Trees as Characters: Challenging the Anthropocene through Non-Human Drama in Powers' The Overstory
Updated: Mar 14
By Luke Bryan, Polyphony Volume 4, Issue 2. First published on 24th of June 2022.
In The Future of Environmental Criticism, Lawrence Buell asserts that a text’s ‘setting was mere backdrop for the human drama that really counted’. (1) However, this is a problematic and reductive argument, ultimately restricting the radical potential of dialogue in novels as
it assumes there must be a binary opposition between the central drama and the periphery setting. Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory and Amitav Ghosh’s theoretical work The Great Derangement prove this argument to be overly simplistic through their recasting of the environment not as a mere setting, but instead as a critical narrative element to be protected instead of ignored. As nature is portrayed as a central interlocutor it defines the conversation within these two works, imposing itself on both perspective and action and thus making it impossible to dislocate the setting from the ‘human drama’, ultimately leading to the questioning of common consensus within the Anthropocenic generation. This essay will therefore argue that these two works dispel the perception of nature as a static setting, as the development of the fictional drama in Powers’ novel and Ghosh’s real-world accounts of stories rely on nature’s influence. The fundamental environmental position of the historical novel is therefore scrutinised until it becomes unconvincing, thus permitting human drama to concede the foreground to nature.
The Overstory and The Great Derangement are both committed to the undermining of established novel form, going to great lengths to critique the story of the individual that characterises much of twentieth and twenty-first century literary fiction. Ghosh’s theory that ‘the contemporary novel has become ever more radically centred on the individual psyche’ and obscures ‘the men in the aggregate’ is striking, as the usage of ‘aggregate’ signifies an incompleteness inherent to the novel form’s frequent individualism.(2) Comparatively, The Overstory utilises what Marco Caracciolo refers to as a ‘network-like narrative’ which is bound by not only ‘their lives — considered collectively’ but also by networks of trees. (3) The novel’s form is emblematic of this, as there is a gradual liquidation of the distinctions between characters as the narrative progresses. This process of decharacterisation is two-fold: first, in the chapter ‘Roots’ the narrative voice rapidly moves from one character to the next, not allowing for any of them to become the otherwise singular and thus individualistic voice of the novel. Subsequently, these individual lives separated by subsections under the chapter title ‘Roots’ are gradually interconnected within ‘Trunk’, with the initially separate
plotlines within each subsection becoming entangled, enabling the intertwining of the characters’ perspectives and the unification of their formerly personal stories. In this way, the underground, implicit connections of ‘Roots’ become impossible to overlook within ‘Trunk’, finally erasing the myth of disconnected individualism in favour of a more holistic gestalt. Complacent perceptions of one character’s centrality, as in most novels, are therefore disregarded, and instead the collective voice over the singular becomes intrinsically necessary to permit this type of story, as the story is outside of any individual’s scope. Caracciolo’s assertion that the network resembles a network of trees is itself asserted by the five activists’ gradual congregation, such as Nick and Olivia’s meeting in ‘Trunk’. In this interaction, ‘Olivia Vandergriff holds Nick Hoel’s hand for a moment, feeling for an explanation’. (4) Here Powers inverts the conventional journey for inner truth by turning it outwards, therefore invalidating individualism being prioritised over all else. The ‘feeling’ action also contributes to this effect, as it is not through emotive means that the connection is forged, which mentally binds the two and provides a foundation for the activist group that they will later assimilate others into in a process of mutual exchange. Through feeling, Powers creates an initial mutualism between these two characters that is a microcosm for the strengthening connections throughout the novel, conceiving humanity and nature not as foreground and backdrop, but as equally significant.
The prioritisation of nature and its numerous benefits to humanity are advocated for in both texts, with Powers presenting it by the photographing of the Hoel tree. Ghosh argues that literature has systematically sought to eradicate the outlandish and instead feature only everyday events understandable to us, with a declaration that ‘[p]robability and the modern novel are in fact twins’. (5) Ghosh further declares that ‘what [makes novels] distinctive is precisely the concealment of those exceptional moments that serve as the motor of narrative’. (6) This outlines a conflict that is difficult to reconcile, which is that the preoccupation with adding realistic, probable granular detail obscures the actual narrative, in turn hiding the driving force of the novel itself within the incidental. Powers addresses this flaw in the treatment of the human drama parallel to the growth of the Hoel tree, as the narrative does not examine every event within the 350-year span of the tree’s growth. Instead, ‘[t]he generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame’ [emphasis original]. (7) By prioritising the chestnut, the chestnut blight is therefore foregrounded, which is an early indication of an urgency ascribed to ecological issues. Moreover, through the lack of focus on the human drama itself, and by only referring to it in the broadest terms, the tree takes centre stage, which is represented by it being the only subject of ‘[the Hoel] photos’ frame’. The novel’s thesis statement is therefore superseded, integrating nature back into the everyday detail that it is usually omitted from. However, the place of humans is still assured. Through the character of the human photographer there is still a level of reliance by nature on humans to steward the earth, which is further represented through the human drama being referenced at all, however briefly. In this sense, Ghosh’s proposed 'concealment of [the] exceptional’ has been replaced with an exhibition of it, with the ‘probable’ being shifted into the background. Human drama is still commented on, but this is undergoing a process of being moved into the background while the setting of nature and the environment finds itself transformed into a foregrounding character in the narrative.
Despite the human focus of both texts, the human drama ends up nullifying their ability to achieve anything until they fray at the seams. Powers’ novel foresees this within the later ‘Crown’ and ‘Seeds’ chapters, as the four remaining activists separate in the aftermath of both Olivia’s death and Adam’s refusal to send for an ambulance. Even without these circumstances, Ghosh describes the unlikelihood that protest movements will prevail, as ‘such movements usually take years, even decades, to build’, and that ‘security establishments around the world have already made extensive preparations for dealing with activism’. (8) The ability of the band of humans to make any positive impact whatsoever is therefore illusory, but also represents the hubris of established security forces to shut down dialogue. It is ordinary, then, and ultimately inevitable, for the fight between Nick and Adam to occur, which Powers describes with an almost Hemingway-esque terseness as ‘[t]he artist charges the psychologist’. (9) It is in this moment that their activist identities are immediately dismantled in favour of that of their former professions, reincorporating them into the previously disregarded individualistic framework. Furthermore, when Adam and Douglas finally meet again, the admission that later lands Adam in prison is that ‘We set buildings on fire. We did’ [emphasis original].(10) Not only is the context for these actions completely erased within these two sentences, but their simplicity may also dictate that the aims of the arson have been completely forgotten to both parties, and so they mean nothing. Their perception of the events is therefore replaced with those fighting for nature’s eradication in the name of more profit, dividing them from their earlier idealistic selves and
accomplishing nothing. Franz Mauelshagen notes how Ghosh incorporates a theory of reversal into modernity that questions human dominion over nature, and this is inverted by Powers to deny the activists their autonomy and any influence whatsoever. (11) Nature is then able to implicitly move into the foreground, as the human drama cannot amount to any action being taken whatsoever due to the entrenched forces that move against any semblance of change.
Human drama’s rendering as inconsequential means that human characters lose their perceived influence, subsequently requiring non-human forces to act as interlocutors to impact narrative. The Overstory’s denouement features Nick and unnamed Native Americans collaborating on a natural art installation within a forest. However, unlike prior depictions of nature within the novel, their dominion over this land is short-lived, evident in the imagery of how ‘[a]lready, the mosses surge over, the beetles and lichen and fungi turning the mosses to soil’.(12) The mosses’ assumption of control over the artwork, as well as its ensuing transformation, shifts perspective from a human frame of reference to one of nature. Ghosh claims that ‘modernity [deepens] the imaginary gulf between Nature and Culture’, which is embodied by the fate of Nick’s artwork. (13) However, rather than culture prevailing over nature, with nature as a mere setting, nature eventually overshadows culture. Additionally, culture’s emphasis on individuality is also eroded, as Nick’s letters ‘fade back into the swirling patterns’, portraying how nature eschews the exceptional.(14) Through the ‘swirling patterns’ nature’s status as an active locutor is displayed for the last time, with the previously distinct forms of the letters now being lost due to neighbouring growth, concluding the novel with a final allusion to the narrative’s incoherent structure. Despite this, Nick also contradicts Ghosh’s theoretical schism by writing with trees and not harmfully inscribing onto them, allowing nature and culture to be safely intertwined by not manifesting his will to nature. Garrett Stewart comments that ‘their inert logs are arrayed to log in their own message for upload to Sempervirens’s orbiting camera hook-ups, of which we are not even sure Nick [...] is aware’, emphasising the connection between Nick’s remnants of human drama and the proliferation of Neelay’s non-human algorithms. (15) Yet this possibly represents a shared objective between the two parties, with the human therefore having relinquished control to attempt more indirect actions that would not infringe on modern political pressures.
In conclusion, Richard Powers and Amitav Ghosh’s radical questioning of the anthropocentric worldview displays a nature-centred perception, negating the idea that nature is only the setting for human drama. Powers’s authorial voice diminishes this normality until it is no longer feasible, with Ghosh’s work similarly refusing the idea of the climate crisis’ place in the periphery, with both works serving as a reminder of nature’s insurmountable dominion over humans, with the idea of human control being a mirage. Through depicting human action from a natural perspective, which is often dismissed as inconsequential, both writers address ecocritical concerns and are therefore able to perceive and critique the narcissistic ideology of the centralisation of human drama. The environment’s primacy in both texts is subsequently disturbed by human infighting, but both works ultimately acknowledge humanity’s reliance on nature. Overall, human drama is incapable of completely eclipsing the non-human, as the latter’s lack of novelistic all-encompassing drama is set to succeed humanity for the benefit of the planet.
1- Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2005), p. 4.
2- Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 78.
3- Marco Caracciolo, ‘Deus-Ex Algorithmo: Narrative Form, Compu-
tation, and the Fate of the World in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten
and Richard Powers’s The Overstory’, Contemporary Literature, 60.1 (2019), 47—71 (p. 60, 62).
4- Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: Penguin Random House, 2018), p. 217.
5- Ghosh, p. 16.
6- Ibid., p. 17.
7- Powers, p. 19.
8- Ghosh, p. 8