The Overstory, a tall tale by Richard Powers

The Overstory – won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019; cover design & art by Evan Gaffney, Albert Bierstadt/Art Resource

I get why The Overstory won a Pulitzer – it is a beautiful novel, lovingly whittled from the limbs of the natural world and our understanding of it, and part of a fine literary tradition of humanity overshadowed by the natural world, even as we fight against it. I loved this book; thought it was well-written, nicely plotted and planned, and features some beautiful prose that builds upon the themes of trees and nature. That said, this is a book written for the Pulitzer Prize, not for the enjoyment of the general reader, and I almost bounced off it a couple times in the first 150 pages.

The structure of the novel is deliberate, although I think it makes the book more difficult to read than it has to be. The sticking point for me is the “Roots” section where Powers introduces us to his characters, nine in all, one-by-one in chapters that tell us about the characters. In a few cases Powers goes back to earlier generations to tell us where they came from and who their ancestors were, which is a little intense for the novel format – hundreds of pages of introduction before we find out what these characters have to do with each other. I’m pretty sure someone as careful a writer as Powers considered interspersing some of the backstory with actual story, but he’s committed to the structure of the book mimicking the structure of a tree, or a forest. The first 150 pages are the “Roots,” introducing the nine main characters and where they come from, snippets of their family life, all with some formative experience in nature or with trees. The “Trunk” brings most of those characters together for the central conflict of the book, in northern California during the 1990s battles over logging and conservation. “Crown” brings the storylines to their climax and delivers the aftermath of those 1990s confrontations in the 21st century, and “Seeds” reveals the next steps of the surviving characters for the future.

=========== SPOILERS BELOW THIS SPACE! ===========

I also wanted to talk about the details of the book’s plot a bit, so spoilers ahead!

Our primary characters (Olivia/Maidenhair, Nick/Watchman, Mimi/Mulberry, Douglas/Doug-fir, and Adam/Maple all form an ecoterrorism ring, fire-bombing logging company sites and a resort construction area in the Pacific Northwest after being radicalized with a couple scenes of police brutality during protests in Northern California. The book was written a couple years before 2020’s eruption of protest and violence after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, which makes the police violence seem prescient, but I’m pretty sure the nature of police/protestor interaction in northwest logging is a known quantity from Powers’ research of the era and it’s just the rest of us who have awakened. I’m really impressed by the way Powers creates sympathy for the characters in the eco-terrorism ring and their choices. We’ve gotten considerable background on the characters by now, and their transitions and awe for Olivia/Maidenhair seem realistic to me. It’s also bizarre how sympathetic the choices they make to burn down a couple buildings, a completely insufficient gesture considering the size of the forces behind deforestation, can be in the hands of a capable author.

Of course, it all ends in tears. Olivia dies (for the second time) in a firebombing accident. The group scatters to the winds and vows to never talk about Olivia’s death. Twenty-plus years later, Doug is caught when a backpacker staying at his cabin reads his journals. He turns over Adam, who is now a Psychology professor at NYU and has two kids. Adam refuses to turn on the others in the group and is sentenced to two consecutive 70-year prison sentences, his wife tragically never understanding his choice.

Mimi escapes to San Francisco, becoming a wealthy staring-contest-therapist (yes, weird, but kind-of neat) on the proceeds of the artwork scroll from her grandparents in Shanghai, she struggles with turning herself in, but will not to protect Adam’s choice in protecting her. Nick becomes a guerilla artist in Alaska(?) – working to create art that reflects his obsession with trees and their protection.

I’m sorely disappointed in the use of the Patricia Westerford (forestry scientist who discovers arboreal pheromone communication well before its time) character and the Neelay Mehta character. They exist to show a counterpoint to the ecoterrorism ring – a different interaction with the deforestation crisis, from someone with the same reverence. It seems like the only reason these characters exist is for Westerford’s attempted suicide at the end, and a tiny note of hope in a bit of a tragedy. I think this is where Powers made a mistake – either make the story even more ambitious or relate major characters to the main storyline, not in minimal tangential ways – actually involve them.

Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly are similarly poorly related to the actual storyline in The Overstory. There’s but a single reference (“Their daughter at twenty, on spring break from college, in a sleeveless tank top that reveals a horrible new baroque tattoo on her left shoulder”) which I think is a reference to Olivia, and her actual parents who are almost absent from the story. So in an alternate universe where they had kids they would have been her parents? I like the end of the Brinkman/Cazaly story, but it just isn’t really a part of this book.

I do have to finish with the thought that I do love the emphasis in The Overstory on the durability of trees and forests. Our deforestation problem is huge, and should not be minimized, but we will never ‘pave the Earth.’ There will be trees and forests in the future; the real question is what kind of humans and human societies could coexist with them.

Southeast Alaska: Day 5, Orcas in the Chatham Strait


An adult male Orca (Orcinus orca) in the Chatham Strait

During the afternoon of Day 5 we left Baranof Island and headed north through the Chatham Strait to Chicagof Island. On the way we sighted a trio of Orcas (Killer Whales) chugging north, alongside us within a few hundred yards of Chichagof Island’s eastern shoreline. They weren’t in any particular hurry, as they meandered mostly north, the M/V Sea Lion slowing to pace them. There was some good activity to watch as the adult female with the group repeatedly lobtailing/tail slapping the surface – a behavior seen a lot in the whales with social lives and structured cultures like the Orca.

A female Orca lobtailing at the surface

It’s impossible to know exactly what is intended by the repeated lobtailing behavior – the meaning of signals like this can probably vary a great deal by context (were the other whales with this large female offspring? Or siblings? Was the large adult male we would encounter a mate? Or a stranger?) But the activity made for great watching. On the other side of the ship, a large male Orca (the one in the upper photo in this post) was seen. This whale seemed pretty comfortable around our ship, crossing under it a couple times so we got views of its right and left sides as we all puttered north, and even graced us with a breach. I did not, alas, manage to get a photo of the breach. That was a little bit of a downer, but only because I did not know what the evening of Day 5 would hold.

Southeast Alaska: Day 5, Lake Eva

We arose on the fifth day of our Alaska trip to a beautifully clear sunrise, lucking out with an absence of the overcasts and mists that characterized other mornings during this Alaska trip.

We were lucky enough to see the sun on most of our days in Alaska, but on Day 5, the sun showed up bright and unusually early in a partly cloudy sky.

We continued our passage off Baranof Island, moving north through the Chatham Strait between Baranof and Admiralty Islands, and soon pulled into Hanus Bay for a morning excursion on land. After we disembarked, we immediately found evidence that we weren’t the only ones who had been to the beach that morning.

Bear tracks on the beach in Hanus Bay

A large bear had passed by, leaving its prints in the sand as shown above. Our greatest precaution against bears in Alaska was staying in groups – bears in general, brown and black, will not attack groups of people, and are much more likely to be alerted to the presence of a group than an individual. This awareness on the part of the bear eliminates a likely cause of bad bear/human interactions – surprise when a bear realizes there’s a person all up in its business too quickly. Baranof Island, where this photo was taken, is only inhabited by brown bears (Ursus arctos,) black bears (Ursus americanus) do not live on Baranof or a couple of the neighboring islands. The expedition naturalists all carried large bottles of bear spray, but I got the impression that using the spray would have been an extremely unusual situation. Encountering a bear (as one of the other hiking groups did) was safe, and done from a safe distance. Far enough away from a bear, and it probably won’t care too much if you’re there and watching it. It’s when people get too close (or if bears get too close) that problems arise.

Close-up of a stump in the forest on the Lake Eva trail, Baranof Island, AK

This is another situation where I’m underwhelmed by a color version of the photograph above, but a black & white version brings out a lot of detail and texture in the photo that can be lost to color. I like this one, even though I didn’t much like the same photo in color.

The thriving forest floor supported a lot of banana slugs (Arilomax sp.)

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the invertebrate contingent – represented here by a humble banana slug. They consume detritus – all the dead plant material, fallen leaves, animal droppings on the forest floor – and break it down so their own droppings become an essential part of the soil recycling in a natural forest. They’re also really interesting in that they’re simultaneous hermaphrodites (each individual is both male and female at the same time) that can’t reproduce with themselves, but still must find a mate. When they do find a mate, the exchange of gametes is a two-way street and both individuals provide sperm and get their eggs fertilized. They also breathe air through a pore called a pneumostome, which is closed in this picture, but should be on the side of the slug opposite the thumb. The pneumostome opens to a lung, which is a somewhat uncommon feature among invertebrates in general, which often breathe through gills, spiracles, book lungs, or even their integuments, but the lung found in terrestrial slugs and snails, and provides one of those rare pieces of common ground between ourselves and the mollusks.

As the morning ended, we re-embarked on the ship. I’ll have to save Day 5’s afternoon for another post, because that’s when we found Orcas!

Southeast Alaska: Day 3, Cascade Creek and muskeg near Petersburg, AK

Southeast Alaska doesn’t just look like ocean and mountains, it also looks like this:

Cascade Creek, which runs through the Tongass National Forest near Thomas Bay

Alaska is a place with rainforest – more than 100 inches (about 109 in/277 cm) of rain a year for Petersburg, AK. Most of the Earth’s rainforests are tropical: the Amazon, along the Congo River, Southeast Asia. But temperate rainforests are vital to the Pacific northwest, and Alaska’s are beautiful to walk through. The glacially-carved valleys trails in Alaska wind through can be challenging, but they are worth the effort.

Fungi and lichens thrive in the damp Alaskan rainforest (Cascade Creek, Tongass National Forest, AK)

After a few miles hiking in the rainforest in the morning, we got back on board the Sea Lion for a move to Petersburg, Alaska. Petersburg is, surprising, no relation of Saint Petersburg in Russia, even though this part of the continent was occupied by the Russian Empire for almost hundred years between the mid/late-1700s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Petersburg is actually named after Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian who established a cannery and docks in the early 20th century.

Entrance to a trail through the muskeg (although this shows forest rather than muskeg) in Petersburg, Alaska

We disembarked in Petersburg first for a hike through the muskeg, and later for wandering through the town.

The muskeg was fantastic – an extremely acidic soil bog with twisted, stunted trees, wide vistas, and even carnivorous plants. The openness made it an easy place to watch birds, and we saw a Bald Eagle and three Merlins (it’s a common joke among California birders that if you’ve seen a Merlin, you haven’t; because Merlins are so relatively rare in coastal California.) I didn’t get a photo of the exciting Merlin mating contest. I’m not 100% sure that the three Merlins swooping down from the sky in a group, with one chasing off a another Merlin, and the remaining two flying off together, was actually mating behavior, but it is consistent with what I’ve seen of raptor mating before.

Merlin perched on a stunted muskeg tree, Petersburg, AK

The merlin stopped once for a good view – just long enough for me to switch lenses to get a shot of him/her before zooming off.

More happened on that third day, but it will have to wait for the next post.

Southeast Alaska: Day 2 (Part II) Dawes Glacier/Endicott Arm

The early sighting of humpback whales in the Stevens Passage didn’t detract from the rest of the day, as the whales moved on, it allowed the Sea Lion to press eastward into the Endicott Arm, a fjord that dead-ends into the Dawes Glacier. On our way, we were treated to an animal that seems common in Alaska, judging from the number we saw, but that I’ve never seen in the lower 48, and are very rare in California. In twelve years of running whale watches off the coast of California, I’ve never seen one.

A Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in the Stevens Passage in Alaska

It’s the Marbled Murrelet. I’ve seen other murrelets – small diving birds more at home in the sea than in the air. The Marbled is something special though. Long after birds in North America were well-characterized, the breeding and nesting locations of the Marbled Murrelet were unknown up until the 1990s, when work in the high canopies of Redwood forests revealed that Marbled Murrelet preferred tall trees for their nests, even to the point of flying 40 miles inland from the coast to find the calming heights of an appropriate grove.

Coastal Alaska lacks Redwood trees, but the spruce and hemlock forests grow tall enough and are far enough from human disturbance to allow the Murrelets, vulnerable when their homes lack sufficient height to protect them from many predators, to take root. We saw a large number of Murrelets through the trip.

Soon into the Endicott Arm, we also found a large bear foraging for seaweed at the seashore.

A black bear (Ursus americanus) with a mouthful of seaweed – Yum!

The Dawes Glacier itself hove into view at about 3 in the afternoon. By then the sun had cleared the sky, and we got some great views of the glacier in sunlight.

Dawes Glacier at the end of the Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, AK

For perspective, the two black dots in the photograph are Demaree Inflatable Boats, about 15-20 feet long. Our DIBs were not allowed closer than a 1/4 mile from the glacier, and the height of the glacier’s face was estimated by our naturalists at about 250 ft. high. We saw some minor calving events. The second group of DIBs saw a much larger calving that actually rocked the 150-ft, 600+ ton ship. The glacier was a much more dynamic place to visit than I would have expected – creaking and cracking with sound, and you’d only see a few of the larger chunks of ice that came off into the sea.

There was also some pretty good evidence of the glacier’s past action:

Um, I don’t think that’s going to stay there very long if you leave it there…

A huge erratic boulder deposited on a literal slippery slope by Dawes Glacier.