On my night table: The Overstory

March 8, 2020

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager.

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just finished reading Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. When I told a preserve visitor of a literary bent that I was reading it, he said, “Oh, that’s a heavy one.” Heavy in the best way, with the weight of the world upon it. The best fiction I’ve always thought is truer than nonfiction.

I bought the book to donate to our Tiny Library located along our trails. But I wanted to read it myself first. Initially I made a mistake in not committing myself to it full time. It took me many months to read, and the early chapters are like a series of short stories which I read when I had time. Interesting, but I didn’t see their connection. With a turn of a single page in the middle everything changed, and from that point I binge-read the rest over a few sleepless nights.

This is a book that will permeate your thinking. It will make you not want to waste your time on anything selfish or easy. It will change the way you experience trees, the forest. It will make you realize how much worse things have become (climate change, extinction, deforestation) since the time of the activism in the story took place. Although it is fiction, I feel like all of the events in the book happened; I remember them. And it is filled with scientific research which is also real.

When I read books like this I think, how have I lived so long and learned so little?

My favorite quote from one of the characters, scientist Patricia Westerford, is, “What you make from a tree should be as miraculous as what you cut down.” We all use things made from trees and I don’t take any of that lightly. Even the firewood I burn (from a fraction of our fallen trees) is lovingly cut, split, dried, and appreciated as it returns the heat of the sun to us in the darker winter months. Crow’s Nest Preserve offers a small experiment in raising future old growth.

The Overstory is the perfect title for this story of forest communication, the benefits of bathing in the beneficial chemicals released by trees, environmental activism, technology and evolution, and human imperfections. I couldn’t wait each day to get back to the characters, complex people I cared about. It’s not an easy story, not at all convenient, but definitely worth your time. You can find my copy today in the Tiny Library at Crow’s Nest.