The Overstory presents a story from the root to the crown, and back to the seed. It is a story, more precisely eight stories of resistance and activism. When people understand the beauty of trees, their fates are forever changed as their embark on a road of activism that challenges the problematic system. The book is very insightful and starts a conversation that people often ignore.
Highly recommended to those who don’t mind reading a long story. The book is “for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of cretion and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming”. Especially during a time when human lives have become so vulnerable compared to natural forces, the book is valuable and worth reading for all human beings.
The story behind activism
—book review of The Overstory
At some point in the book, one question is asked: “Do you believe human beings are using resources faster than the world can replace them?” As we rejoice the technology developments and the high-paced lifestyles, we tend to ignore the beautiful nature around us, not to mention the reality that century-old trees are already disappearing because of deforestation. In the compelling story of nature, love, resistance, and activism, Powers answers yes to the proposed question in the book by drafting a touching story surrounding the significance of trees. He uses the story of nine different yet connected individuals to tell the true story of activism that put resistors (and environmentalists) on the opposite side of law and what seems to be right in society.
Structured into distinct sections, the chapters included “roots”, the individual stories of seven characters and one couple who are all connected to trees in different ways, “trunk”, “crown”, and finally, “seeds”. Under the first section “roots”, Powers expands on the family stories of the protagonists and how they came to value trees. Although Powers tries to make a balance between gender and race among the nine individuals, diversity remains an issue because of the stereotypes in the books—the Indian American immigrant, for example, is a stereotypical tech guru. When I was reading the first two hundred pages of the book, I started to lose patience because nothing I read was related to activism or environmentalism. The separate storylines seemed distracting to me because the story of each individual is not as consistent—I had to jump in and out of the stories to follow along the plot.
There are, however, intelligence in the design of the structure. The unrelated individuals, who all find values in trees in different ways, end up coming together to create a movement, and the chemistry among the activists is interesting to see. In a seemingly hopeless world, the structure encourages hope: the diverse characters support environmentalism in different ways. While some use direct methods as resistance, engaging in walkouts, protests, and even direct conflicts with the police; one character uses her professional knowledge as a scientist to make an impact; Neelay, the Indian American computer science enthusiast, creates a popular game that helps people “return to nature” in the industrialized world; even the psychologist who aims to study the activists ends up becoming part of the group. With the diversity among the characters, there is power and hope because resistance is never limited to one form, and there is one common ground among the various characters: they all believe that ““what you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
Structure wise, the sections of a tree remains a consistent metaphor throughout the book. The author uses different parts of a tree as section names of the book, with trunk being the longest section because it is the longest part of a tree. Using the names, Powers makes a clear argument about environmental activism, an argument full of wisdom. The “roots” are where things start, which correspond with the section of separate individual stories of the protagonists—from their family and childhood, the readers have a comprehensive look into their lives and why their care about the cause. The next section “trunk” is a long journey of resistance where the protagonists explore the nature and themselves and find ways to resist. The subsequent section “crown”, where the leaves come together to create a beautiful scenery, is also the climax of the book: the conflicts intensify, and protagonists face tough choices. The last section “seed” is also metaphorical: things go back to the beginning as the activist movement fails to protect Mimas and other ancient trees. However, the allegory of the growth of a tree is not completely hopeless. When the seeds are planted, new trees start to grow, and with more and more trees, there will be more people whose roots are developed into the tree trunk and crown, becoming part of the environmentalist movement.
Trees, important clues that connect stories to stories, protagonists to protagonists, and love to hope, tell a big deal about environmentalism, and they give the audiences space to rethink our relationships with nature. In the book, all protagonists understand the significance of trees, not only because of their special meanings to themselves but also their values to a sustainable future for all humans; the vision the protagonists have created a sheer contrast to the lumberjacks, law enforcement agents, or the police, who fail to understand the long-term benefits of environmental activist movements. As the protagonists reflect, “this is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” The book truly sparks wisdom as the readers start to rethink their places in the world, dragging themselves out of a human-centric attitude because “other creatures-bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful-call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight.” We are nothing without biodiversity—trees, plants, animals, and microorganism are as important as we are in the world.
Despite the beauty and importance of nature, the book projects a cruel reality—the wilderness is disappearing rapidly, and the actions of protections of the forests are considered violation of the law and even “domestic terrorism”. As “forest has succumbed to chemically sustained silviculture” and deforestation being “a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together”, humans are still engrossed in their own worlds because to so many people, “politically, practically, emotionally, intellectually: Humans are all that count,” never counting the nature around us that make us complete.
In a world where vast majority of people only think about exploiting more resources to print more paper, construct more houses, and attain more land, the activists who fight for environmental justice are marginalized and considered the minority, who the justice system fails to protect or even understand, who the police spray toxic chemical weapons towards with no mercy, yet who are not thinking for themselves, but for the future of us all. The very tragedies of the activists reveal the loopholes in the current system, where activism contradicts with social order.
Ironically, Adam, the psychologist who studies the bystander effects and the exception (when people challenge what is believed wrong), becomes part of the group as minorities, and when sentenced 140 years in jail, only feels relieved because the time is nothing compared to the longevity of trees. Nevertheless, the bystander effect stands counter to activist movements because “the confirmation of others” is “a sickness the entire race will die of.” The bystander effect is a small sector of the plot development, but it tells a lot about activism overall—if everyone waits for others to start and puts the initiators in a marginalized position, the movement will be hard to turn into a rolling snowball.
The protestors camp in the trees, sit on them to ensure the safety of trees, yet are attacked by the police for property trespassing and disturbing social order. The antagonist in the book is not the police or the judge but is the system and those who put benefits before the environment: “It’s a funny thing about capitalism: money you lose by slowing down is always more important than money you’ve already made.” Sacrificing lives, the activists use actions to advocate the belief that “trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics.”
The book advocates for change. When Adam is sentenced to jail, he remarks, “Our home has been broken into. Our lives are being endangered. The law allows for all necessary force against unlawful and imminent harm.” It is unlawful to trespass or protest, but ironically the law protects those who constantly exploit the nature with no ends.
Even though the shift from stories to stories can seem interruptive at times, the book truly starts a conversation about trees, the nature, and environmentalism. The story reveals the many common obstacles for environmental activists but also shows that there is hope—the seeds are planted, and more trees will grow to form a canopy. The book and its messages are especially relevant to our world today, where natural resources are being over-exploited for the sake of human interests. In a world like this, the book is inspiring and insightful, and it provokes a needed conversation about sustainable development that impacts our future as human beings.
Information: The Overstory by Richard Powers