Trees are beautiful things, but they are terrible writers. The problem is they have no sense of timing that a human can relate to. 500 years is nothing to a great tree. But try pacing a potboiler to that timescale.
The problems of arboreal authorship become apparent halfway in to Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 novel, The Overstory. It’s at that point that Powers, who has a good ear for language and who can sketch a character in slight strokes, gives over his story to the trees, who are in the very near background of the nine human characters he introduces over the first 150 pages. It’s a clever turn for a noble end—to draw our attention to the consequences of deforestation—but the stories of these humans pale in comparison to the story of the trees, who are as laconic and loquacious as Tolkien’s Ents.
Powers seems to be aware of the problem. At one point he has the narrator reflect:
To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. (383)
The humans in the story, by and large, come to see the world-ending implications and act on them in various ways. Some become radical environmental activists, sitting in platforms high above a redwood forest and sabotaging forest clearance operations. One has a stroke and begins to move and see at tree speed while his wife struggles to gain his perspective: “He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she — she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything.” (458)
Neelay, a wheelchair-bound game designer, creates a virtual world in which the environmental challenge comes to upend the whole notion of what it means to win:
“Mastery isn’t a video game. It’s a thought game.”
“Okay. But you must admit, a lot of productive time is going to waste.”
“The game is definitely chronophagic.” He hears a little question mark pop up in a thought bubble on the other end of the line. “Time-eating.”
“Does it bother you, to be such a destroyer of productivity?”
Neelay gazes out on a patch of mountain shaved bare half a century ago. “I don’t think… It might not be so bad, to destroy a little productivity.” (227)
In the end, the trees are scoring all the best points. The magnitude of their wisdom, the necessity of their survival, and the tragedy of our disconnection from them is abundantly clear. The tragedy is not theirs, however, but ours. We are the ones who cannot see and so we will suffer the costs of our blindness. “Life is so generous, and we are so…inconsolable,” Patricia, a scientist, tells a gathered audience. “But nothing I can say will wake the sleepwalk or make the suicide seem real. It can’t be real, right? I mean, here we are, all still…” (452)
The tragedy of the book is that trees can’t write, at least not anything most of us will spend 500 pages slogging through. So by giving his voice to them, even with such creativity and skill, Powers struggles to hold our attention. And we leave the scene a little more aware…more appreciative of the interconnectedness of a forest…and more sensitive to the loss of the globe’s great forest ranges. But that’s far short of a convicting transformation. Or perhaps I just haven’t given it what a tree insists I must…time.