An ode to nature

November 24, 2019

In his new book, Richard Powers asserts that in claiming precedence over nature, humanity will burn itself in the thick of a battle that has no victors

Richard Powers’ The Overstory, is the quintessential novel of ideas, sprawling in its scope and idealism. Powers traverses the lives of his nine protagonists with exhaustive perspicacity. At its heart this novel is an homage to trees in all their complexity, beauty and resilience.

Opening with an epigraph by the great essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson; “ The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable” , this novel functions as a vivid exposition of the Emersonian ethic. Powers sees the ‘aliveness’ of nature with an eye and ear to its covert language, its vast and mysterious interconnectivity and above all a knowingness of its fearsome mystery.

In his essay, Nature, Emerson wrote of the perplexity with which humanity grasps the other; “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me”.

This harkening to the primaeval, to the purity of the instinct, is what Powers espouses throughout his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome. Powers shares much of the transcendentalist’s belief in the innate spiritualism of the natural world. Concomitantly, The Overstory is gilded with a Whitmanesque revelry in wildness and the vivid fecundity of forests. Yet it is in the author’s scholarly inquisitiveness that the novel takes root, so to speak, equally at home in science and a spiritualist’s romanticism.

There is an addictive pell of exhilaration which Powers brings to his work. The opening page itself contains mention of over seventeen species of trees. They speak to us of more than their stoic physicality and their morality, they speak to us of creation’s lore, itself: Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shakedown their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind’s gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather.

The several hundred kinds of hawthorns laugh at the single name they’re forced to share. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over. Trees are the arbour and dense canopy through which this text flourishes. Powers has previously written novels about artificial intelligence, the Holocaust, genetic engineering, neuroscience, virtual reality and the politcs of race. In The Overstory he courageously tackles the impending destruction of the natural world, which humanity has plotted with blind avariciousness. Power’s work and the sheer breadth of this text, are an impassioned appeal for us to recognise how deeply we are cauterising, plundering, and ultimately crippling, our demesne.

In the figure of Patricia Westerford, an eco-scientist, Powers gives us a dreamer, a green prophetess, who ahead of her time, discovers the sentience of trees so to speak, of how ‘the biochemical behaviour of individual trees may make sense only when we see them as members of a community’. There is an engaging dialect, old as time itself, that trees speak, and Westword’s manna is the purpose, mysticism and vividity of its utterance.

‘There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow piñata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colours. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. Westword’s chapters are some of the most moving in this novel, rich with vicissitudes of her unique journey and the single-minded zeal that propels her much like the great naturalist Jane Goodall .

The character of Neelay Mehta, the paraplegic son of Indian immigrants, is particularly compelling. His peculiar genius as a game programmer and his epiphanic passages, laden with insight into the coiled and indivisible ecosystem, sweep the reader into startling realms.

“He spins the chair in place. Nothing is right. The whole cloister courtyard has changed. One hyper-jump and he has landed in an intergalactic arboretum. On all sides, furious green speculations wave at him. Creatures built for other-worldly climates, crazies of every habit and profile. Things from epochs so old they make dinosaurs look like upstarts. He has never done drugs, but this must be what it’s like. Plumes of cream and yellow; a purple waterfall that evaporates before it touches the ground. Trees like freak experiments beckon from out of eight large planters, each one a miniature starship ark on its way to some other system”.

Mehta’s daily struggle with his condition as a cripple, takes nothing away from the awesome brilliance of the world he has created. It is with an artist’s reverence that Powers limns Mehta, bestowing him with an inspiration that is grandiose, crucial and ultimately, irresistible.

“There will be a game, a billion times richer than anything yet made, to be played by countless people around the world at the same time. And Neelay must bring it into being. He’ll unfold the creation in gradual, evolutionary stages, over the course of decades. The game will put its players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the player’s help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.”

The Overstory is an extraordinary ode to nature. Power’s appeal is passionate, and his motive, incendiary. Humanity exists in deep contiguity with nature, Powers asserts, it cannot claim precedence or attempt conquest. In pursuing the latter, it will burn itself in the thick of a battle that has no victors.

In an interview with The Guardian, on the release of The Overstory, Powers sums up the cruciality of the moment, and furnishes a hard-won conclusion; “We’re at this watershed moment where our destruction of biodiversity and old ecosystems is accelerating. The matter is almost nightmarish here in the States, where the Trump administration in just three years has managed to obliterate more than half a century of hard-fought environmental legislation. At the same time it’s also clear to anyone who’s paying attention that we’re in a moment of slowly transforming consciousness. What’s not clear is whether that moment has a chance of becoming more than just a moment, whether we are now moving towards a new relationship with the neighbours with whom we share the world.”

The author is a senior contributing editor at the Aleph Review and a columnist at Libas Now

The Overstory

Author: Richard Powers

Publisher: Vintage UK

Pages: 640

Price: Rs1,195

Richard Powers’ The Overstory: An ode to nature