The Overstory

I’ve been meaning to start blogging for ages, but numerous things – usually work, family commitments, and doubting the value of adding another blog to the multitudes, along with questioning the worth of anything I’d produce – was always enough to stop me in my tracks. But the prospect of some Covid-19 enforced isolation, coupled with the need to just write something, finally provoked me into action.

The plan is to produce something as regularly as possible on things that provoke some kind of interest, which will usually and primarily be education (with an emphasis on the digital education), and literature. The first effort is devoted to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which I’ve just finished.

Networks and scarcity

It’s been interesting to watch the hysteria unfold in recent weeks, as there’s a paradoxical impulse to self-protect by hoarding and bulk buying, while concomitantly threatening to undo that by ignoring public health advice by continuing to socialise and be out and about. But we’ve all got used to having what we want, when we want it, and one strain of Powers’ novel wants us to question our ‘endless suicidal appetite’ (372) when we’ve been subjected to the omnipresent ‘..gospel of endless growth’ (345)

Like many environmental novels, scarcity lies at the heart of it: what have we lost, what we are in the process of losing, and what (if anything) can be restored. It’s a book about trees, and their essential place – mythically, environmentally, psychologically – in the order of things. Its range is vast, taking in a lot of trees, a lot of research about their interdependency in nature, and a lot of characters (roughly 9 key ones in all) whose narratives are returned to throughout the course of the text. It’s an above-ground rhizome which exposes the innate connectedness of things. Our ‘apex’ status has made it seem natural for us to ‘extend our wills over things’ (314), but this will has blinded us to the ‘networked soil’ (272).

The ethical call to action

Anybody who’s witnessed bog-roll hoarding as Covid-19 unfolds will agree that ‘People aren’t the apex species they think they are’ (356). And that’s essentially the key ethical call to action at the heart of the novel – the anthropomorphic tendency to claim sovereignty over everything is illusory and destructive. This may put plenty of readers off, as the admirable ethical challenge presented by such novels can easily lapse into preachy didacticism.

Neelay, the computer game and virtual world creative genius whose story is one of the recurring narrative threads, is driving the process where we move from individuals with consciousness into nothing but datafied subjects. But the eveywhereness of digital connectivity has masked the loss of a more fundamental set of connections with the natural environment.

But is there a story?

One legacy of academic life has been the battle to reconcile the notion that plots are an entirely false construct set against the notion that, well, they’re important and people generally like them, as they drive stories and narratives. The issues with the novel’s structure and lack of plot certainly gets a bit of a bashing here Despite their best intentions, I suppose one of the issues with environmental novels is that they can’t avoid getting a bit preachy: we’ve done so much damage in such short time, we’re digitally but not environmentally connected, and Powers forces us to look again and again at this in over 600 pages. Jacko’s ‘Earth Song’ accomplished all this in just over 6 minutes, after all.  But what rescues it is the fact that ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’ (607) and the story here is a compelling one,