Literary wanderings: On fiction as environmental activism

Drawing of a person looking up at the trees
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

Sometimes writing works. The words spill onto the page and line up into sentences, and, for a moment, we’ve held that rare thing in our hands: the potential to deeply affect the perspective of readers. 

More commonly we find ourselves in a familiar place: sitting, staring at the wall or out the window, waiting to be inspired. We are stuck feeling something like what Joan Didion may have felt in the months leading up to writing her classic piece “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” 

“I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed,” she writes.

In a world rife with suffering and injustice, the simple act of writing, especially fiction, can feel like an entirely useless — even frivolous — act. Then a book comes along that reminds us of the sneaking potency of the written word: its ability to seep into our thoughts and alter the way we see the world around us. Richard Powers’ long, ambitious and roaming novel “The Overstory” was an unexpected, imperfect but ultimately powerful example of such a book. 

When I first picked it up, I was intrigued by the unconventional story structure and its environmentally-focused theme, but not convinced. It seemed promising, but perhaps too ambitious. With a week-long break on the horizon, however, I decided to take the plunge, equipped with a reading plan: 50 pages a day for 10 days. While the story stalls and sags at times over the course of its roughly 500 pages, my self-imposed reading plan kept the story clipping along. 

The novel sets out on a project that would daunt any writer: to tell the story of nine main characters, from nine unique worlds, with nine casts of people to go along with them. While reading, I couldn’t help but imagine what the storyboard of “The Overstory” must have looked like — a sprawling chart of characters and places and events that must have woven like ivy across every wall in Powers’ house. 

Early on, this complex structure feels a bit overdone and far too transient. As soon as you’ve gotten your footing in one place, you are whisked off to a new one — from the rural Midwest to China to the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Some characters bloom into vivid, real people, while others feel stuck, more like sketches on the page. However, what starts as nine different storylines are gradually braided together by Powers, drawn by the novel’s shared theme: trees. This common thread, and the way in which its presence in each character’s life draws them all together, leads to several satisfying “aha!” moments for the reader as the true arc of the story begins to take shape.

“It is a book that wounds us and wakes us up in the way Kafka argued that every truly good book should.”—Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23

It is a story that stretches wide and takes risks; while not all of them are pulled off successfully, the most important one is. “The Overstory” is a flawed and at times uneven book, but it accomplishes what its author set out to do: fundamentally reshape the way we see trees and our relationship with them. Powers asks us to care for our natural environment and see it differently — more personally — as sharers of a common space, and we do. 

Powers accomplishes something which we often look to non-fiction for: telling us about the world, teaching us something, giving us a new perspective on things that are happening now. “The Overstory” manages to do all of this; it is a book that wounds us and wakes us up in the way Kafka argued that every truly good book should. 

And it seems that it did the same for Powers; the writing process shaped his perspective at least as much as the reading process shaped mine. After completing “The Overstory,” Powers, an English professor at Stanford University, chose to move from the Bay Area to the depths of the Great Smoky Mountains. 

It was only after finishing “The Overstory” that I realized how much its story had crept in and remolded my mindset on the natural world around me. I looked out the window and saw trees I had seen a thousand times but rarely considered. I noticed them swaying in the wind or embracing the air over a small house as I walked down the street. They breathed and grew and felt. They came alive. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. He is currently scouring the days for reading time, and considering starting an informal book club.

Facebook Comments