A woman sits with her back against a tree. The air rains messages and signals, moving from tree to tree. The scent in the air commands the woman to close her eyes. The trees tell her that her kind never sees them whole; there’s as much below as above. The pine she’s leaning against tells her to listen—there’s something she needs to know.
Jorgen Hoel, newly arrived from Norway, and his friends from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, take part in the glorious ritual of throwing stones at the chestnut trees to have its nuts rain down. They roast them at the campfire and laugh and joke.
Jorgen proposes to Vi Powys, an Irish girl in the tenements near him. They become citizens and move westward, settling in the new state of Iowa. Life is hard but they are young and free. Hoel finds six chestnuts in a pocket and plants them all in the treeless prairie near his cabin.
One chestnut does not sprout but the other seedlings live. Children are born and some die. God and man battle, and Hoel becomes good at the fight. Some years are good and others are bad. A harsh winter takes a tree, and so does Hoel’s son John, though unwittingly—he strips the bark from one for play money.
The Civil War comes but Jorgen is too old to be drafted. The three trees flower and bring the familiar nuts to Jorgen and Vi. One tree dies of thirst not long after, and lightning hits another. One tree now remains but it flowers and prospers. There are no mates but something within it tells it to keep still and wait, to outlast the Now.
The farm survives and time passes. The eldest son, John, stays on the farm and modernizes it. Eventually Vi and then Jorgen pass away, and John buries them beneath the chestnut tree. The Hoel tree has now become a landmark, a sentinel and a guidepost in the region.
John buys himself a Kodak No.2 Brownie and delights in taking photos of everything around him. He decides to focus on the chestnut and capture it in a way to speed it up to human time, deciding he will photograph it on the twenty-first of each month from the same place. This becomes a “ritual devotion” (11).
Across the country, though, chestnuts begin to sicken everywhere, dying out across the states. Hundreds of thousands perish and nothing can halt their doom. News of the blight does not make it to Iowa, and John keeps photographing his tree. He dies one night of heart failure. The youngest son, Frank, wants to keep the ritual of photographing the tree going, and does so for a time. He goes off to the First World War, though, and requests his nine-year-old son, Frank Jr., to carry on the ritual for him. Frank Sr. is killed at the Argonne.
By 1940, the fungus has spread through the chestnuts and “four billion trees in native range vanish into myth” (14). Frank Hoel Jr. keeps his promise, going through the motions. This gives his life a blind purpose, and the photos hit 500 during WWII.
A dendrologist confirms that the Hoel chestnut is one that has escaped the holocaust, and journalists write often about the tree.
When the Brownie breaks, Hoel buys an Instamatic and keeps photographing. The photos still only show one tree; they do not show the Depression, failed marriages, cancer, the burned barn, a lawsuit between cousins, heroin and Agent Orange destroying Hoel veterans, dispersal of retirees, etc. The family farm also comes under threat from massive monocrop factories, and neighboring farms begin to disappear.
Frank Jr., now an old man, has added 750 images to the stack. His son Eric comes to be with him as he is dying, and shows his father the newest print. Frank Jr. grimaces that Eric ought to just let it alone.
Now Nicholas Hoel is 25, living in the 21st century. He is thumbing through the photos; he and his parents are at the Hoel farmhouse visiting his grandmother for the holidays. All of his cherished childhood memories flood him, and he especially loves looking at the flip book of photos. The tree was just something he climbed back then, but in these photos it is something else entirely—huge, grave, noble. The farm was where he started sketching, and unlike his father’s commitment to the hard, driving work of the farm, he wanted to go to art school and make funky, organic pieces of art. His father, surprisingly, was fine with the idea and off Nick went to Chicago, where he quickly gained a reputation and admiration.
Nick has graduated now and is wondering if his best work is behind him. He is happy to be at the farm for the holidays, though, and before the rest of the family arrive, Nicholas decides to see if his parents or grandmother want to make the snowy drive to Omaha to see an exhibit at the Joslyn Museum. They kindly decline and he goes alone.
On the way home the driving conditions are so wintery and terrible that he has to pull over and wait it out a bit. He figures his family is worried sick. After resting and waiting for the weather to clear, he drives home, seeing the chestnut rise from the flat plains. He is a bit surprised there are two small lights on this early in the morning and that his father hasn’t plowed. He enters the house and it is deathly silent. Somehow, he knows.
The old propane heater has been pumping gas under the recently insulated ceiling, and his parents and grandmother are dead. Nick stumbles, horrified, to the chestnut outside and collapses.
Ma Sih Hsuin gets his third-class ticket for the trip to San Francisco, a rare student visa, and his father with his elegant colonial English tells him that he is the family’s salvation, because as soon as the Communists cement their control, the rich family will be destroyed.
Ma Shouying takes Sih Hsuin to a hidden wall safe and opens it to rifle through innumerable treasures. Sih Hsuin is stunned, especially when his father pulls out three extraordinary jade rings. His father explains that the rings are Lote, the tree of life for his Persian ancestors; Fusang, the tree that stands before you; and the third is Now. He then unrolls a delicate, ancient scroll featuring wizened men—the Arhats, the Buddhists who have journeyed to Enlightenment. Sih Hsuin is afraid to touch the priceless objects and his father explains that he’s meant to take them and keep them from the Communists.
Sih Hsuin finally leaves for his almost month-long journey. In America he becomes Winston Ma, and he and his new wife Charlotte, daughter of a disgraced Southern plantation family, move to Illinois. They plant a mulberry tree in their backyard after Charlotte tells him something she once heard when her family sent missionaries to China long ago: the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, and the next best time is now.
The two have three daughters: Mimi, now nine; Carmen; and Amelia. They’re eating breakfast below the tree. One of the younger girls is asking what Dad does and Mimi snidely says he’s an engineer working on an ingenious phone no bigger than a car battery that can be taken anywhere.
Mimi steps into the crook of the tree and her sisters protest that she should not climb it. Mimi is intrigued by the fuzzy leaves and rips one off, which upsets Amelia.
Mimi thinks more about her father, a small, friendly, Muslim Chinese engineer who loves math and cars and camping. He did not say much about China until one day Mimi came to him in tears, saying someone from school claimed Chinese people were Communists who ate rats and loved Mao. Her father told her of his past and showed her the rings and the scroll.
More than anything Winston Ma loves the national parks, and every trip the family goes on he takes copious, meticulous notes to reference when they return and to plan next year’s route. Mimi loves fishing with him, and these will be her fondest memories of him.
On one trip the family encounters a bear, and mother and daughters are stunned to see Winston approach it and begin to speak Chinese, something he never does. He later shrugs that he simply told the bear that people are stupid and he’s sorry, but they’re leaving the world very soon.
Mimi grows up, graduates high school, and goes to Holyoke for college. She reads a great deal and one day has an epiphany that she has to be an engineer; after all, it seems like unknowingly she has been one all along. She transfers to Berkeley, graduates, and gets many job offers. She travels and does well.
One day her father calls her, distressed that his mulberry tree is dying. She has never heard him sound so glum, and by now her mother is no help either as she has been slowly falling into dementia. Winston tells his daughter his time is coming, but she is not sure what he means.
In the fall Winston shoots himself in the head. The only note he leaves is a copy of Wang Wei’s twelve-hundred-year-old poem.
When Mimi hears the news, it is like she already knew somehow. She returns home and takes care of the mess in the basement. She and her sisters take on the paperwork and reporting; their sick mother is useless. They divide up the three jade rings by each choosing one with their eyes closed, and Mimi gets the Fusang ring. She also takes the scroll, planning to get it appraised someday.
On the plane home she is exhausted and wants only peace, but now she must live in the shadows of the bent mulberry, the poem, and the fisherman’s song.
There are four Appich children and they each have their own tree: Leigh, the elm; Jean, the ash; Emmett, the ironwood; Adam, the maple. Their father decides to get a new tree for a new baby on the way, and chooses a black walnut even though Adam does not think this is right.
Adam is a little different and a little special, though his mother describes him as a little “socially retarded.” He goes through childhood mostly alone, and children are mean to him. He comes alive, though, when he starts reading guides to insects and fossils and stars and minerals and reptiles. He collects and collects, but one day his mother scoffs that it is all junk and burns it. He slaps her in anger, and his father in response breaks Adam’s wrist. When Adam comes home from the hospital, he retreats up into his maple and gapes at the teeming life he never realized existed here.
Time passes. A disease afflicting elms in the east comes to Leigh’s elm and it has to be taken down. Adam is the only one who seems to care.
In 1976 Adam discovers ants. He observes their patterns and begins chronicling and photographing them. He uses nail polish to mark them and begins to see their purpose and will as they move about. It fascinates him how there are signals being passed without any central signaler. His research continues into the autumn and he enters the district science fair, but the judges assume he did not do the work himself because it is so impressive, so he earns no award.
In the spring Leigh goes to Florida on Spring Break, apparently gets into a car with a man, and vanishes forever. His parents are gutted and bitter. When Adam’s dad breaks his wife’s elbow in “self-defense,” Adam realizes humankind is deeply ill and the species will not last long.
Adam outgrows ants and makes it through high school. He has friends and grows tall and large enough that his father seems afraid of him. He learns the minimum amount of work he was to do to get by, and eventually starts up an incredibly lucrative homework business for fellow students. Ironically, he starts learning the material and becomes interested in things.
One day he is researching in the library for a student writing a psychology paper, and discovers The Ape Inside Us by Rubin Rabinowski. He cracks it open and is flummoxed by the initial puzzles in the book that reveal to him how people’s minds work. As he reads and reads, he sees that “Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules” (61). He is thrilled to realize that human beings have hidden but knowable patterns.
When it comes time to apply to college, his test scores are fantastic but his grades terrible. He is not bummed, however; he knows he has to find the person who can read him right. He writes to Professor Rabinowski at Fortuna College in California, telling him how his book changed his life and awakened him. He adds elements of influence from chapter 12 to sway Rabinowski.
A letter shows up from Fortuna, a college for “unconventional students seeking an intense, questioning approach to education” (63). Rabinowski tells Adam his application will receive serious consideration as long as he has a strong admittance essay, and adds a warning not to blow smoke up his ass ever again.
Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly
Ray is a junior intellectual property lawyer and Dorothy is a stenographer for a company the firm employs. He is entranced by her and asks her out, and she surprises him by picking an audition for an amateur production of Macbeth for their first date. He is game and they both get cast. She is a natural but he is terrible until he starts practicing and becomes good. Interestingly, in the scene with the trees of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, Ray-as-Macduff has a strange feeling of something happening to him that he does not understand yet.
Ray and Dorothy start sleeping together and they continue acting, both surprisingly enjoying it. Ray pays off his debts within five years, makes partner, and generally succeeds. Dorothy keeps her job as well. They break up, recommit, and repeat the cycle. She once writes Ray a letter saying she is afraid of being a “legal business deal” even though she keeps agreeing to marry him. Ray replies that if she comes back to him, they can keep everything separate. She arrives on his doorstep with two tickets to Rome. They travel and end up getting married.
On their first anniversary Ray proposes in a letter that every year they plant something in the yard; he does not know where this idea comes from. As she reads his letter while driving, she accidentally crashes her car. Ray rushes to her in the hospital, frightened. When she sees him she assures him she is fine, and yes, they can plant something.
The words often associated with The Overstory are “sprawling,” “ambitious,” “visionary,” “monumental,” and “epic,” and it’s not hard to see why. Even in its earliest sections, Powers takes his readers into the lives and minds of no less than nine different characters (Powers joked that “the book was like a five-year-long therapy session where I let all my multiple personalities off the leash”), sometimes tracing a character’s family history back hundreds of years or across multiple continents. His characters are psychologists, scientists, lawyers, college students, and more; they are curmudgeonly, or messianic, or anguished. They are flawed and inspiring and complex, and they are our guides through Powers’s story of humans—who arrived considerably late on the timeline—and their impact on the planet.
Critics of Powers’s earlier novels sometimes deemed his characters too full of head and not enough of heart. They had too many “ideas” and were not believable. The New Yorker literary critic James Wood argued that Powers “makes beautiful connection between concepts (genetics, music, computers, consciousness, memory), but primitive and mechanistic connections between characters” and that his novels are “unwitting, even anxious confessions of their own inability to animate his characters.” This critique didn’t faze Powers, but if he was ever to make a deliberate rebuttal to such an assertion, The Overstory is it. The nine human characters are all, more or less, well-drawn and multifaceted. Some, critics contend, could star in their own novels (Neelay and Patricia are the usual favorites). But there are other things at work here, even if Nick, Olivia, Adam, Douglas, Mimi, Ray, Dorothy, Neelay, and Patricia invite our belief as well as our interest and even our sympathy: first, Powers has a goal, the Kenyon Review notes, “beyond these characters’ verisimilitude: this is not just a short story collection that looks at nine people who happen to be affected by trees, but a novel that weaves these nine characters into a larger story (an ‘overstory,’ shall we say) that goes beyond their individual human lives”; and second, that it’s not actually the human characters who matter all that much. Wood’s critique might still be right, then, but it really doesn’t matter—Powers is “demonstrating that [such critics’] view of fiction is simply too limited.”
The title of the novel is crucial to our understanding of Powers’s essential message. First of all, “overstory” is not a neologism; it means, according to Merriam Webster, “the layer of foliage in a forest canopy.” Readers might initially consider the human characters the overstory, especially as humans are drawn to their like, but in actuality it is those human characters who form the understory. The trees are the overstory, which helps accomplish Powers’s stated goal of creating empathy for the trees, “a necessary first step for whatever transformation is going to be required for us to live stably on Earth.” Writing for the Hudson Review, critic Tom Wilhelmus suggests the novel, “means to take into account something larger than just its characters, larger in fact than homo sapiens as a species in a story even more inclusive than that. In this case, that larger story might be ‘trees’ or ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ or the material universe itself, anyway something that goes above and beyond the limited and often self-serving perspective of humanity.”
While some of trees’ actions and interactions are easily comprehensible to humans, ultimately there is still much we do not yet know or cannot quite understand. Their tremendous age, evolutionary complexity, relationship with time and memory, for example, offer a subtle rebuke to humans who see themselves as the proverbial center of the universe. Some of the trees even loom large as individual characters: the Hoel chestnut; the banyan that saves Douglas; the oak that changes Neelay’s life by pushing him out; Mimas, where Olivia and Nick and Adam are forever altered; Mimi’s mulberry that reminds her of her father; Ray and Dorothy’s chestnut-as-daughter. Wilhelmus sums this up nicely: “The Overstory is about trees, not simply trees as stand-ins for human characteristics via pathetic fallacy, but trees as agents whose history and habitat, biology and beingness, are as fully important and implicated in the whole biosphere as our own. Science demonstrates and Powers illustrates that as a species trees do most of the things humans do, including cooperate and communicate over long distances and anticipate future needs—redefining in the process what words like ‘communication’ and ‘cooperation’ might look like. Of the give-and-take interaction trees have with other species, especially our own, much is also known.”
One of Powers’s main themes is interconnectivity, which he shows on micro and macro scales. On the micro, the lives of many of the human characters intersect. They will fall in love with each other, protest together, read each other’s books, attend each other’s speeches, bear witness to each other’s successes and failures. The trees are also interconnected with each other, and of course with humans. Trees communicate with each, warn each other; they provide for innumerable species; they have memory; they die and resurrect; they have shared immune systems; they filter water, regulate the Earth’s temperature, and create atmosphere. There is no way that humans survive without trees, but trees certainly don’t need humans.
Powers is making a case for literature, for stories, to play a role in how humans think about our place in the world. He has Adam voice the conviction that only a “good story,” not a persuasive argument, can change people’s minds about something, and that is what Powers is trying to do, albeit somewhat unconventionally. In an interview, Powers explained that, “By my count, there are three general levels of dramatic conflict: the battle within a person (psychological), the battle between people (social or political), and the battle between people and non-people (environmental). A conflict can exist on more than one level, and most good stories involve at least some elements of all three.” Most of the fiction of the last thirty years has been psychological, which led to Powers to continue, “There’s a paradox here. While the challenge to our continued existence on Earth has never been greater or clearer, literary fiction seems to be retrenching into an obsession with the challenges of private hopes, fears, and desires. Granted, those challenges lie at the heart of everything we try to do, but a retreat into belles-lettres when human activity is unraveling the climate, exhausting the soil, and killing off 40 percent of the world’s other species is simply reactionary solipsism. We need level-three stories and myths, and we need lots of them fast, in all kinds of forms and flavors. If we don’t (or can’t) tell level-three stories, it’s because we believe that all conflict between humans and nonhumans has long ago been decided in favor of omnipotent humanity. Now that our omnipotence is crumbling in the face of the whirlwind it has sown, we are so dazed and out of the habit of taking the nonhuman seriously that we can’t even accept the reality of what is happening.”