Review | The Overstory : by Richard Powers

For me, Ann Pachett’s powerful quote sums up the significance of Richard Powers’ eco-epic.

“The best novel ever written about trees,and really just one of the best novels, period.”

Ann Patchett – author of “The Dutch House”

This was enough to get me reading and then Richard Powers took me on a journey through several decades with passionate and conflicted characters who experience extra human elements that shape and steer their lives.

There is a delicate connection between humankind and nature. Through seeds, roots, saplings, trunks, branches and canopies, an awareness of the strength and resilience of the non-human world is nurtured and magnified for a very diverse group of human seekers. Searchers who catch a glimpse of the almost invisible world along side their everyday lives.

As often happens when I’m reading, I am reminded of something I have read in the past. “The Overstory” brought to mind a very personal memory of a book of poems my father compiled in high school. In his book, entitled “Trees” the pages are thin sheets of real tree bark. I still have his book which has fascinated me since childhood. Even when I was young, one poem by Joyce Kilmer, with the same title “Trees”, stuck in my memory –

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree . . .

Joyce Kilmer

After reading “The Overstory”, I was moved to learn more about Joyce Kilmer and discovered through Poetry Foundation that he is known for poetry celebrating the common beauty of the natural world. In addition, I also learned he was an Army intelligence officer during WWI, collecting data and information from the enemy’s front line. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet at the age of thirty-two. In 1938, the federal government purchased 3,800 acres of old growth forest in North Carolina to stop extensive logging. The tract of forest was dedicated to the memory of Kilmer.

This book may cause you to reflect on your own revelations from nature. Not far from Warren, Pennsylvania (my father’s hometown), in the Allegheny National Forest, there is a white pine and hemlock virgin forest known as Heart’s Content.

Heart’s Content – Allegheny National Forest

In 1897, during the midst of the timber boom, the Wheeler and Dusenbury Lumber Company designated a 20 acre parcel of company land to be left untouched. The area was deeded over to the United States Forest Service in 1922 because of its ecological and historical importance. In 1977, Heart’s Content was made a National Landmark. Since the 1950″s, I have returned to Heart’s Content many times. It was a favorite spot of my grandparents and my father. It is a unique place to witness a forest’s regeneration. See A “Jewel” in the Sea of Progress : Heart’s Content by Shane Brenneman.

All of this reflection as the the result of an amazing story! Powers ends “The Overstory” with what he calls a whisper of words:

“This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

Page 502, “The Overstory”

Aldo Leopold, naturalist, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist, knew the natural world as vast and complex. In his Round River essay, he gives us a warning about the inharmonious relationship between humans and nature: “Why is it that conservation is so rarely practiced by those who must extract a living from the land? It is said to boil down, in the last analysis, to economic obstacles. Take forestry as an example: the lumberman says he will crop his timber when stumpage values rise high enough, and when wood substitutes quit underselling him. He said this decades ago. In the interim, stumpage values have gone down, not up; substitutes have increased, not decreased. Forest devastation goes on as before. I admit the reality of this predicament. I suspect that the forces inherent in unguided economic evolution are not at all beneficent. Like the forces inside our bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land.” ~ Aldo Leopold

Being one who enjoys a good walk in the woods, I seldom return home without a souvenir in the form of a rock, a cone, a flower to press, or a photo of something that intrigued me.

Hike up Baldpate Mountain

“The Overstory” encourages me to look even closer at the biota surrounding me on my next and subsequent journeys into a space of beauty and of warnings for our species.

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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