“People see better what looks like them,” observes the field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the nine—nine—main characters of Richard Powers’s 12th novel, The Overstory. And trees, Patricia discovers, look like people. They are social creatures, caring for one another, communicating, learning, trading goods and services; despite lacking a brain, trees are “aware.” After borers attack a sugar maple, it emits insecticides that warn its neighbors, which respond by intensifying their own defenses. When the roots of two Douglas firs meet underground, they fuse, joining vascular systems; if one tree gets ill, the other cares for it. The chopping down of a tree causes those surrounding it to weaken, as if in mourning. But Powers’s findings go beyond Dr. Pat’s. In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest—17 are named on the first page alone—trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.
Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a “historian of contemporary society.” He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked. A former computer programmer and English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powers has written novels about the history of photography, artificial intelligence, nuclear warfare, race and miscegenation, the Holocaust, neuroscience, virtual reality, the chemical industry, and genetic engineering. It was only a matter of time before he took on the greatest existential crisis human civilization faces: the destruction of the natural conditions necessary for our own survival.
“What the Fuck Went Wrong with Mankind” is the central question of The Overstory, as posed by Douggie Pavlicek, a Vietnam War veteran who reinvents himself as a radical eco-activist. Powers has assembled a cast of impeccably credentialed characters to come up with an answer. Douggie himself participated in the Stanford Prison Experiment as a college student, which led him to conclude that “the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.” Adam Appich is a psychologist who studies the ways in which people blind themselves to catastrophes, particularly those that unfold gradually. Ray Brinkman is an intellectual-property lawyer who asks whether trees can be said to have legal rights. Nicholas Hoel is the heir to a family art project—several generations committed to photographing, once a month, the growth of a chestnut tree—that has instilled in him an awed appreciation of human transience. (The Hoel Chestnut photographs may have been inspired by a similar project undertaken in Norwich, England, from 1914 to 1942, while Patricia Westerford’s discoveries resemble those of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, and of a German forester with the same initials, Peter Wohlleben, whose 2015 best seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, appears to be the basis for Patricia’s book, The Secret Forest.)