Step beneath the outermost leaves and the temperature drops, the light dapples, the path narrows, the situation becomes uncertain. There, out of direct sunlight, life rushes out in cacophonies of saturated color. Tree bark and humus curl past the edge of sight in choppy, gray-brown waves. Moon-pale mushrooms jut from fallen trunks like leering, drowsy eyes. Red smears of fox prey, turquoise flashes of diva birds, purpled cursive looping vines. Black mud sucking at boots in tiny pools, surface a-skitter with paratrooper swarms of translucent mosquitos. And everywhere green, green, and still more green. The understory of a forest or the ecosystem of a novel?
Every forest is full of trees, but it is the trees that make the forest. And so it is in Richard Powers’s latest novel, The Overstory. Across 500 pages of lush, sometimes overgrown prose, Powers nurtures a story of enlightened discoveries, social quandaries, and human disappointments set beside the centuries-long perspective of trees. Appropriately, The Overstory is built like an oak, and the book is broken into four sections called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” The lives of the nine primary characters grow into this organic mold, and the eventual shape of the novel comes to resemble a plant in its maturity.
The “Roots,” comprising the first third of the book, introduce the protagonists. They are given their own chapters, in which we glimpse the budding of their identities and personal mythologies. Each is linked to a species of tree, an archetypal cast for their character. For instance, Nicholas Hoel is born into the annals of a multi-generational Iowa farm family who developed an eccentric relationship to a doomed American chestnut. This root story foreshadows traits of Nicholas as an adult vis-à-vis his family chestnut; he’s distinctly “American” in his individualistic, grandiose, and downtrodden-but-not-down way. “My maple turns red like me,” says another protagonist, Adam Appich, whose discomfort with communication will outlive his youth. Elsewhere, a mulberry tree stains the flagstones of a suburban backyard patio and Douglas fir trees bristle against the prevailing winds—unique morphologies signifying complex personalities. Through these comparative chapters we meet characters diverse and discretely identified, as if in a botanical garden.
But in the next section of the novel, these archetypes and their character cutouts feed into a larger vision. As readers start the “Trunk” section, the journeys of Nicholas, Adam, and all the others coalesce into a single, wild narrative. Action by action and year by year their lives contribute to a grander story—to put to an obvious point on it—like so many rings forming on the trunk of a tree. The plot straightens out, progressing at an impressive trajectory.
Yet even linear stories like this one demand their own questions and reconsiderations. “If he could read, if he could translate …” one character muses while tracing the wood-grain pattern of a prison desk at the beginning of the “Trunk” section:
If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organized, the murderous freezes, the suffering and struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction, in every season this tree ever lived.
The pattern on the furniture before him clearly isn’t the only whorling conundrum occupying his thoughts. The incremental buildup of the novel’s tree-ring structure in the middle section defies easy interpretation, at least for the characters living through its accumulation.
In typical form, The Overstory’s plot eventually reaches a crisis. In the “Crown,” the story structure takes a slightly different course than is found in more traditional novels—instead of collapsing, it branches out. After the climax of “Trunk,” the protagonists travel various paths, mostly alone and, differently vulnerable as individuals than as a group, weather their own stormy seasons. In “Seeds,” each character’s actions bear consequential fruit and, at the conclusion of each mortal micro-drama, they sow the seeds of future stories.
Living trees are more than solitary organisms clinging to the dirt; they host fungal complexes in their root balls, beetle families and owl chicks in their odd hollows, and mossy carpets in their canopies. They are entire worlds to other creatures. The Overstory, with its tree-shaped arc, becomes a nurturing, metaphor-rich environment for storytelling. In its contours, individual lives beget remembrances, songs, and whole other people. And they all become a part of the bigger story, a tree of lives.
Nicholas Hoel, you may remember, grows up beneath the shade of an American chestnut. When he inherits a collection of hundreds of photographs of the tree taken by his relatives for almost a century, he sees “generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” What is captured in them over the years is more inscrutable: “Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood.”
Every forest is full of trees, but it is the forest that makes the trees. And so it is in an almost-forgotten Australian novel, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. Published in 1998, Eucalyptus took root in the land Down Under and notched some of the continent’s most prestigious literary awards—including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize—however, the book garnered little enduring attention elsewhere. Unlike the taxonomical sweep of Powers’s novel, Eucalyptus derives its unforgettable force by studying its sole namesake. By observing and re-observing the ever-changing eucalyptus, Bail writes a lyrical study on the teeming tilth of individual experience.
In Eucalyptus, the hot scrub of inland Australian seems to go on forever, its kerosene-blue sky no consolation for its endlessness. The dead hills of grazing pasture unroll into the distance, measured off by sagging barbed-wire fences. The only features to catch the eye across the parched Aussie backcountry are the sentinel eucalyptus trees, somber and grand in their loneliness. Under the mottled light of these epic trees, a widower named Holland devises an idiosyncratic plan to arrange for his daughter’s marriage. The successful suitor of his beautiful daughter Ellen will be able to identify and name every variety of eucalyptus tree on his property, which number more than five hundred.
Within the morphology of these multifarious trees, Bail finds striking metaphors to flesh out the people, places, and offshoot stories in Eucalyptus. “Each and every eucalypt is interesting for its own reasons,” writes Bail at the novel’s outset. And sure enough, throughout the book, he describes more than a hundred of these alien plants with the luxurious wonder of a poet. The salmon gum is “the color of a nun’s belly,” the hard-twisting gnarl of jarrah has “civil disobedience in its nature,” and the mallees with their spindly indecision, according to one character, “leave me cold” because “they can never make up their minds which direction to take.”
If The Overstory is built like an oak tree, Eucalyptus is more of a brash and bushy thicket. Instead of a narrative structure composed of roots that form a trunk and branch thereafter, each chapter of Eucalyptus takes on the characteristics of different eucalypt subspecies. The name of the chapter tree clues readers into clever developments in the novel’s ecosystem or relates to another complementary story told by a character, of which there are many. Ever seeking fresh vantages from which to tell stories, the book has the crackling energy of recently burned land, where new growth riots in nutritious soil.
In a chapter named for Eucalpytus regnans—the mountain ash, tallest of all eucalypts and a height competitor to giant sequoias and coastal redwoods—readers meet Ellen’s most accomplished and most-likely-to-be-successful suitor through metaphor. Mr. Cave is described by the town’s spinsters as “tall timber—a term used locally … to render male flesh abstract.” This setup introduces us to Mr. Cave’s notable height and at the same time foreshadows a golem-like uncanniness to his limitless knowledge of eucalypts. Mr. Cave is, alternately, “a telegraph pole fashioned from a tree,” which speaks to a utilitarian rigidity derived from his cultivated hobby. Complicating the picture of Mr. Cave, later in the chapter, it’s told that “tall trees breed even taller stories” and further, “the tallest trees have the tiniest seeds.” This includes Eucalyptus regnans, “which shakes the earth when it falls and provides enough timber to build a three-bedroom house” and “grows from a seed scarcely larger than the following full stop.” Not only does the multidimensional thicket of metaphorical play help form a better picture of Mr. Cave; it also alludes to the ominous consequences of his character in Ellen’s story.
We meet Ellen as a young girl and watch her grow up in the middle of nowhere with her father. She is introduced alongside her dad’s obsession with planting trees, and the first specimen in the ground was outside her window: Eucalyptus eximia, or yellow bloodwood. “The specific name is taken from the English adjective eximious, in the sense that the tree in flower is extraordinary,” writes Bail. Diamond in the rough, wheat in the chaff—pick your metaphor—Ellen cuts a beautiful figure in a dusty patch of the outback. Her blond locks and freckled face make her a topic of the town gossips; her beauty even caused a young man to crash his motorcycle after catching a surreptitious glimpse of her nakedness. Ellen’s femininity is a rare and remarkable species in the hot, male climate of the novel.
But Eucalyptus is, at its heartwood, a story that tries to capture the interior life of Ellen while she’s in the throes of such an unusual upbringing and betrothal. For one birthday in late adolescence, Holland gives Ellen a sapling of Eucalyptus maidenii, or maiden’s gum. At the time, it marks not her maiden-like innocence but rather her ironic understanding that she’s matured beyond her father’s comprehension. Later in the novel and in her life, Ellen stumbles across her maiden’s gum again. This time, in the bloom of her teens, she arrives at it after a downpour. Impulsively, she decides to take off her dress to dry it over a branch. She finds her father has pounded a rusted nail into the trunk. “Hanging to dry,” Ellen reflects on this strange symbolic violation, “the dress repeated a collapsed version of herself.” Given her circumstances and the ways older men use these trees, it’s no wonder that she exclaims, “I’m not interested in any of them!”
Despite the dread Mr. Cave inspires with his implacable march through Holland’s forest to Ellen’s marriage bed, the illuminating literary transformation of the trees along the way inscribes natural and transcendent qualities onto the margins of human need, want, ambition, and love. A twisted grove of snarling emotions, as well as tools like metaphor and parody we unpack to understand them, encircle Mr. Cave, Holland, and Ellen. These rootbound characters are rendered complicated, universal, and dreamlike by inhabiting this poetic copse of eucalypts.
But aren’t these botanical comparisons just tasked with the regular work of metaphor, which is always present in creative writing? In a way, of course. But the frequency, specificity, consistency, and overarching chapter structure in both Eucalyptus and The Overstory transcend the typical well-considered similes of other works. These novels become figurative microclimates and by doing so share how characters and stories fit into larger ecosystems of understanding.
“Every country has its own landscape which deposits itself in layers on the consciousness of its citizens,” writes Bail, “thereby cancelling the exclusive claims made by all other national landscapes.” One bonus pleasure of Bail’s wild little novel is how, by exploring fictional personality quirks and eucalypt morphology, he is also able to make broad, convincing characterizations of his homeland. “The eucalypts stand apart, solitary, essentially undemocratic,” he writes at one point, and at another that they are “notorious for giving off an inhospitable, unsympathetic air.” We come to see not only his layered characters, but also the traditions and national traits that would generate such people as Holland, Mr. Cave, and Ellen. It is as if “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem Down Under, is being played through a flute made from coarse-grained eucalyptus windthrow.
Through the pages of The Overstory (and this is true of Eucalyptus as well), readers are vined-over with tree metaphors, facts, and anecdotes and, thereby, become just a little greener themselves. It’s a strategy that Powers uses to set us up for the bigger takeaways of the book. “A chorus of living wood sings to the woman,” intones the omniscient narrator in the introductory pages of The Overstory. “If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.” It’s nearly the whole tome before Powers explicitly returns to his greening agenda.
“Here’s a little outsider information,” says Dr. Patricia Westerford in a long soliloquy toward the end of The Overstory:
and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.
Having greened a little ourselves, we see how trees can become a little more human through our deeper understanding of them. Though rich in flawed characters, social turmoil, and contestable ideas, The Overstory’s primary mission is to show the majesty, complexity, and vulnerability of the other natural world that greenly sparkles all around us and instill empathy for it. Grafting the two stories—of us and of the trees—wouldn’t be possible, or at least not as effective, without convincing us through figurative language that we are part of the same ecosystem of meanings.
“The artist, yes, humanizes the wonder of nature by doing a faulty version of it,” writes Bail, “and so nature—landscape, the figure—is brought closer to us, putting it faintly within our grasp.”
Is the tree-like structure of The Overstory, with its branching later acts and story-seeding finale, an evolutionary form for future novels? Is the feral underbrush of allusive meaning found in Eucalyptus a messier but more nuanced way to understand people in their fullness? Perhaps it’s better to leave the answers to the biological genius of natural selection. From Bail:
What is frail falls away; stories that take root become like things, misshapen things with an illogical core, which pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces, remaining in essence the same, adjusting here and there at the edges, nothing more, as families or forests reproduce ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable.
Image: Flickr/Victor Camilo