Wood-wide web wins world-renowned writing award

The Overstory by Richard Powers, 2018. William Heinemann.

As a would-be botanical educator who’s reviewed a lot of botany texts over the years, I don’t really have time to review – or just read – ‘novels’. But, having been impressed with the intelligent-plant-based science fictionesque novel Semiosis last year, and hearing that Richard Powers’ new book The Overstory was ‘something about trees’, how could I not give it a go? And I’m very glad I did! Although, stumbling over the ideas and words on pages 3 and 4, I did wonder what I’d let myself in for. However, I persisted, and shortly thereafter I have to say that I was hooked.

Yes, The Overstory is about trees. But, it’s not just trees. It’s a great tale of trees – as emblematic plants – and people. In the first part of the book, in the section headed Roots, Powers tells the tale of 7 individuals and one couple who all lead very different lives in the USA. The characters are believable, their individual tales are credible, and all are interesting (although I have to admit to a favourite, feisty research plant scientist Dr Patricia Westerford). In fact, the characterisations are so well done that I wanted to know more about each of them. The opportunity so to do comes in the second and third sections of the book – Trunk, and Crown – wherein Powers weaves those individuals’ stories into one great work that centres on the deforestation of the Pacific north-west of the USA. And in rather simplistic, but succinct, terms that’s what The Overstory is about: the arguments surrounding – but [spoiler alert?], and unashamedly, against the activity that is – large-scale deforestation of the planet. Although Powers uses a USA-centred environmental issue, that named example stands for instances of deforestation globally – whether it’s chopping-down Amazonian rainforest to grow grass to make beef for fast-food burgers, or clearance of rainforest in Indonesia to make way for oil palm plantations. The Overstory is therefore also an engaging and eye-opening essay on ecologically-insensitive excess and extravagance and the earnest attempts of some environmentally-sympathetic, Earth-aware ‘eco-warriors’ to stop or prevent it.

Word wonderment

Although The Overstory is well-written – and a pleasure to read – it does contain more than a handful of words I’d not come across before – e.g. scry (p. 64), chedis (p. 79), scrim (p. 87), mammal dander (p. 134), logy (p. 138), pleach (p. 144), scads (p. 148), gelid (p. 151), and trifecta (p. 221). I didn’t take time out from reading the story to look them up in a dictionary, but I don’t think not having done so affected my overall enjoyment of the book. Anyway, that’s the negative side of the text (although increasing one’s word-power is something we should all try do).

On the much more positive side is some really great phrasing [e.g. on pp. 6, 87, 129, 155, and 382] that is a hallmark of this novel, and some fantastic quotes, such as:

“Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just starting to learn how to see” (p. 413);

“When the world was ending the first time, Noah took all the animals. Two by two, and loaded them aboard his escape craft for evacuation. But it’s a funny thing: He left the plants to die. He failed to take the one thing he needed to rebuild life on land, and concentrated on saving the freeloaders!” (p. 451); and

“What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down” (p. 464).

I challenge – or ‘dare’? – you to get at least one of those into your next lecture on plant biology.

Bibliography, please!

I know we try to eradicate this term from our student’s scientific writing, but in The Overstory inclusion of a bibliography would have been really useful: What sources inspired the author to espouse the views he did in the novel? We cannot now. But, I see indications of Suzanne Simard and her underground networks and inter-tree communication via fungi – exploiting the so-called wood-wide web (although, and rather curiously, I don’t think Powers used that term in his book…), plant-plant communication (e.g. Richard Karban’s Plant Sensing & Communication), intelligent plants (e.g. Anthony Trewavas’ Plant Behavior and Intelligence), and world-weary, woody wisdom (e.g. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees). Without that sources-listing, it’s a little hard to tell how much is scientific fact (i.e. evidence-based from the peer-reviewed scientific literature) and how much Powers’ wishful-thinking, the novelist’s fabrication … or lucky guesses… But, the global relevance of Powers’ narrative has been dramatically underlined by the recent publication of the global nature and relevance of the wood-wide web by Steidinger et al. in Nature.

Some ’errors’?

Powers is a novelist not a botanist. But, in choosing to deal with a subject that contains important elements of botany and plant biology, his words will be scrutinised by those whose backgrounds and interests are botanical. And it is from that perspective that I approach my more critical appraisal of The Overstory. True, Powers’ ideas find a receptive and supportive audience in this reviewer who is, if not fully familiar with, at least has an appreciation of, some of the botanical concepts raised in the book. But, with my botanist’s hat on I feel I ought to point out two statements in the book which need to be challenged or clarified.

First, on p. 137 Powers writes about the movement of water and states how a tree ‘respires it back into the air as steam’. I don’t have a great problem with the use of the word steam – after all, it is water vapour that leaves the plant, and what is steam if not water vapour? My problem is with the use of the word ‘respires’. Although the process of respiration will generate water, water vapour isn’t respired away from the plant. The term for the process whereby water vapour leaves the plant is transpiration. Perhaps this is just an example of using the similar-sounding – although still wrong – term? Maybe, but why not take this opportunity here to set the record straight, and attempt to increase botanical knowledge of the novel-reading fraternity/sorority?

Second, on pp. 219/20, Powers writes “the trees are busy tonight, fixing carbon in their dark phase”. I’m guessing that this is a reference to photosynthesis, which process contains what we used to call a light phase and a dark phase. Although dark is referred to, that part of the photosynthetic pathway doesn’t actually take place in the dark – i.e. at night. Instead, dark here is an acknowledgement that the biochemical part of carbon-fixation doesn’t require light directly, but does need the involvement of compounds that are made during the daylight-illuminated stage of photosynthesis. It looks like Powers has mistakenly interpreted the so-called dark phase of photosynthesis (which nowadays is more usefully termed the light-independent stage) to refer to the process taking place at night-time. Admittedly, only a handful of all of the words in the novel’s text are affected by this; in the grander sweep of the book’s theme, it’s therefore ‘no biggie’ (and doesn’t adversely affect the rest of the book or its message). But, seeing an opportunity – and a need! – to inform and increase the reader’s botanical understanding, the educator in me is unable to let it pass without comment.

Committed story-telling

The Overstory is a real labour of love by a real tree enthusiast *. And a measure of the commitment Powers felt for writing this book was that he gave up his teaching post at Stanford University to devote himself to telling this story. Now, that’s commitment!

It is said that the best way to get a scientific message across is to tell it as a story. And Powers has the knack of doing just that. Notwithstanding the two ‘errors’ discussed above, there’s quite a lot of science in The Overstory and it’s an important part of the story. But equally importantly the science is almost seamlessly woven into the tale that is so masterfully told. As an example of a great piece of science storytelling, might one be permitted to suggest that The Overstory should take its place alongside textbooks as James Mauseth’s Plants and People, and texts such as the late, great Henry Hobhouse’s Seeds of Wealth, Seeds of Change, and John Perlin’s A Forest Journey in undergraduate courses dealing with plant-people interactions?

Summary

I really liked Powers’ The Overstory. It has lots of botany and is an engrossing read. It is as much a great example of ‘scicomm’ (science communication) as it is a prize-winning novel ** about people and plants and planet. Powerful writing. Powerful ideas. And, if it makes you think about trees differently *** – or just think about them – then more power to Mr Powers!


* And for those of you who like lists; Powers mentions over 135 trees by name, from Acacia to Zizyphus, from balsam fir to yew. And, on the few occasions where he does include the scientific name, he sets them out correctly with a lower case initial for the specific epithet – which is laudable.

** The book cover of my review copy of The Overstory proudly proclaims that it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, an international award for “the best novel in the opinion of the judges“. It didn’t achieve that award, but it did win the (equally prestigious?) – if less monetarily-rewarding – 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

*** Powers also has an interesting take on plant blindness. He refers to it as “Adam’s curse”; we only see things that look like us. Succinctly put.