Every branch foreshadows earthly decline
We inhabit a moment of profound planetary crisis. More than half the world’s wildlife gone in the past 40 years, rates of landclearing still rising, insect populations in Europe and elsewhere in collapse, ocean biomass dropping fast.
Meanwhile our demands on the planet continue to escalate. After a brief levelling off in recent years carbon dioxide emissions are rising again, and in April CO2 concentrations reached 410 parts per million, an increase of 30 per cent in just six decades. The five hottest years on record have all occurred in the past decade. And human population is still rising rapidly.
Yet in a way the most startling thing about these figures is that we have somehow willed ourselves into ignoring the scale of the disaster that is bearing down on us. Like addicts on the world’s biggest bender, we are burning through our children’s and our children’s children’s inheritances so fast it should make our heads spin, yet nobody talks about it.
This profound psychological dissonance lies at the heart of American author Richard Powers’s polymathic new novel, The Overstory. In some ways this may seem an obvious place for Powers’s writing to fetch up. Over the past 30 years his fiction has navigated the intersecting worlds of art and science, articulating a language that is at home exploring the scientific underpinnings of art and music or the poetry of science.
In his best books, such as the extraordinary The Echo Maker (2006), a National Book Award-winning exploration of brain injury, personhood and the shadow state of post-9/11 America, he interfuses these elements in ways that reveal often dizzying connections, as well as uncovering how his characters are shaped by the world they inhabit.
Like many of Powers’s novels, The Overstory is structurally audacious, opening with an account of a 19th-century Norwegian immigrant’s decision to carry the seeds of a chestnut tree west with him to Iowa. As the trees grow — and fall — the narrative arcs forward into the present day, and the sort of moment of wrenching tragedy that reminds us all apocalypses are essentially personal, before splitting off and beginning again with a second character, and then a third, a fourth, and so on.
This process might be alienating if it were not for the sheer intelligence and intensity of feeling Powers invests in his constantly restarting narrative.
The nine characters are a disparate group: the artist great-grandson of that original Norwegian; the engineer daughter of a Chinese immigrant; a “socially retarded” boy fascinated by insects who grows up to become a professor of psychology; a drifting Californian who enlists for Vietnam, only to be shot down and return an altered man; a couple who cannot conceive; a crippled computer genius and game designer fascinated by the trees beloved of his Rajasthani father; a reclusive, deaf female botanist; and a dissolute actuary in the making who accidentally electrocutes herself, only to be jolted back into life believing she can communicate with invisible beings of light.
Yet they all find themselves connected, either directly or through a sense of absence, to the trees that surround them.
In the novel’s second par, the seemingly unconnected strands of the narrative begin to fold back into each other, as several of the characters find themselves becoming involved in protests to save the forests of the Pacific