W.W. Norton & Company, 512 pages
Reviewed by Sarah S. Scherschligt
Near the end of “The Overstory,” a character named Ray, distressed about ecological destruction, reads the hundred greatest novels. “No novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people … but Ray needs fiction.” In future lists of the greatest novels, “The Overstory” will certainly appear. It does what Richard Powers suggests is impossible: compels people to care about the environmental crisis, the contest for the world.
The novel begins by introducing each wonderfully imagined main character in chapters that read like stand-alone short stories. Powers then weaves their lives together as they work to save trees from destruction.
Powers describes trees with such astonishing detail they could be considered main characters. He devotes paragraphs to the science of underground root systems. He includes lengthy tributes to Redwoods that read like a tree-hugger’s manifesto. All this could be insufferable. But it’s the opposite. It’s world-altering.
Powers is a terrific writer. The unique four-part structure serves the plot beautifully. There’s enough mystery and open-endedness to give plenty to chew on long after the book ends. Even without a bigger agenda, “The Overstory” would be worth reading. But this book is a powerhouse, because through it Powers conveys an urgent moral truth: The human story is not the only story that matters.
That is why it is especially important for Christians to read it. Christianity is essentially a story about humans: how we were created, how our history unfolded, how we were saved by another human. The rest of creation, with a few exceptions, plays a supporting role.
“The Overstory” challenges this anthro-centric worldview, pointing out that in relation to the whole of creation, humans are late to the party and utterly dependent. As one character says: “People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures – bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful – call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”
In the short view, yes, we can do a whole lot of damage. Heartbreaking sections of this book reveal just how destructive we can be. But in the long view – what Powers might call “the speed of trees” – many species will grow back. Forests will be restored. We humans may not be so fated.
“The Overstory” deals in religious themes like the pervasiveness of sin, the limits of human justice and the power of love. Protestors develop rituals that bolster hope and community. Story, imagination and art change lives. Sacrifice is willingly accepted for the greater good. All this happens through the cast of “a few lost people,” but ultimately, the human drama is upstaged by creation itself, unfolding over time.
Although it is not an overtly religious book, what Powers has done in creating this change in worldview is the work of theology. He has de-centered humanity and placed us in proper relationship with the rest of creation. In the face of our ecological crisis, contemporary Christians urgently need to follow suit, provoking the kind of worldview shift that Powers has so convincingly inspired.
As Powers himself writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” By any measure, “The Overstory” is a very good story indeed. It will change the way you see the world and your place in it.
Sarah S. Scherschligt is the senior pastor of Peace Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Alexandria, Virginia, and is on the board of directors of the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions.