Thursday, May 31, 2018

Underwhelming "Overstory"

For many years, Richard Powers has been my favorite fiction writer in any language, largely because of his ability to write so fluently and intelligently on so many different and difficult topics, ranging from quantum mechanics to musicology. He was almost a modern American version of Thomas Mann (although it is really unfair to compare any novelist with Mann).

Powers' new novel, The Overstory, is, like all his books, ingeniously structured, chock full of knowledge, and beautifully written. Like all the others, I had a hard time putting it down. Unlike his other books, however, I found it ultimately disappointing. Despite its many merits, the book is an indication that Powers' imagination has been captured by a single theme: the inability of humans to alter our trajectory toward inevitable environmental catastrophe. It is a theme Powers has been exploring for some time, notably in his 2014 novel Orfeo and, to a lesser extent, in his National Book Award-winning 2007 novel, The Echomaker.

I do not dispute any of Powers' scientific information about trees and forests, although his frequent use of anthropomorphic metaphors in describing forests (perhaps with the good intention of making humans more aware of the extent to which individual trees and individual humans or communities of them are alike) is sometimes misleading. Almost everything Powers says about the cutting of old growth timber in the US, sometimes in violation of state or federal law, is true. But his view of the situation also is somewhat historically myopic. He fails to give any credit at all to human efforts at preservation (aside from the creation of seed banks), as we have come to better understand forests and their importance for the combined social-ecological systems in which humans (among billions of other species) exist.

Since 1910, total forest acreage in the US has, in fact, been stable, increasing slightly from 754 million acres to 766 million acres between 1910 and 2012. "Reserved" forests (generally off-limits to timber harvesting) have increased from 10 million acres in 1920 to 74 million acres in 2012. Of course, the genetic diversity of forested lands have declined greatly as rotations of harvesting and replanting have continued since the late 19th century. That is why seed banks are vitally important to maintain. One would not learn anything from Powers' novel of the efforts (in some cases, of heroic proportions) of federal, state and local governments, along with non-governmental organizations and individuals, to ameliorate, if only marginally, the problem. Perhaps it would undermine the power of Powers' dystopian nightmare to provide any kind of positive counter-narrative of forest protection efforts in the US.

Still, there is the larger moral question that Powers raises; and he laments what he considers the inexorable human answer. But the kind of catastrophism that Powers manifests has never actually solved any social or ecological problems. And, as his book illustrates, neither have the actions of ecoterrorists who, rather than drawing due public attention to a serious problem, are perceived only as "tree-huggers" attempting to impose their own values on the rest of society - becoming ecological versions of Plato's philosopher kings.

Sometimes, a novel is just a novel, and we should read too much into it. But no Richard Powers novel is "just a novel." To see a writer of his intellectual abilities become imprisoned by a catastrophist world view is itself a minor catastrophe.

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