Regulars and Shorts

The Overstory, a novel

By Amy Brunvand

Pulitzer prize-winning author to speak in SLC Oct. 17

By Richard Powers.

W.W Norton & Company, 2018

What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

— Richard Powers

For the past year or so I’ve been telling everyone I know to read The Overstory, Richard Powers’ extraordinary novel about trees and people who love them. I confess, though, that I almost didn’t make it past the crushing sadness in first chapter which begins, “Now is the time of chestnuts.” Here in the real life future we know that the American chestnut trees were doomed, wiped out by a blight imported with Chinese chestnut tress. Half a continent of chestnut forests withered and vanished. Personally, I’ve only ever seen one living American chestnut tree, growing on an isolated historic ranch in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The tree was still there last summer and it’s unbearably magnificent.

Powers’ novel, then, is about human relationships with forests in which the trees are also characters, though not magical fantasy creatures like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.  These trees speak in tree language through chemical information spread by root systems or on the wind.  Some people in some circumstances are able to hear what they have to say, and when they listen, they are profoundly changed.

The book itself is structured like a tree with roots, trunk, crown and seeds. It follows the stories of nine human characters who seem unrelated at first, but Powers forewarns quite literally, “their kinship will work like an unfolding book.”

Central to this kinship is Patricia Westerford, a scientist whose work is mocked and marginalized after she writes a scholarly paper that describes trees as “part of a community.” Here in real life we know that Westerford’s science is correct and the self-important men who reject her data are fools. In the novel, however, Westerford retreats from the hostile attacks on her scholarship.

On her way to a menial Forest Service job, she takes a detour to visit the Pando Aspen clone in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest where the connections that shape the story begin to form:

All around her spreads one single male whose genetically identical trunks cover more than a hundred acres. The thing is outlandish, beyond her ability to wrap her head around.  But then, as Dr. Westerford knows, the world’s outlands are everywhere, and trees like to toy with human thought like boys toy with beetles.

As the story develops, the trees do toy with human thoughts, turning them towards an ancient and mystical vision of all life intertwined. In the aspen grove, the novel’s characters are revealed to be connected like a root system deep underground. And “Plant-Patty,” the disgraced scientist, has the seed of an idea to write a book that will convince the public to engage with deep listening to hear the intelligence of trees, perhaps a little bit like the one that Richard Powers has written.


Amy Brunvand is a University of Utah librarian, a poet, and CATALYST’s EnvironNews columnist.


Richard Powers at the University of Utah

October 17, 2019, 7-9pm.

Student Union (200 Central Campus Dr.)

Tickets  $21 (includes book);

Co-sponsored by The King’s English and Tanner Humanities Center.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.