating to her a different version of the story being told—the chestnut planted is their daughter.
Patricia is going through security at the airport. The officer is curious about her collection kit which she says are just plants because she’s a gardener. He finds a liquid and she says, heart pounding, that it is vegetable broth. The officer has to confiscate them, and she is on her way.
On the plane she goes through her keynote again. Once she is in San Francisco Airport she is picked up and taken to the university. She has a few hours to wander around the extraordinary trees on campus, stunned by the variety and ones she’s never seen. She is able to replace her collection kit and extracts.
Adam was a professor of psychology in one of the greatest universities in the world this morning, but now he is being held for old crimes of property damage and immolation of a woman. His wife comes to see him, assuming all of this is false. She knows nothing about who her husband really is.
Every night Douglas retreats into his search party for Mimi in his mind. He remembers her, though everything is vague. It was for her that he did this—turned Adam in, answered the questions they asked. He decided he would protect Mimi and Nick, and thus identified Adam—Adam, the man who had “always felt to Douggie like an infiltrator. A man who’d come to study them. The guy they sent, that night, that terrible night, to go get help for Olivia—any help at all—but who came back empty-handed” (450).
In the packed auditorium of experts, Patricia looks out over the crowd. She begins by talking about the changes over the centuries as well as the knowledge humans now have about trees. People have heard this before; they’re patiently waiting. She continues on, talking about how whole ecosystems are unraveling. She speaks of how trees are capable of incredible, unfathomable things. She has to pause for water, and she wonders if her old hearing impediment has come back. Her words seem like they are underwater. Pressing on, she says scientists are taught not to look for themselves in other species but that this is wrong; men and trees are closer cousins than people think. She expatiates on trees doing science, trees being at the heart of ecology.
The crowd listens and laughs and murmurs; it cannot tell where its guide is taking them. It does not seem to know when the “home repair” part of her speech is coming. She shows the crowd some of the marvelous tree extracts she has found right here at Stanford, and takes one vial, dropping a bit of it into a glass of clear water. She says clearly that she has considered the question they asked of her—considered it clearly without hope or vanity. It is the perspective of trees that matters, and she knows she must do what is best for tomorrow’s world.
One evening Dorothy slips into Ray’s room to check on him, as he has been quiet for a while. He wants to say something to her but it is inscrutable. She lays with him and they hold hands. She has a glimpse of the future. Ray is able to say a few words about their pretend-daughter, and Dorothy sees in her mind this girl at all stages of her life. She watches Ray and their daughter dig a hole and plant a tree. At the same moment, the two of them hear “Do nothing” and know that they can do their part to get their “forest” back to itself by not mowing, not clearing. This will be the inheritance for their daughter—an acre and a half of woods.
Adam, in home detention, sighs as his wife protests that he needs to turn someone else in. They already seem to be strangers to each other, and he is unconvinced that her “protect your own” mentality is good for him, or for humans in general. He refuses to cut a deal and Lois stomps away, furious and uncomprehending.
Later that evening he gets up to go to the bathroom and when he looks outside, he sees things that do not make sense. It is the city but humanity and its markers are vanishing. Outside is now Arboretum America. There are massive trees, black bears, owls, locusts. The wildness is all-encompassing and startlingly real. A moment later this Manahatta it is gone, and he is once again trapped in his lone biome of his apartment.
Mimi Ma is in the audience for Patricia’s speech. She listens carefully to what seems to be a soliloquy, a piece of theater. When Dr. Westerford asks her rhetorical question and the extract hits the water, Mimi begins to stare at her, begging her to meet her eyes. Mimi’s eyes say Patricia is needed, that people won’t understand, that it’s an immature act not worthy of her. Patricia says back that her seed vault will run itself, that her plants will be good to her in death, that Mimi must watch because that is all there is to do. Patricia smiles, suggesting this is not defeat. It is a way to buy a little more time, a few more resources.
Patricia looks out at the whole crowd. A man in a wheelchair has come up to the right-hand stair, and he is the only one trying to stand. He waves his arms wildly. Patricia wonders how this matters to him. Neelay shouts but it is too late. Patricia drinks, calling out, “here’s to unsuicide!” (466). She stumbles away into the wings.
What becomes the Brinkman Woodlands Restoration Project is a tangled wilderness. The neighbors do not understand. Dorothy, now seventy, shoos them away. The whole street is annoyed and the city has written twice and threatened fines and lawsuits. Ray has helped her with the defense of property rights and she has spent much time in the library. A kid from the city shows up at their door and she states to him that he is not going to do anything. It is a small victory and a small postponement, but it makes her happy. Dorothy will countersue and fight in court and outlast them all; she does not care.
During the trial, the prosecution shows photos from the scene of Adam’s alleged crimes, including Nick’s slogans. Adam’s lawyers call for mercy but there is not much of a case. He is found guilty of arson, of destruction of private property, of violence against the public wellbeing, of manslaughter, of domestic terrorism. The judge asks if he has any final words for the court, and he simply says, “Soon we’ll know if we were right or wrong” (371). He gets two consecutive terms of seventy years, which seems shockingly lenient. After all, it’s just a “black willow plus a wild cherry. He was thinking oak. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew” (371).
If the planet is born at midnight and lives for one day, modern man only shows up four seconds before the next midnight.
[In this short section, Powers brings all his characters’ stories to their close, which we will consider character by character.]
Nick remains adrift, but has a new project—to create a message that can be viewed from space, that will eventually merge back into the earth. With the help of a local Native American man, and later his two sons, Nick creates the word “Still.”
Ray passes away, his eyes lifted to the outside. Dorothy holds him and mourns, but tells him she will be with him soon.
Neelay finishes his new game, and it contains things that already exist. The players simply need to get the code and look outward. This happens right away; their goal is to “find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide” (482). Though he is proud of his accomplishment, grief fills him because he will not live to see the end of the story.
Mimi sits against a tree in Dolores Park, shaking her head in wonder at what she’s seen about Adam on the news. She knows she ought to be in prison too. It is odd to remember being “Mimi Ma,” as she has been “Judith Hanson” here in San Francisco for so long. She binges on video clips of anything and everything connected to who she was. She watches a video of a sewn tree that she knows must have been the work of Nick—it floats upward and then burns. Memories of her childhood float through her brain, and she marvels that she is an old woman now. She considers whether or not to turn herself in, but the longer she stays out in the sun under the tree, the more she realizes that Douglas has made this sacrifice for her. He and Adam have paid for her; she is free but burdened. She wants to rage at Douglas, as well as tell him she forgives him. It is unfathomable that he will die without knowing how much he has helped her and how much she cares for him. Darkness comes to the park, but she feels enlightened.
In prison Douglas listens to an audio tape of Patricia Westerford; he is taking Introduction to Dendrology. He rues the fact that he cannot see a tree from his cell; he should have looked more closely when he was outside. Suddenly, though, memories of the trees he did see and interact with flood his brain, and he finds peace.
Adam gets no appeal, but he finds pleasure in remembering when “he” was part of a “we.” He does not know if they really made an impact or if they utterly failed, but the coming massacre will (posthumously) exonerate them. Though he is wearied by the thought of the time that must pass in prison, he thinks he hears a voice that tells him he was spared from death for a reason.
Powers brings his characters’ stories to a close in a manner befitting the diversity of his cast: Olivia is gone but her memory endures; Nick never fully joins society again but makes art for an audience much larger than the traditional scope; Douglas also lingers outside the margins of society, is found out and turned in, then turns Adam in to save Mimi and Nick, and goes to jail with a lightened sentence; Adam becomes a notable psychology professor but is arrested and lives out the rest of his days in prison; Mimi becomes a therapist in San Francisco with a new identity, and anguishes over Douglas’s sacrifice for her; Neelay creates his last magnum opus, this time with an eye toward attaining the knowledge that allows humans to live sustainably on earth; Dorothy stays with Ray and the two of them in their old age come to embrace the natural world around them, finally finding peace; and Patricia’s fame leads her to a convention at Stanford, where, instead of giving the esteemed guests just a bunch of “magical thinking,” she tells them the truth about trees and commits suicide. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating array of fates for the heroes and heroines, not unlike the fates for the trees themselves.
At the end of The Overstory, it behooves us to ask what Powers wants his readers to come away with. First, while most readers will no doubt have at least a modicum, if not a great deal, of knowledge about what humans are doing to the planet and what the loss of trees in particular means for the future, Powers impresses upon them just how crucial it is that they recognize the magnitude of the issue and, potentially, take action. Trees aren’t simply our materials for houses and ships and furniture, or things we sit under for shade and peace and quiet: they are the entities that clean our air and water, nourish millions of species, and more. It is necessary that humans listen to the nonhuman intelligence, for the survival of all creatures.
Powers wants to create empathy for these creatures that need our help, because ultimately, we so desperately need their help. The best way to do this is to take Adam’s advice to heart—“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (336). Powers admits he’s an evangelist and that this is the reason for the novel, telling Bookpage, “The trick to evangelism, in this case, is to make induction into “the shimmering council” of the nonhuman seem like a startling, mysterious and compellingly desirable thing. And the way to do that, it seemed to me, is to tell all kinds of very specific, vital, surprising and unusual stories about a wide variety of people discovering how the spectacular depth and richness of the nonhuman world surpasses our understanding of it, many times over.”
Second, Powers wants readers to understand that humans’ cognitive biases and myopia, not to mention our greed and willful ignorance, are directly causing this destruction. He provides nuanced, moving, and convicting assessments of the nature of humanity and the things that hold us back from doing what is right in the larger picture. We are not exceptional, and we are quickly making the world a place in which we won’t even exist.
Third, if we can come to terms with what our role is and limitations are, then we can envision a new way of living. Powers uses the term “unsuicide,” and although he’s not literally saying all of us should kill ourselves, he is envisioning a world in which we stop living a life that brings down itself and everything else with it. He says no to “parasitism,” explaining that while “we will always be parasites on plants,” that parasitism “can be turned into something better—a mutualism. One of my radicalized activists makes this proposal: We should cut trees like they are a gift, not like they are something we a priori deserve. Such a shift in consciousness might have the effect of slowing down deforestation, since we tend to care for gifts better than we do for freebies.”
Fourth, and finally, Powers asks readers to assess their hopefulness—what is it based on? Hopefulness for whom or what? What can be done to turn that hopefulness into action? What is that “hopeful action” intended to achieve and how? As for himself, he says, “I like Gramsci’s formulation: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. But the essential question, when talking of hope and despair, is: Hope or despair for what? Trees have survived cataclysmic changes in climate and several periods of mass extinction, and it’s a good bet that many will survive our current, man-made Holocene extinction. I’m very hopeful for trees.” Hope for humans? Less clear.