“The Overstory”  is a novel written by Richard Powers that falls into the genre of “Ecofiction”. The book is complex and ambitious, and explores the intricate interconnection between human beings and the natural world. It features diverse characters and intertwined subplots, offering readers an in-depth perspective on environmental and scientific themes.
The story revolves around various protagonists, including scientists, activists, and artists, each with a passion for the environment and the conservation of nature. The novel explores their efforts to understand and protect the natural world, providing a detailed analysis of the challenges they face and the discoveries they make along the way.
The author invites us to reflect on our relationship with the natural world and the impact of our actions on the environment. Through engaging storytelling and the use of prose rich in evocative imagery and real data and facts, Powers shows us the beauty and fragility of nature, as well as its resilience and capacity to adapt.
“The Overstory” tells the story of nine interconnected characters whose lives are deeply influenced by trees and the natural world. The book is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a different stage in the life cycle of a tree: ‘Roots’, ‘Trunk’, ‘Crown’, and ‘Seeds’.
In the ‘Roots’ section, the narrative introduces various characters and their relationships with trees. Most of the characters have lived a traumatic experience. To give just a few examples of the introductory stories in the novel, Nicholas Hoel is an artist whose entire family passes away. Following this tragedy, he goes back to the farm where he grew up and starts painting a cherished chestnut tree (an almost extinct species now) that has been part of the family for centuries. Mimi Ma, an engineer, also has his life rocked by the death of his father and plants a mulberry tree to honor him.
The ‘Trunk’ section marks the stage in which most of the characters get to know each other and decide to engage in environmental activism together. In particular, they all move to live on a giant redwood tree called Mimas. Mimas is personified in the novel and becomes the 10th character. Later in the novel, the activists are forced to leave the tree and Mimas is killed. In reaction to this, their protests become more violent and eventually Olivia, a college student, is killed by an explosion. This is a turning point in the story and marks the beginning of the ‘Crown’ section.
All the other characters are very shocked by the death of Olivia and decide to abandon their violent activism and separate one from the other, as branches of the tree that grow away from the trunk. In this phase of the book, characters find their place in society in a more conforming way.
What in the ‘Crown’ section is shown as a loss for the environmentalists’ world, in the ‘Seeds’ section is reinterpreted with some space for hope. Indeed, all of the characters manage to still support their ideas and, in some cases communicate them to others. The novel concludes with Nicholas sculpting an enormous natural sculpture spelling out the word “STILL.”
Interpretation and conclusions
“The Overstory” allows for multiple interpretations. From an economic point of view, the main theme that we encounter is that of externalities, a concept at the intersection between economics and environmentalism. The novel presents a critique of the dominant economic paradigm that prioritizes short-term profit and human-centric values over the long-term health and well-being of the natural world.
Externalities are the costs or benefits that are not reflected in the price of goods or services. In the case of deforestation and environmental degradation, the negative externalities, such as loss of biodiversity, climate change, and an ecosystem collapse, are not accounted for in market transactions. The characters in the novel, particularly the activists, are driven by a realization that the destruction of trees and forests has far-reaching consequences that go beyond immediate economic gains.
“The Overstory” highlights the conflict between profit-driven industries, such as logging companies, and the intrinsic value of nature. The characters’ actions can be seen as a response to the market’s failure to recognize and internalize the true costs of environmental degradation. They challenge the prevailing economic system that treats nature as a resource to be exploited rather than a complex web of life that sustains human existence. Through the character of Adam Appich, we also understand the difficulty of reaching a consensus on the value of nature and biodiversity. His inquests focus on the reasons why different people assign completely different values to the same environmental good.
The novel also raises questions about the hope that we can place in the scientific world. The story of Patricia Westerford, a researcher on tree communication, shows how hard it is to reach a consensus on the necessity of a complete change of paradigm and interpretation of our role on Earth, even in the world of academia. Patricia initially sees her scientific work on how trees communicate rejected by academia, only to find the space it deserves after years of resistance and battles.
Finally, the characters’ shift towards more violent environmental activism can be seen as a response to the perceived failure of market mechanisms and government regulations to adequately address environmental issues. It reflects the frustration felt by these characters about the slow pace of change and the belief that more radical measures are needed to protect the natural world.
In the ending lines of “The Overstory,” Nick spells out in gigantic characters the word “STILL” with fallen logs. The interpretation of this ending can be very personal. My takeaways come from the connotation of “STILL” in terms of its meaning of quietness, reflecting how trees stand quietly, growing and observing the world at a slow pace. Similarly, humans can learn from trees to be still, slow down and appreciate the natural world. In this sense, a new economic paradigm can emerge, in contrast with the constant rush towards fast economic growth – one that instead promotes the return to a simpler lifestyle. Finally, we can interpret the word “STILL” as a representation of resilience and resistance. Despite constant threats, trees are STILL there able to adapt to centuries of changes. Likewise, as humans, despite the economic interest of a few people and the difficulties that a changing climate will make us face, we will necessarily, through our resistance, adapt to the uncertain future.
Francesco Savazzi, Research Fellow, Climate justice in times of crisis.
 Powers, R. (2018). The Overstory. Ed. WW Norton & Co, pp.512.