The Overstory

“What use are we, to trees?”

Richard Powers’s novel begins with Roots, separate stories, capsule biographies. These are illustrated at chapter start with leaves of the trees prominent in each story. In one case the tree isn’t named, since the character is oblivious to this tree, but the description is more than suggestive and the unique leaves starting the chapter, as in some medieval tome, confirm it. Of course, this tree comes to play another role later.

While this reader was wondering how all these roots would all come together, on or about page 131, things start jumping. The next section “Trunk” is separated by the crosscut ornament illustrated on the title page. (Another dingbat! Shall we call this one a… dendron?) But this is fiction, and I will reveal no more than the question I came away with: what use are we to the trees, or the oceans, or the atmosphere? Some of the beginnings of answers in the book are profoundly thought-provoking.

So, what are we to do? Particularly in light of the latest UN climate report, which warns of dire consequences within two decades. Two decades! This is not climate change, it’s climate breakdown, and it’s already occurring. The IPCC report, remember, is by its very nature conservative, watered-down and consensus-driven: these are not radicals by any means.

I’ll be a septuagenarian if I make it to 2040. Most of the children of friends will only be in their twenties or early thirties. Damn, I’m so old I remember when we had centuries or at least a century, before really bad things were going to happen. When cautious scientists said such and such was of only of the extreme probability. Now some of those things –the end of Arctic ice, the death of coral reefs (among many other devastations to the sea), the undermining of West Antarctica– are virtually yesterday’s news. One of the best advocacy groups fighting against increasing CO2, 350.org, started in 2008. They named themselves after the goal of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere under 350 parts per million. It’s now 405 ppm.

Actually, I have to admit to being a worst-case scenario-ist from the get-go. I don’t think this is pessimism on my part.

“What is to be done?” The crises of the present, never mind the coming hellscape of geo-political draught/flooding/mass migration, seem to have already thrown us into the era of “Climate Behemoth.” Neo-fascist, demagogic, the last orgy of plutocracy as it holds democracy down and chokes it.

Bay Co. Florida, where Panama City is, voted 71% for Trump.

4 Responses to “The Overstory”


  1. 1 Sherry Felix October 15, 2018 at 5:47 am

    Intriguing. I keep learning more about trees. I will put this book on my list to read. This looks like a nice follow up to The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. By Wohlleben, Peter.
    Yesterday I ran into a group of nature communers. One young lad was hugging a tree, I said, “They talk you know.” That led into a brief conversation. He asked me if I knew my tree spirit.

  2. 4 Frank Devine October 15, 2018 at 6:07 am

    How easy it was to manipulate these folks into voting for pipe dreams of restored, obsolete industries. When people have to work two or three jobs just to keep their heads above water, watching some friends and family flail helplessly, sinking in a flood of rising prices and stagnant wages, anything that appears to be a life line will be attractive. Their children and grandchildren will pay a brutal cost for their lack of grit, their failure to re-educate themselves in fields in demand. The political atmosphere today is toxic. We need to find and cure this toxicity first, then mount a “moon shot” program, all hands on deck. Today that is a pipe dream. But when the trickle of migrants from affected areas becomes a flood, will it be too late, even with a herculean effort, to stop the violence brought on by desperation for food and water, shelter. Given the GOP’s reluctance to accept science, relying on supplication to their “invisible friend in the sky” for deliverance, I fear that it’s already too late. I can only imagine the hatred our grandchildren will feel for them, watching their heritage literally wash away due to their inaction in the name of the Almighty dollar. Hope they can make a decent stew out of currency.
    Btw, I was no more than 5 feet from a shrike on my last visit to Florida. Fascinating to think of how their kill and capture behavior developed through evolution.


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