Review: A novel for the age of ‘Laudato Si’’

Redwood trees in Redwood National and State Park, Calif. (Photo by James T. Keane)

Grief is a theme that guides my academic research. Grief is the loss of another experienced as the loss of an integral part of oneself. Christianity is shot through with grief. Our fundamental act as Christians is to keep alive our grief over Christ, and the unjust death of a man whose ministry we (strive to) make the backbone of our identity. Grief is also an act of wild hope. It holds within it the belief that the future can be marked and changed by the value of the lost. The resurrection tells us we do not hope in vain.

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The Overstoryby Richard Powers

W. W. Norton

512p, $18.95

A question I return to in my work again and again is: Whom do we grieve? Further, what circumscribes where we see Christ? How can we expand our grief, the stories we tell about ourselves, to include more?

Pope Francis and other theologians encourage us to see that our circle of grief is not yet wide enough, that our understanding of grace is limited by anthropocentrism: “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 68). The Catholic Catechism, too, calls us away from a human-centered notion of Grace: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection.... Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness.”

Elizabeth Johnson has asked us to see ourselves not as the pre-Galileo centers of the universe but, with Darwin, as part of a wide and beautiful expanding web of ecological diversity that includes all life. We share common ancestors and a quarter of our genetic material with trees. We are not the apex of creation but a mere strand. Can we experience that ecological web not as our resource, or even our (necessary) habitat, but as our kin? Richard Powers’s brilliant novel The Overstory, which won the the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a story about people who do this, challenging us to feel that kinship with that web.

Powers masterfully brings the story together, structuring the narrative as a tree itself: roots that stretch out, the trunk that brings them all together, a crowning flourish and seeds that disperse.

Like the depiction of small-town Victorian life in Eliot’s Middlemarch, or the shifting national identity in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, The Overstory’s breadth offers more than plot. It offers a grand and compelling view, detailed and wide-lensed, of our interdependence. In The Overstory, trees that span generations and plotlines provide the wide scope. More than a framing device, trees become a part of the story and live in a way that I have never before encountered in literature.

Powers masterfully brings the story together, structuring the narrative as a tree itself: roots that stretch out, the trunk that brings them all together, a crowning flourish and seeds that disperse.

A taste of the protagonists: Patricia is a dendrologist who discovers the mechanisms by which trees communicate; Mimi is an engineer who leaves her corporate life to protest deforestation; Neelay is a Silicon Valley coder whose lucrative game, Mastery, allows players infinite resources to create their own worlds; Nicholas is an artist equal parts Banksy and Andy Goldsworthy; Ray is a property rights lawyer with a mischievous wife, Dorothy; Adam is a professor of psychology who becomes entangled in his research subjects’ activism; Doug is a wounded Vietnam veteran; and Olivia is a college student whose mystical visions lead her to live 10 months atop a Northern California giant, hoping to save it.

The Overstory gives us the generations-deep story of each character. All of them come to see and ultimately give their lives to the bigger story, which moves so slowly, which is so grand and so still, that it is nearly impossible to see in a single human life. “You can watch the hour hand,” Powers writes. “Hold your eyes on it all around the circle of the clock, and never once see it move.”

I heard once that trees talk to each other, and I laughed it off immediately as clickbait science. But the truth, which The Overstory shows through elegant narrative, is: They do. They heal one another, sending targeted nutrients and medicine and water through their massive root systems. They make the air, and they grow with it. (Plant a tree in a pot of 50 pounds of soil, come back in 15 years; you will find 50 pounds of soil and a 100-pound tree.) With air they aid and warn each other. Forests even, over time too extended for us take in, migrate in response to their environments.

I had often assented to the notion that the human brain is the most complex organ in the universe. How could I have ever taken a bite from such an apple?

I had often assented to the notion that the human brain is the most complex organ in the universe. How could I have ever taken a bite from such an apple? A forest, regenerating, communicating, growing in a billion directions—with trees over twenties centuries old—surviving and adapting. “There are a hundred thousand species of love,” Powers writes, “separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.” Forests are clearly complex, resilient and beautiful systems, things we hardly understand but that created us and on which we remain integrally dependent.

And yet we have destroyed nearly half of all forest area in recorded history, and continue to harvest 15 billion trees a year. We replant some, clones in rows. If I tore apart every word in the Gospel of Mark, then lined each back up neatly in alphabetical order, would you still call it the good news? Carbon excess in our atmosphere and the heat it traps fell trees and species we have not yet even reached in our knowledge. Powers is right: “Things are going lost that have not yet been found.”

Four billion years of evolution, the infinite web of life on which we are but one dependent strand, and over a few short decades we are cashing it all in. As I finished The Overstory, I imagined this cash-out, all done in the quest to keep the sun rotating around us, to square and submit every plant and inch of the earth, to imagine our brains the zenith of reality. Gods of convenience, ownership and mastery. We have, in slow motion, been picking the apple from the tree all that time, with the reckless shortsightedness of Adam and Eve. It feels now that there is little we can do to stop it. Our economies are forcing a mass suicide of people affected with bystander apathy. We are at the gate.

The corollary to all this is that perhaps we could have been in Eden this whole time, if only we had been still and humble enough to experience it. I have long known the facts of climate change. But reading The Overstory, I felt the loss of trees and forests not as a loss of resources or even the loss of my human home—though I fear and despair over that. I experienced the destruction for the first time as a loss of an integral part of myself, as a creature who participates in the glory of being alive on Earth. Like the Fall itself, the truest sin, I experienced the destruction as a break with my maker and kin. The Overstory accomplished its goal: I grieved.

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