The Overstory


The power, mystery and wonder of the Greening at my home in Maine.

The Overstory

When I first begin reading The Overstory I felt an instant visceral connection to the writing because I had never come across a novel that linked trees to humans the way this book did, placing the brief span of a human life against the life of trees; overall the species have been around for 400 million years.


The Overstory is a kind of meta-narrative of old-growth forests, in all their wonder and diversity. Several overlapping and interlocking human understories are told by the characters while trees provide the background for some and the foreground for others. The book demonstrates through both ways that all life is interdependent and that what we do to the trees we are doing to ourselves. Some of the characters of The Overstory dedicate their lives to grappling with the seemingly impossible job of saving trees from extinction.

Patricia Westerford is a scientist whose love for trees has directed her entire professional life. She believes that trees are social beings. She became a scientist that dedicated her life to studying forests after having been taught by her father to ask questions about how and why trees grow. Her steadfast love and awe of trees/underground connections animates this woman who combines scientific knowledge with her deep love of forests. She makes a radical statement: Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. The entire forest is a living organism that cooperates above and below ground. When Patricia first posits that the bio – chemical behavior of trees makes sense only when we see them as complex living organisms she is told by other scientists that she is crazy. She withdraws from public attention to pursue her research until eventually it is supported by the work of other scientists. Patricia also makes a decision to gather the seeds of trees to store in a protected environment in order to safeguard them for the future. Her supportive and loving husband poses a question Patricia cannot answer: Who will be around to plant those seeds?

Olivia has no life purpose until she is electrocuted and when she comes back from the dead she begins to hear voices, and more importantly, begins to listen to them. The trees need our help; humans need help. As a fierce tree advocate “Maidenhair” goes to live in a Redwood, generating love and devotion from her four compatriots, love that sustains them after her horrific death.

Adam the psychologist asks the question: How do people manage to avoid seeing the obvious (environmental destruction for example). He believes that humans are not wired to see background changes that occur when they are distracted by the moment. His advocacy and civil disobedience land him in in jail for 140 years.

Mimi is introduced to a Mulberry tree as a child by her father who cares for this tree throughout his life. This man also endears himself to the discerning reader by apologizing to a bear! When the mulberry starts to fail, her father takes his own life, understanding that his life and the mulberry tree are intimately related. This act fosters Mimi’s advocacy as an adult.

Nick paints the four trees that have been planted by his parents for each sibling when he is five years old, and when one child dies as an adolescent he too recognizes the powerful relationship between humans and trees. This childhood experience influences his decision to become an activist.

Ray, a one – time lawyer realizes before his death that the earth’s lungs will be ripped out by humans who will let this happen.

Another character queries do trees have rights?

Each person speaks to the necessity of saving trees because no oxygen breathing species can survive without them. In order to reverse the trajectory that we are on the characters begin to understand that humans have to begin to see trees as sentient beings that are inextricably tied to us. Only then will we prioritize their survival; we are all connected as Indigenous peoples have been saying all long.

“The Forest is a threatened creature”.

Because I have lived my entire life in the context of trees also becoming a fierce advocate for them I suppose it is not surprising that I should choose to be born again as a tree, one that supports the continuation of life rather than destroying it.