The Overstory by Richard Powers.

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Finding myself semi-isolated in a shuttered ski town in the Utah mountains, very Stephen King here,  it seemed like an auspicious moment to take on a book in which the main characters are trees. There are of course humans in the book, but their relationships and failings are flavor accents in what is essentially a book about a group of plants that I for one had not given a great deal of thought about.

There is considerable talk these days about Covid being either a symptom of our poor relations with the natural world or perhaps the natural world’s revenge on us thoughtless humans. I am not so sure about these theories, but I do agree that the current trajectory is not looking good. The Overstory is a rather perfect ode to a world that we often define purely in terms of its utility to us humans, without much thought to the idea that perhaps human exceptionalism is yet another human delusion. As a species, we have done a fantastic job of convincing ourselves we are the apex of all creation. Being a long time inhabitant of dense urban environments, this sort of thinking is pretty much without alternative- gardens, parks, sidewalk trees, all lovely and all created for the improvement of the human experience.

Being a temporary resident of a deserted ski community on the side of a mountain, where my human-ness is very much in the minority of the life forms around me, having a book like The Overstory is rather perfectly aligned with my new isolationist reality- there are a lot of trees, animals and plants surrounding me, and I know shockingly next to nothing about any of them.

This was not always the case- growing up in rural western New York State, and I could name pretty much all the trees and animals around me. My surprisingly memorable 4th-grade science report was on tree categorization, much of which has slipped through the seams of my mind. So it is an interesting thing to wake up one day and realize one knows almost nothing about the world around one’s self. If this were a new city, I would have already known the names of all the streets, coffee shops, and book stores with walking distance. 

Name that tree.

As a companion book to The Overstory, when I was about halfway through it, I purchased The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees, Western Edition. It has been slow going in my getting to know the names and habits of my tree neighbors. It was alarming how little attention I had been paying to them. I ascribed the term “pine” to any kind of conifer. Getting specific is so much more satisfying. Out my window I can now say with certainty that my view is of a Blue Spruce, and beyond that, a small stand of Aspen. 

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Being careful not to become the sort of crushing bore who loves to demonstrate knowledge of a particular minutia, I have for the most part been keeping my new found interest in tree naming to myself. I can imagine my wife’s rolling her eyes when I describe the process by which one determines the tree’s proper name: bark texture, leaf/needle shape, and cone/fruit observation.

TV makes me nervous, it seems to have been designed to induce an endless craving for more of it. Books, on the other hand, I find comforting, especially in these days of frantic jerking between hope and despair that the news cycle oscillates through. My book consumption is way up, and although I alternate with various non-fiction what I will call performance-enhancing books, by far my favorite are deep long engrossing novels that create an entirely different world. My final thought on The Overstory? A wonderfully informative book about the hidden natural world that is wrapped in the form of a modern novel. Recommended.