Douglas is nineteen, living off his parents’ life insurance, and currently is laid off. He is currently being taken away by the police, but it is not what his neighbors think—he is participating in Stanford’s prison experiment.
What starts off as simply interesting becomes disturbing. Everyone gets into their roles all too well, especially the guards, and there are crushed uprisings, breakdowns, and an increasing sense of unreality. Douggie, or “Prisoner 571,” tries to stay out of the way. Eventually the experiment is shut down when the higher-ups realize it is nothing short of criminal.
When Douglas comes out into the glaring light of the campus, he is profoundly disturbed. The world, the status quo, seems messed up. It does not make sense to him that some twenty-year-olds are dying in Vietnam while others are studying psychology.
Douglas joins the fight and becomes Technical Sergeant Douglas Pavlicek, flying trash hauler missions. He does not care if the Americans win the war or not as long as he has things to fill his hours and the radio keeps playing.
He is stationed in Thailand, a place that seems to know what is coming. Thailand was forced into a pact with “The White Devil” and has backed the wrong side. Douglas likes it here, though, and wonders if he should stay after the war ends.
One day he starts a new haul, staring out the windows down at the countryside decimated by Agent Orange. Suddenly he is hit, an impossible thing since their instruments said they would be clear all the way to Phenom Penh. The men with him are efficient as they try to mitigate the disaster, but Douglas realizes that the cargo bay is filled with flammable fuel. He gets the pallets out before they ignite, and all the men leap out of the spiraling plane as well.
Centuries prior a pollen-covered wasp found the fig species of her destiny, laid her eggs and died, and fertilized the fruit. The larvae grew and mated and died, and the females went elsewhere. The fig produced a bean, which was eaten by a bulbul, was then excreted and fell in the crook of another tree, where it was nursed by sun and rain. It grew and its roots slipped down to encase its host. Centuries passed. The fig bole put out branches, elbows bent out from the limbs, and thickened into new trunks; this was all still one banyan tree.
Douglas plummets into this very banyan, surviving the fall. Some time later a bus of pilgrims comes to pay homage, and discover the American there. A voice tells him the tree saved his life. He imagines being subsumed by the roots.
Douglas receives medical treatment and awards for saving his crewmates. He gets crutches and a free trip back to San Francisco, no longer able to serve because of his leg.
Nine years pass—nine years of failed love affairs, moving states, and always wondering how and why the tree saved his life. He is currently taking care of a ranch for its elderly owners as a job, but it’s very lonely and he actually makes potholes in the street in front of it so cars will have to stop. Eventually he feels convicted that he needs to move on. He is not sure where, but he has his truck and money and a veteran’s disability, so he begins his venture westward. He listens to the radio as he passes miles and miles of trees.
Douglas pulls over to urinate and notices slabs of light through the thick trees. Curious, he begins to walk over to them and discovers a shocking devastation beyond—a clearing of “stumpy desolation” with the ground bleeding “reddish slag mixed with sawdust and slash” (87). He cannot believe this precise, comprehensive destruction. What is worse is that the trees along the road are only an illusion of fecundity. At a gas station he gets clarification that these “beauty strips” or “vista corridors” are hiding what is really happening.
As Douglas keeps driving across the country, he cannot quiet his brain. He is being duped by this fake virgin, unspoiled forest. He pays to take a ride in a prop plane and looks below at the truth. It looks like “the shaved flank of a sick beast being readied for surgery” (88). He is mute, immobile. After the plane ride, he makes some inquiries and hires himself out, bad leg and all, to a contractor planting seedlings back into the stripped land. Day after day he traverses the silent slopes and dead zones. It is hard on his body but he does not care. He sleeps in tree-planter camps with the exhausted hippies and illegals. He deals with mist and rain and scorching sun while the smell of the cut trees invades his nostrils.
His little Douglas-firs look tiny and fragile, but their roots are growing deep. If they are left alone to light and air and rain, they will flourish. They might push out millions of cones over the course of their lives. Douglas thinks to himself that the firs simply have to outlast humans, and wills them to make it.
Neelay lives with his parents above a Mexican bakery in San Jose. He is seven years old when his father brings home a computer kit for the two of them to work on together. He is elated and incredulous at the possibilities. His father tells him this little box is going to come to life and will hold all their plans.
Over the next few days they build their box and Neelay feels a passion and sense of purpose. He “loses himself in the logic of his will” (94) as he trains the machine. His creatures grow in complexity and he makes worlds upon worlds. He reincarnates himself as people of all races and genders and creeds.
As time passes, the family moves to a larger house and Neelay and his father work with more and more sophisticated machines. Neelay feels strangled by the slow pace of Moore’s Law; there must be more he can do. He knows he is socially awkward but the time for the well-adjusted to take responsibility for the human race is over—this is his mission, his purpose.
Neelay still binges on old-school reading—sci-fi epics that help him with his creations. The only person he loves more than his creations is his father, with whom he can sit in silence and build worlds.
At age eleven Neelay makes his Pita (father) a kite in the computer. He wants to write a program that can itself be programmed. He has a notebook filled with his brilliant and convoluted notes that is immensely dear to him, and he can’t help himself from working on the code in class.
One day his English teacher, Ms. Gilpin, calls him out on it and takes his notebook. He becomes irate and when he says the word “damn,” she becomes silent with rage. She tells him to come back tomorrow morning to talk about his punishment.
Neelay leaves, certain that he has created an irredeemable situation—he has brought shame to his parents, and there is nothing worse. Everything is ruined. He walks up through the park in the neighborhood four blocks from home, trying to think it out. He climbs into an oak tree as he ponders. He realizes that maybe he could get a bit of sympathy if he got just a little hurt.
He will never know what happened. Did the tree jerk? Did he slip? Regardless, Neelay falls and lands on his back, shattering it. Yet, on his back, he looks up into the tree at “the most perfect piece of self-writing code that his eyes could hope to see” (102).
When Neelay awakes he is in the hospital and realizes at a certain point that he will never walk again. While he is fine, his parents will struggle for a long, long time.
In the hospital Ms. Gilpin comes to visit, contrite and bearing his journal.
Neelay grows up. Puberty arrives and he grows long and learn, though always and forever in his wheelchair. He gets accepted into Stanford two years early, having haunted the campus since he was twelve.
At first, coding in the Valley is about giving things away. Neelay gives away his first masterpiece (a Japanese movie monster eating metropolises) and his second (conquistadores taming the new world). His name gains semi-legendary status and his games spawn imitations. Over time, though, “paradise is sprouting fences” (108) as the coders get copyrights and make money. Neelay is a rogue, a Robin Hood; for a time he takes games, improves them, and sends them out for free.
One evening he takes a break from working on his space opera and rolls down the campus pathways to the labs at Serra Mall. He passes a Rodin and watches Japanese tourists photograph the chapel in the arboretum. Accidentally running over the toes of a woman and backing up pushes him to look up at the most magnificent, mind-boggling thing he’s ever seen.
This tree, which he cannot believe he’s never noticed, must be from another planet. It is watching him, he thinks. He looks around at the specimens near him—crazy, otherworldly creatures built for other places and planets. It seems like they are a council meant to waylay him. He rolls from tree to plant to tree, touching and smelling their entire civilizations. Then he knows—he will create a game, a game that unfolds creation, that puts players in the middle of a “living, breathing, animist world filled with millions of different species” (110).
He’ll have to drop out of school and sell his games to make money, but it does not matter; he must do it. Then he will get where he needs to go, he thinks, not realizing that it's the redwoods working on this plan and using him.
Patricia Westerford does not speak until she is three but has a vibrant mental life. Her inner ear is deformed, yes, which makes hearing hard, but she is happy. She travels with her father on his tours as an ag extension agent. They play question-and-answer and she imbibes his knowledge of the land, the trees, and the sense that all of this is changing, fading, dying. Her father shows her extraordinary things and she learns his lessons that nothing can be known for a fact and the only dependable things are looking and humility. When she is young, they plant a beech and plot to see if the tree grows from the soil or the air.
When Patricia is fourteen, her father gives her a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which strikes her with its familiar but odd creatures, its people turning into trees. Not long after, her father dies after his truck skids on black ice. She reads from Ovid at the funeral.
High school is difficult but she makes it through and gets accepted into Eastern Kentucky to study botany. Before she heads off, she shamefully remembers that she should check the beech tree, and to her astonishment, she realizes that since the soil weighs as much as it always did, the tree fed on the air.
In college during the crackling sixties she blooms. Her dorm overflows with plants and she is considered eccentric, but she is well-liked. She even has suitors, drawn by her independent thought.
She then attends graduate school, forestry school at West Lafayette. She sometimes cannot believe how lucky she is. However, in year two the catch becomes clear. In a seminar on forest management her professor tells the class that a healthy forest must be pruned and pulped and cleaned up. Patricia thinks there ought to be dead trees around, but since this is just intuition and Ovid, she says nothing. She then learns the whole field is like this in that it advocates turning out “straight clean uniform grains at maximum speed” (122). In her classes teaching undergraduates she covertly preaches the opposite.
As time passes, she grows more and more convinced that trees are social beings and decides to pursue her dissertation on this assumption. No one is quite persuaded, including her adviser, but she moves ahead. She works day after day in the woods, determining which gases her trees breathe out. She is ecstatic at how many there are, and it is here doing this work that she feels her father with her.
Eventually Patricia becomes Dr. Pat Westerford. She lands a postdoc at Wisconsin State, then an adjunct position. She is not making much but she has nothing to spend it on so it is perfect. Her days are filled with the sugar maples, which she comes to realize will be her breakthrough. One day she discovers one of her bagged trees is under insect invasion, which first upsets her, but she keeps taking her samples from that tree as well as the others. She continues to test all her trees and cannot believe what she is seeing.
Finally, Patricia lets herself believe her evidence: trees far away from the infested tree have ramped up their defenses when their neighbor was attacked; something warned them and they prepared. The data keeps confirming this and finally she writes up her paper. It is peer reviewed and published, and attracts a bit of notice from the scientific community and the press. She is relieved that she seems to have discharged her debt to society.
However, the journal soon publishes a letter from three leading dendrologists who disparage and mock her findings, even refusing to use the term “Doctor.” She is uncomfortable in talks, her speech impediment returning and the crowd clearly thinking she is just the woman who thinks trees are intelligent. Her lectureship is not renewed, and “meaning drains from her life like green from a maple in fall” (127).
One day she discovers poisonous mushrooms at the bottom of creek and prepares a decadent dinner with them, planning to kill herself. Something stops her, though—something telling her not to do it, to fear nothing. In disgust and horror, she gets rid of the food. Her real life starts this night.
Patricia now watches and takes notes in her notebooks. She spends days and nights under trees, feeling like her private self is back to being fused with these creatures. She drifts west, living off the land, growing weathered.
In south-central Utah she finds a grove of aspens whispering to each other even though there is no wind. The air “shivers in gold” in this “pillared foyer to the afterlife” (130). She begins to cry as she observes numerous hidden things. She measures the rings of one downed tree, getting eighty years from it. She smiles, knowing the baby trees around came from a “rhizome mass too old to date to even the nearest hundred millennia” (131). These are the largest living things on earth and she is privileged to be looking at them.
While Patricia is looking, others with whom she will soon be connected are going about their business. She will write a book one day called The Secret Forest in which she will say that people and trees share a quarter of their genes. She is finding out right now that the trees do not have to propagate by other trees, that they migrate, that life does not answer to reason and “all the drama of the world is gathering underground—mass symphonic choruses that Patricia means to hear before she dies” (133).
In the early eighties Patricia continues moving northwest to see the pockets of old growth before they’re gone. The stench of death is astonishing; the spores and particles rain down; everything climbs over everything else. It is oppressive, beautiful, crazy, and scary. She cannot help but speak to the trees, thanking them and apologizing on behalf of her species.
She gets work eventually with the Bureau of Land Management and loves every minute of her work, even though her cabin is pitiful. She is cleaning up after mankind, hiking, watching and listening.
While Patricia is doing this, she has no idea that her research is being furthered and validated. Trees trade airborne aerosol signals, warn their neighbors, and make medicines. Her work is continually cited and extended.
Normally she dreads running into her former kind—scientists—in the woods but today she stands back and watches. One calls to an owl, a species Patricia has never seen in person before. Three weeks later the men are back and she cannot help but ask if they’re collecting ambrosia beetles. One of the men jokes with her about what their teachers said about clearing away old growth. They all chuckle sadly. After a few minutes he asks if she is Dr. Westerford. Stunned, she assents, and he says he saw her speak years ago. When he says he knew she’d be vindicated, she is baffled. He smiles and says he has much to show her about what her work has been up to.
Time passes. Patricia works with her fellow men in the Dreier Research Station in the Cascades. Henry Fallows, the man from the forest, gives her a research grant. Her reputation continues to improve. Her colleagues’ discoveries confirm her suspicions—the “rich brown batter of soil . . . channels decay and builds on death in ways she only now begins to suss out” (141). If this system is cleaned up, self-replenishing wells run dry. Patricia turns to Douglas-firs, eventually seeing that there are no individuals, no separate species: everything in the forest is the forest.
Though her colleagues want her to teach, she laughs that she’s not ready. She likes where she is and she likes Dennis, the research station manager with whom she talks and occasionally eats meals. One evening they go for a walk and, haltingly, say they have feelings for each other. They agree to get married but still live the way they have been living. This all feels good to Patricia, “like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground” (144).
Olivia is heading back through the snow to her boardinghouse on the edge of campus; it is December of senior year and she cannot wait to graduate. Though she is seeking a degree in actuarial science, she cannot seem to pass the exams because she is too waylaid by drugs, sex, and parties.
Her housemates welcome her home with the routine hugs, though relations have generally soured between them all. She announces she got divorced today from Davy, that marriage being a passionate but idiotic attempt to prove everyone wrong. The marriage quickly got abusive and dramatic, so they decided to part ways. Her roommates cheer this announcement.
Olivia goes upstairs. She thinks to herself that it is okay to be a semi-bad girl just a little longer, and then she will straighten up and go out into the world. Tonight, though, she is going to get high, listen to music, and write things in her song notebook.
The high is blissful per usual and she decides she must take a hot shower. She finishes and heads back to her room, naked, the air caressing her. When she reaches to the switch on the sub-code-house’s socket, she is electrocuted. She collapses to the floor and dies.
Powers rounds out his human characters in the rest of “Trunk.” He creates a spectrum of “tree-blindness,” his phrase for people who do not notice anything about the trees around them (in interviews, he frankly admits he was tree-blind for a long time). On one side of the spectrum are Dorothy and Ray, who decide to plant a tree for their anniversary, often forget, and otherwise notice nothing about the natural world around them. There’s Olivia before her death and vision, and Neelay before he is thrown out of an oak tree and a frequent visitor of Stanford’s quad. Then there’s Mimi, who loves trees only in that they remind her of her father, and Adam, who also has connections to trees and the natural world in childhood, but who leaves those behind for many a year as he goes on to study psychology. Douglas is also ambivalent about trees until one saves his life in Vietnam, and then he later learns the truth about the scrims of trees along the highways that mask the utter devastation within. Nick grew up in the shadow of a famous family chestnut in Iowa, and channeled that connection into his art. And finally there is Patricia on the other side of the spectrum, whose connection to trees is perhaps the deepest. She learns to love them and listen to them as a child, which she funnels into her college and graduate work, her career and her research. Even when she is stymied by fellow scientists after she publishes a paper, she finds solace within the trees.
These characters, then, vary in their knowledge of and love for trees. Some of them only get there at the end of their lives (Ray and Dorothy), some have a slower and more fitful move into this green world (Neelay and Adam), and others live and breathe trees for almost their whole life (Patricia). What is common among most of them, though, is an epiphanic experience—something that turns them almost immediately, or within a relatively short period of time, into someone who desperately wants to call attention to the devastation wrought upon the natural world. Olivia’s near-death experience; Douglas’s experience along the road and then later his realization that his efforts were for naught; Mimi’s loss of the trees outside her window that reminded her so much of her father; Adam’s fateful meeting with Olivia and Nick; Nick’s meeting Olivia and then later her death; Ray’s traumatic brain injury—all of these are examples of how the characters “wake up.”
Some critics find this problematic; for example, Claire Miye Stanford wonders, “Each of the eco-activists experiences a deeply traumatic event that in some way motivates the extreme lengths they are willing to go to in order to protect the trees they love. This pivot in character development seems odd. Is the novel suggesting that one must undergo such trauma — in most cases, a loss of human life, or, at least, its dire endangerment—in order to appreciate fully the nonhuman life that surrounds us? That fate hardly seems consistent with the novel’s overall message, and yet, the details of each story point strongly toward that conclusion.” However, in a Bookpage interview in which the interviewer asked, “Each one of your characters suffers a deadly ordeal of some kind. Olivia literally dies for 70 seconds. Others come very close to dying or bear witness to the violent death or near-death of a loved one. We can only be redeemed if something traumatic happens to us—this feels like an ancient and abiding truth, almost a religious reckoning. Does it ring true to you?” Powers responded, “The grim truth: Something traumatic is going to happen to us, both privately and collectively, whether we are smart enough to be redeemed by it or not! But death and destruction, in our own private understanding of things as well as in the wider, living world, does have a way of preparing the ground for redemption and renewal. There is a great deal of ‘religious reckoning’ in The Overstory, if you count the green gospel of nature as a religion. In the moral vision of the book, the true terror and violence to the soul start in our alienation from the rest of creation.”
The enlightening or traumatic experiences that precede the characters’ awakenings are reminiscent of myth, something Powers is keen to acknowledge. The Greek myths permeate the text, whether it’s the Ovid of Patricia’s youth or the allusion to Baucis and Philemon with Ray and Dorothy. There are also numerous allusions to Buddha and his teachings, the Transcendentalists, Jesus, and what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion.” Nick will see the protestors in Solace as a “druid tree cult,” connecting what he’s in now to “Oak veneration at the oracle at Dodona, the druids’ groves in Britain and Gaul, Shinto sakaki worship, India’s bejeweled wishing trees, Mayan kapoks, Egyptian sycamores, the Chinese sacred gingko -all the branches of the world’s first religion” (215). The invoking of ancient beliefs, teachings, and legends, many of them non-Western, is a way for Powers to suggest the ancientness of trees, something that humans have a hard time comprehending. It also reminds us that older stories and myths are less human-centric. Powers commented in the Bookpage interview that his novel is purposefully “swarming with Greek and Egyptian and pagan European and Indian and Chinese and Indigenous American myths about trees. it’s trying to resurrect a very old form of tree consciousness, a religion of attention and accommodation, a pantheism of sorts that credits other forms of life—indeed, the life-process as a whole, with wanting something.”
The end of “Roots,” this first section, will give way to “Trunk” and then, later, “Crown” and “Seeds.” Clearly Powers is using the imagery and structure of a tree to provide structure for the book. It is sprawling, intertwining, and interconnected like a tree. Powers explained that this form shaped the way he understood and wrote the book, allowing him to move beyond the traditional structure of a novel that usually begins with a single exposition and then moves in to the rising action. The Overstory, though, “begins with eight independent sequential expositions, the backstories of characters who seem unrelated. A reader might be forgiven for thinking that she is reading eight different standalone short stories! And she might even find herself becoming disoriented or restless after a hundred pages, waiting for the novel to begin. But by calling the section ‘Roots,’ I reassure readers that these separate, snaking, underground, independent structures are going to converge before too long. And the slowly unfolding tree anatomy also suggests that the story as a whole—which includes all eight mini-novels that you read, one after the other—is being incorporated into one, large coastal redwood-size whole.”