Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Overstory: a very short review

Yes, I know I haven't been writing.

It's worse; I haven't been reading, either.

Well, I am still reading. I read the news, too often. I read piles and piles and piles of technical documents at work (and I write piles and piles of such, too). I read lots of dialogue in the adventure games that I play on my computer.

But, books? Yeah, I haven't been reading books in the last 6 weeks (Boo! Hiss!).

Partly, it's because of circumstances: I read books when I commute, and the 4 feet from my bedroom to my office don't count as that.

But partly it's because I recently finished a wonderful book, and I've been strangely hesitant to start the next book, for fear that it would drive Richard Powers's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory from my head.

And I'm also strangely hesitant to write about The Overstory, because I know I will fail to convey things properly (as you'll see below).

I've discovered that The Overstory is a strangely charged book, among people who pay attention to books.

I've had multiple people, a surprising number of people, tell me that they "hated" The Overstory, that it "repulsed" them, that they "couldn't get into it at all." Even the person who recommended it to me was unwilling to take a stand on it; perhaps she just thought, "Bryan will really like this book," and so recommended it to me?

But she was right: I loved it!

For one thing, this book was aimed at me. I am a child of the 1970's, and a denizen of the Pacific Northwest. When we moved to Los Angeles in June, 1970, the air pollution was so dreadful that our schools would occasionally declare Smog Days when there was no school and we all had to stay indoors. One winter day, 9 months after we moved to California, a storm front briefly cleared the air and I could see the mountains, just 10 short miles from my house but previously invisible.

By the mid-70's I was spending my summers in the mountains, backpacking, swimming, marveling at it all. I went off to the Big City for college, but the draw of the forest was unyielding and before long we were in Northern California where I could walk in the ancient forests and find peace in the quiet redwood groves.

I don't want to claim too much: I'm the sort of tree-lover who can barely tell a spruce from a larch, and couldn't distinguish a beech from a hickory in an hour; my favorite thing about forests is that they exist. Yes, The Overstory was definitely aimed at me.

But less about me, more about the book.

Although it is set over a period of decades, all across the country, The Overstory takes its central plot elements from the well-known Timber Wars incidents of the late 1980's and early 1990's, which arose out of the environmental activist movements of the late 1970's, most notably the harshly polarizing Earth First!.

There was lots of drama during these events, and all sorts of colorful characters, such as Judi Bari and David Chain, and of course Julia Butterfly Hill. Powers draws heavily from the historical records, and many of his primary characters and their escapades feel like they are almost lifted from the press accounts of the time.

Powers spends much of his time, though, trying to dig back into a deeper story. Why did this collection of strange oddballs on the fringes of American society come together in such a passionate manner? What drove them to such lengths? And, in the end, what did they change?

Although such a book (and there are many such) could certainly be written as non-fiction, Powers has chosen historical fiction and thus he can bend and stretch and re-shape the story to his goals, as well as deploy his powerful writing talents.

Some of this is motivation and backstory, to help us even notice the trees all around us

Below her, past the knots of sunbathers, down a shallow auditorium slope, an asphalt path meanders in a gentle S. And just beyond the path, a zoo of trees. A voice up close in her ear says, Look the color!. More shades than there are names, as many shades as there are numbers, and all of them green. There are squat date palms that predate the dinosaurs. Towering Washingtonia with their fan fringes and dense inflorescence. Through the palms, a whole spectrum of broadleaves run from purple to yellow. Coast live oaks, for certain. Shameless, naked eucalypts. Those specimens with the odd, warty bark and exuberant compound leaves she could never find in any guidebook.
And to try to justify why somebody might choose to dedicate their entire life to trees.
She sits on her Shaker chair at the table, listening to the crickets. Long ago her father taught her an old formula, one that converts cricket chirps per minute into degrees Fahrenheit. For sixty years, the nighttime orchestra all around her has been playing one of those folk dances that keep speeding up until all the players tumble in a heap. We would be thrilled if you could talk about any role trees might play in helping mankind to a sustainable future. The conference organizers want a keynote from a woman who once wrote a book on the power of woody plants to restore the failing planet. But she wrote that book decades ago, when she was still young enough for courage and the planet still well enough to rally.

But once his characters are established, Powers turns to the central challenge of the environmental movement: nature versus progress:

These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world's poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it's the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she'd get an ovation.

And how the progress itself can seem to shift from being the means to being the end:

Beyond the trees, the pastel project of the city piles up in cubes of white, peach, and ocher. It builds over the hills toward the towering center, where the buildings rise skyward and turn denser. The raw force of this self-feeding engine, the countless lives that power the enterprise down at ground level, come clear to her. Across the horizon, stands of building cranes break and remake the skyline. All the spreading, urging, testing, splitting, and regenerating course of history, the rings within rings, paid for at every step with fuel and shade and fruit, oxygen and wood ... Nothing in this city is older than a century. In seventy plus seventy years, San Francisco will be saintly at last, or gone.

This meditation on progress, and on transformation, ends up in a long and complex metaphorical examination, funneled through Neelay, a crippled (he fell from a tree as a child!) high-tech entrepeneur, about whether human beings have forgotten their ability to celebrate the wonders of the world around them, and its natural intelligence, in favor of an increasingly abstract and artificial intelligence with needs of its own:

While the prisoner thinks, innovations surge over his head, across the flyover from Portland and Seattle to Boston and New York and back again. In the time it takes the man to form one self-judging thought, a billion packets of program pass over. They course under the sea in great cables -- buzzing between Tokyo, Chengdu, Shengzhen, Bangalore, Chicago, Dublin, Dallas, and Berlin. And the learners begin to turn all this data into sense.


They split and replicate, these master algorithms that Neelay lofts into the air. They're just starting out, like the simplest cells back in the Earth's morning. But already they've learned, in a few short decades, what it took molecules a billion years to learn to do. Now they need only learn what life wants from humans. It's a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren't alone, and they never have been.


High above Adam's prison, new creatures sweep up into satellite orbit and back down to the planet's surface, obeying the old, first hungers, the primal commands -- look, listen, taste, touch, feel, say, join. They gossip to one other, these new species, exchanging discoveries, as living code has exchanged itself from the beginning. They begin to link up, to fuse together, to merge their cells and form small communities. There's no saying what they might become, in seventy plus seventy years.


And so Neely gets out and sees the world. His children comb the Earth tonight with one command: Absorb everything. Eat every scrap of data you can find. Sort and compare more measurements than all of humanity in all of history has yet managed.


Soon enough, his learners will see across the planet. They'll watch the vast boreal forests from space and read the species-teeming tropics from eye level. They'll study rivers and measure what's in them. They'll collate the data of every wild creatures ever tagged and map their wanderings. They'll read every sentence in every article that every field scientist ever published. They'll binge-watch every landscape that anyone has pointed a camera at. They'll listen to tall the sounds of the streaming Earth. They'll do what the genes of their ancestors shaped them to do, what all their forebears have ever done themselves. They'll speculate on what it takes to live and put these speculations to the test. Then they'll say what life wants from people, and how it might use them.

Putting these more strained observations aside for the moment, let's return to the central question of Powers's novel: did anything change?

I think the answer must be a qualified yes, and I think others would agree: When Tree Sitters Heart Lumberjacks

Schultz’s simple gesture was the latest sign that the timber wars that have raged in Northern California’s redwood country for nearly a quarter century are coming to an end. Gone is Pacific Lumber, the 145-year-old company that Charles Hurwitz and his Houston-based Maxxam Inc. took on a binge of old-growth logging in the ’80s and ’90s, making it easily the most despised lumber company in America.

This change comes slowly, and the decisions and challenges are subtler now:

Here the air was cooler, the ground carpeted with sword ferns and huckleberries. Pacific Lumber’s loggers had planned to clear the area, but Humboldt decided to cut selectively, leaving behind clumps of large trees. Adams was still coming to terms with this approach. “Clearcutting is not all bad,” he said, “as long as you don’t clearcut too much.” Graecen, meanwhile, was pondering the future. “Making this into a park wouldn’t be good for the forest,” he mused. Humboldt Redwood’s more intensive management—weeding out invasive species to nurture slow-growing firs and redwoods—could improve the land, he concluded.

Powers surely wants us to put down our phones, stop directing every spare resource into our machine learning engines, and go for a walk in the forest, and even if The Overstory is more polemic than novel, it is yet more substantially a fable of a past that could still be our future.

Who knows? After you read it, you may go and take a walk in the forest, yourself.

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