Watchman and Maidenhair are venturing deep into the redwoods. He is still surprised at how calm and confident she is. They pass through stunning, ancient trees that seem to hum. One grove features twelve apostle trees in a perfect circle. Another further on looms into the sky, six hundred years old but marked for death with white numbers. She films and he changes the marks.
The sound of Dennis’s truck rumbles outside. He brings Patricia the mail and she marvels how her name and address have somehow filtered out to companies. There is also a packet from her agent, which she opens to find a large check, reviews, and fan mail. She is astonished, but Dennis tells her he knew it would be a success.
Later he reads her the reviews and the letters, which are all mostly positive. One is a request to appear on a popular public news radio show, speaking for the trees. It seems the world wants to drag Patricia back into it.
Olivia volunteers to sit in a tree slated for teardown, and Nick refuses to let her go alone. It is a long, muddy trek into the forest and their packs are heavy, but Loki, their guide, takes them right to the base of Mimas, the tree they will be inhabiting. It is beyond comprehension—a monster, the Evolutionary Tree of Life, its roots in the underworld and its crown in the heavens. Olivia’s face glows with her cause as she marvels that puny humans are at the point where they are trying to protect this thing.
It is a terrifying climb up the tree for Nick, but Olivia encourages him and he makes it up. They are now alone together on a seven-by-nine platform with three “doors,” another piece of plywood reachable by rope ladder below, hammocks, old books left by past visitors, and more—all two hundred feet above the ground.
Nick and Olivia finally consummate their relationship that night, and continue to grow more and more intimate. She points out the flying squirrels and they gaze out over the foggy treetops below and beyond them. He is still afraid of being up so high, but Olivia’s conviction reassures him. Both cannot believe that all these trees visible to them “belong” to a Texas financier.
Their days are spent exploring the massive Mimas, which they find includes a small lake and innumerable creatures that live in and off the tree. They sketch and read as sounds of the destruction echo in the distance. Olivia picks up a work by Dr. Patricia Westerford called The Secret Forest and it immediately resonates with her. As for Nick, he feels like his life has reached its zenith; he has lived to see himself happy.
Mimi gets a fine but her employer does not care; they are engineers and merely want her to do her job. She and Douglas continue to attend actions. At the next one, the activists fret that the police have not yet arrived to quell the growing unrest by the loggers. Both Mimi and Douglas scramble into trees as others scuffle with the crews. The police oust as many of the squatters as they can, and Douglas cuffs himself to his tree.
Mimi knows it is time for them to give up, but Douglas refuses. The police climb the logging ladders and use bolt cutters. They have to cut Douglas’s pants with industrial shears and one of them sprays his groin area with pepper spray. Douglas screams in pain and finally is brought down. Mimi tries to take care of him once she takes him to his home, but he is too ashamed.
Mastery 4 is Neelay’s most recent edition, this time in 3D. There are more wonders and masterpieces than anyone could explore in years. Technology continues apace, as browsers, huge servers, websites, and more develop. When it comes out, Mastery 5 is even more complex than most operating systems.
Despite all of this, Neelay is still anxious and impatient. He wishes the tree-creatures would communicate but they are quiet. Neelay spends all day in his chair and develops Mastery 6. He shoots off memos continuously to his development team calling for more realism, more details. The young coders understand him and feel no revulsion or pity; they know what he is worth and what they are worth.
Neelay calls his mother, which is something he often does when he is not feeling right. As usual, she asks about a girlfriend and Neelay cannot bear to disappoint her anymore, so he lies about having one. She is elated, but when he hangs up, he is so frustrated with himself that he slams his hand down and feels a bone break.
Patricia is dreading appearing as an “expert education witness” in a Portland court case about an injunction against logging, but Dennis encourages her that it is her life’s work and she must do it for the trees. Grudgingly, she agrees, and Dennis drives her to the courthouse.
Things do not start off well, with her childhood hearing issue rearing its head and her words sounding rather flighty. The opposing counsel is smooth and even produces the letter to the editor that once discredited Patricia. However, once she looks closely at the judge and realizes he reminds her of her late father, it is easier for her to start talking. She speaks of the knowledge that young, straight, fast-growing trees are not better for forests. The dam breaks; her words come out of hiding. She talks about the mutual dependency of trees and other creatures, the knowledge people have now have of rational management, of how few of the untouched trees are left.
The judge asks her at the end if she thinks the old forests know things the “plantations” don’t, and it hits her that her whole life has been shaped by that conversation with her father when he told her that people aren’t the apex species they thought they were.
The judge issues a stay on the contested cut and an injunction on all new timber sales of public land in western Oregon until the impact is assessed.
Up in Mimas the air is freezing and Watchman and Maidenhair are rarely comfortable, but their zeal for their project endures. Daily, logging crews come to try and argue or remonstrate with them. The standoff enters week two and their replacements do not show up. Finally, Loki and Sparks arrive and say there has been trouble back at camp and they were wondering if the two could stay another week. Maidenhair bursts out that of course they can.
The loggers stop coming and an unknown amount of days pass. Nick and Olivia read, sketch, and tell stories. Nick realizes much about how his body works, how his thoughts change, what the earth sounds like. After the light goes out, they only have sound. They do not strap themselves in anymore to sleep, but they do cling to each other.
Olivia listens to her disembodied voices and informs Nick that Mimas tells her there will be a good end to their story. They read more, including The Secret Forest, from which they learn of trees migrating, trees with memories, trees that harmonize.
One night the wind arrives so suddenly and so fiercely that Nick is convinced he is going to die. Branches tear and crack and fall, the wind shoves Olivia across the platform, hail barrels down from the sky. She screams for him to relax and ride, and he lets go. He knows the redwood has endured much more and he can too. He howls maniacally into the wind and she does too.
Mimi and Douglas are preparing for their next action. By now she has realized she loves him, but still knows that they are practically different species; their cause is all they have in common.
The action begins with some of the protestors walking onto the corporate property. The police begin to address this while others move inside and chain themselves in a ring around a pillar in the foyer. Mimi and Douglas are split and cannot see each other. The camera trained on this scene captures the yelling, the confusion, and the hubbub. People yell that the protestors are criminals, and the police officers promise pepper spray if they do not get up in five minutes. Protestors retort that this is illegal but the policer officers do not care.
The intensity builds. Douglas calls out for Mimi to get out because she is asthmatic. Another lady yells that they agreed to stay together. Douglas and Mimi’s eyes lock, fear coursing between them. The officer reaches down and swabs one woman’s eye with pepper spray and she begins screaming like an animal. Douglas receives the same and calls out for Mimi to release herself. He sees her fear and then realizes he can get out and rushes the police officers, not even caring that he might go to jail.
That evening, a camera operator leaks the tape to the press.
Dennis soberly tells Patricia that the injunction is already over. He also tells her of the crazy things he saw on the news with the protestors at the logging company’s headquarters. She sighs that people are so beautiful and doomed; “hopelessness makes them determined. Nothing’s more beautiful than that” (304). Dennis says he understands, but she knows he cannot see what she sees—“that the towering, teetering, pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system” (304).
That evening before Dennis heads back, she informs him that she wants to start a seed bank. This “ark” can house seeds that lay dormant for thousands of years, which can be a failsafe.
Neelay and his father are walking along the ocean cliffs in a quiet, brand-new place. Pita is enthusing over the details of this world, especially its beauty and imagination. In his avatar of a beggar, Neelay smiles and tells his father that the strange trees he sees are all real; in fact, everything in it is based on nature.
Pita sighs that he is so happy to see this world before the other players arrive, knowing that there are eventually going to be at least a few million playing. They walk along the crests. Pita, in the guise of the blue god, knows he will be gone soon, but he is touched when Neelay leads him down into a secret place—a place that holds a ruined temple and a single fig tree. Pita thanks his son for the walk and promises he and Mother will be home soon, but both of them know this is not possible.
Everything changed for Ray today: Dorothy told him it is over, that he was killing her. This is all incomprehensible to him; he once thought he had a future and now he has none. He wishes he could say to her that he’s known for a long time and that all he wants is for her to stay near, and that he feels there is still something between them that has yet to happen.
Dorothy is in the bathroom, taking a long time to perform her ablutions. Ray does not know what will happen when she emerges. She is then standing in the doorway but he does not know why she is screaming. Something in his brain breaks and bloods floods his cortex.
Mimi shows up to work and is met by a man named Brendan Smith, who tells her efficaciously that he is here to oversee her transition from the company. This is not altogether surprising, as she has been in the news for criminal trespass, but she is irked nonetheless. She packs up her things, fuming that humankind is a “thug” and the law a “goon” (513).
Brendan escorts her out, but not before she remembers the scroll. He is hesitant to let her back in but she insists, and carefully takes down the scroll.
Douglas does not quite know what he is doing sitting here in the roadhouse parking lot. He wants to drop in on Mimi but it is night and that sort of thing has not been broached. He decides to do it nonetheless, but it proves to be a frightening journey when a man he argued with inside the bar tails him and pushes his bumper.
He arrives at Mimi’s place despite the aggression, and finds her drunk and upset. She invites him in, and “that’s how the trees bring them home at last” (516).
Adam is making his way up the most massive tree he has ever seen, telling himself he is fine and he used to climb trees all the time, but becoming increasingly consumed by his fear. A woman calls down advice and encouragement and he finally arrives at the platform with the beautiful woman and a bearded man. They give him a cup of water and he gazes out, realizing how horrific the bird’s-eye view is.
The three of them sit together and Adam tries to explain what his research is. His responses come out a bit lame and he is unnerved by the young woman’s certainty. She tells him he will only get the answers he needs if they just talk, but he feels he must adhere to the proper data-collecting routine.
After a moment, though, Adam realizes he wants to just talk, and so they do. They speak of the destruction happening and coming, and Maidenhair tries to tell him what the trees are saying to her. As they talk, Adam actually hears the cutting down of trees, a violent and shocking sound.
In the late afternoon they see Loki coming toward them. He seems distressed, and when he comes up, he tells them that Mother N and Moses have been killed; they were at the office and it was bombed, and the police say they accidentally blew themselves up. Maidenhair and Watchman are distraught; Watchman remarks bitterly that Mother N was so peaceful that she wouldn’t even spike a tree because it might hurt a logger.
After Loki leaves, Adam decides to stay on into the evening. He is stunned by the “sounds at all distances, a thousand volumes, mezzo and softer” (524), and the pungent smells and atmospheric darkness.
In the morning they are woken by men swarming the bottom of the tree and walkie-talkie static. One man calls up to them that the tree is coming down. To their surprise, they see a helicopter nearing. It slams wind into them. Olivia faces it down while Adam watches, horrified by the massive malevolence of the machine. Branches snap off and the smell of burning fossil fuels makes Adam gag. A voice tells them to exit the tree immediately.
There is nothing to do but give in, and when they agree, the helicopter backs off. The silence reeks of defeat. All three of them drop by harness. Down on the ground they wait in the mud for the police, and Olivia seems befuddled by their loss.
With a consortium of four universities, Patricia establishes the Global Seedbed Germination Vault. She tells her various audiences that it is finally time to preserve the tens of thousands of tree species that will vanish in their lifetime.
Neelay prefers to spend the hours of the night working, drafting memos on how Mastery 8 must be more fulfilling than real life, must bring people together to build something they’d be anguished to lose.
Ray lies in the adjustable bed, half his skull removed and his brain papered back by a flap of scalp. His face is in a permanently terrified expression. No one can tell Dorothy how long he will be like this, but she knows she will only stay until he is stabilized and then get out for herself.
Olivia, Adam, and Nick are held for two days longer than is legal, but all the threatened charges end up being dropped. Maidenhair tells the men she wants to see Mimas, and once she arrives at the destroyed stump, which is still bigger than she is, she breaks down. Afterward, she says she and Nick will be going north because something is happening in Oregon. They suggest Adam come with them, but he has to work on his dissertation.
Back in Santa Cruz he works for weeks. Professor Van Dijk compliments his work and asks if anything exciting happened. He says only five days in jail, but she thinks he is joking. He wanders restlessly out to the grad student hangout where he drinks excessively and listens to pounding music. He watches other people carry out their nightly rituals, and stumbles into a park. There something hits him in the head and falls down, rolling away. He picks it up and sees a wooden button with an X incised on it. It is very strange, and he looks up, questioning, at the eucalyptus from where it fell.
Adam is granted a year-long dissertation completion fellowship, and he wryly realizes that he has come to spend it here, in Oregon, among a bunch of people making their last stand for the trees. He nears the camp and recognizes Nick’s trademark style in text that introduces the “Free Bioregion of Cascadia.” He meets two people who introduce themselves as Doug-fir and Mulberry (Douglas and Mimi), and spontaneously takes the name Maple for himself.
When he greets Maidenhair and Watchman after their time apart, it is as if they are grimmer, more resolute, the death of Mimas weighing heavily on them. They tell him there is a little ceremony to welcome new people, which initially annoys him with its “fuzziness,” but he eventually engages. He takes an oath and, asked for the psychologist perspective, tells them that no argument in the world can change a person’s mind, but a good story can.
The days pass and supplies and more sympathizers arrive. Plans and ideas are thrown about. A representative from a congressman’s office comes by and seems sympathetic, a group of Forest Service men ask them to leave but are turned away, and, more ominously, shots are fired one night and deer entrails are left by the road. Another confrontation with two aggressive men in a truck rattles the group, but Adam thinks to himself that even though they might “ream” the protestors, eventually the Earth will ream the reamers.
The protest enters its second month and even though it shouldn’t be working, it is; even the President of the United States hears about it. One day, though, their time is up—the “Freddies” (Federals) arrive. They announce that the protestors have ten minutes to vacate, and when they don’t, the Freddies destroy the barricades with an excavator. It rolls into their walls and ditches. The Cascadians flee, while Maidenhair chants. People begin to yell for nonviolence. Mimi, up in a tree, is jarred loose and falls, her cheek lacerated as she goes. Douglas is knocked unconscious. Defeated, everyone huddles in horror.
Afterward, Maidenhair retains hope but Adam says nothing, knowing that the truth is too brutal even for him to say. Douglas and Mimi go to the hospital to be treated for their wounds. The Freddies do not press charges against the squatters, and the Cascadians disperse so the extraction of wealth can resume. However, almost a month later, a machine shed with vehicles in the Willamette National Forest goes up in flames.
The newspapers print stories and photos, which Adam, Mimi, and Douglas look at grimly. They vacillate from rage to passive defiance. Finally, though, their course is clear. They attack the machine shed, then a sawmill near Solace. Nick writes “No to the Suicide Economy. Yes to Real Growth.”
Adam listens to his fellow arsonists justify their behavior. He has thrown his hat in the ring with them because he too believes he must help stop the coming apocalypse. His thesis now has its answer.
Maidenhair’s spell over the others has only grown after each incident. She is deeply engaged in her mission in a passionately spiritual way. The group decides they will carry out one more run before they go their separate ways. Adam finds a story about Forest Service seeking multi-use projects, and they decide this is it.
During their preparations, they only use cash, do not communicate other than face-to-face, and prepare their mission. Maidenhair and Watchman surveil a site in Idaho. Nick sketches the details while she listens carefully to the trees. They prepare the fuel buckets and decide where they will go to have the most sustainable burn. This will be it—their last mission, calculated to appeal to millions, to plant a seed that needs fire to open.
The morning of their departure arrives. They take a van, dress in black, and bring all their equipment and a police scanner. At the site they move quickly and silently, setting up the containers and wicks, affixed with timers. Nick heads out to write his messages that will be viewed across the country. He writes, in forms that look like Egyptian hieroglyphs, “Control Kills. Connection Heals” and “Come Home or Die.” Over at the detonation site, though, Adam and Douglas mistime their actions. Adam’s thoughts get away from him, and he is left despairing that only property and mastery matter, and Earth is doomed to monetization until everything is bred to be slaughtered.
As Watchman writes his lines of poetry, a massive concussion wave hits him and he is thrown back. There is heat long before there should be an explosion, and he takes off running. He rushes to Douglas and sees two figures on the ground, one not moving. He leans down to where Olivia is gurgling, her body wounded, things coming out of it that should not be. They move her away from the flames.
Mimi rushes up and tells Adam to go get the police. Olivia murmurs no, that they must finish, and Adam argues that they cannot get the authorities or they will fail and they will all be doomed. He does step away, though.
Nick cannot fathom what is happening; it seems like he is watching from afar. Mimi shouts for Douglas to get water while she looks down at Olivia. Olivia’s thoughts pass into Mimi—this is wrong, how did this happen?
The sky flares up and two more explosions sound. Nick asks Adam, who reappears, if he got help. When Adam says no, Nick rages at him and attacks him. However, Olivia calls to Nick weakly. She asks how long this will last and he replies not long, but when she asks if what they have will never end, he waits too long to reply and she dies.
As quickly as the protestors come together, their last, and failed, action shatters them apart forever. Olivia dies wondering what happened to Mimas’ (putative) assertions that everything will be okay, while the others wrestle with what to do now and if all their actions are in vain. Powers does not condemn the protestors when they move into eco-terrorism, nor does he explicitly condone them. Mother N advocates nonviolence (in an example of tragic irony, she is violently killed) but at some point the characters decide they have no other option but to move forward with more aggressive actions. They do not carry out violence against people, but they do destroy expensive property and create dangerous situations. Obviously, with Olivia’s death the rationality and success of eco-terrorist actions are called into question, but, again, Powers does not kill Olivia off to “punish” her; rather, it is a sacrifice of sorts, a commentary on just how fraught the war to save the trees is.
In these remaining pages of “Trunk,” Powers shows just how closely intertwined futility and hope are, regardless of the seeming incompatibility. Almost all of the characters, for example, engage with these two polarities in their actions and thoughts. First, Olivia and Nick spend a year of their lives living in Mimas. This is noble, a little crazy, and beautifully tragic in the sense that of course there’s little chance that they will be able to forestall the inevitable. Similarly, there is Mimi and Douglas’s hopeful but doomed attempt to prevent bad corporate behavior with sit-ins, and all of the protestors’ expectations that their acts of eco-terrorism will result in any major changes. Capitalism and greed and human self-interest are simply too great. Second, there is Neelay’s hope that his games will prove to be something beyond a new version of capitalism and conquering, but the reality is that they are not. Hope returns, though, when he conceives of a new version of the game. Third, Adam experiences the futility of humans ever really being able to move past their cognitive biases, but hope mediates when he himself experiences a shift from skepticism and ambivalence about the protestors to affinity with their cause. And fourth, and arguably the most moving, is Patricia’s founding of the Seedbank. By doing so she is demonstrating a tremendous amount of hope, but readers cannot help but wonder (in fact, Patricia and Douglas cannot help but wonder) if there is any point to this. Who will do the replanting?
One of the criticisms of The Overstory is the story of Ray and Dorothy, which some critics see as not quite related to the rest of the novel. The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote that “Ray and Dorothy feel adrift in what seems like a separate novel, one that also cares deeply about trees but exists in a universe discrete from the novel’s increasingly propulsive eco-activism plot.” The Guardian complained, “Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly’s story (concerning a divorce that is postponed when Ray has a stroke) also feels at odds with the main narrative. The closest they get to the central protest is sometimes reading about it in newspapers. Powers uses the couple to crowbar in a few ideas about intellectual property and biological evolution, but otherwise they’re a distraction.”
On the other hand, Ray and Dorothy’s story can be seen to offer nuance to the relationship between humans and the natural world. The two of them are completely absorbed by their human drama and fail to heed the trees’ call. First, there is the use of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and undoes the Macbeths’ machinations (tangentially, Dorothy is also a Lady Macbeth-type character, not just an actress who plays the famous role). Each night on stage Ray thinks, “Something is happening to me. Something heavy, huge, and slow, coming from far outside, that I do not understand. He has no idea” (66). Later, after the two marry, they decide to plant something every year for their anniversary. This is a lovely thought, but it rarely happens, foreshadowing the demise of their relationship and symbolizing the “plant-blindness” most humans are prone to. And after Dorothy tells Ray she no longer wants to be with him, he again feels the tapping on his consciousness that there is something important left for them. It is not until his brain damage that he and Dorothy are in a position to quiet themselves enough to listen to what the trees are saying. This is perhaps a much more relatable story than those of Olivia or Mimi or Douglas, whether or not it is on the margins; most readers are not, or will not become, protestors who live in trees or set fire to timber companies’ property.
Another criticism worth heeding is that of the human characters only briefly and peripherally mentioned, often in critical terms: the loggers and law enforcement. Critic Pasquale S. Toscano notes, “Powers generally fails to extend the same nuance [in his main characters] to the police officers and lumberjacks with whom his protagonists contend. He identifies none by name and creates most as one-dimensional sadists who verge on the murderous. This is not to say, of course, that these groups should be sacrosanct from criticism; simply, that the novel’s homiletic tendencies might have been curbed had Powers taken the time to complicate his descriptions of people so obviously the enemy that the credibility of the narrative itself begins to slacken.” This is a valid point, especially when considering the economic realities of loggers who need to work for a living.