The Overstory

In The Overstory, National Book Award-winner Richard Powers (Orfeo) skillfully interrogates a vital issue--the wanton destruction of our natural environment--without losing sight of the intimate human dimension of the story.

Nicholas Hoel is a descendant of a man who launched a 100-year time-lapse photography project of a single Iowa chestnut tree, the "redwood of the East," now nearly extinct. Adam Appich is a member of a family that plants a different species of tree with the birth of each child. Neelay Mehta--the designer of a computer game that evolves over two decades into an online role-playing colossus--draws inspiration from the trees on the Stanford campus. The intersection of their lives involves protests around clear-cutting of public lands, first in California and then at a site in the Pacific Northwest a group of protestors have named "The Free Bioregion of Cascadia." Nicholas and Olivia Vandergriff, a college dropout, rename themselves "Watchman" and "Maidenhair," and take up residence high in a 200-foot-tall redwood. Their fellow demonstrators engage in other acts of civil disobedience. But when those steps, buttressed by litigation, prove fruitless, Nicholas, Olivia, Adam and others initiate more dramatic action, with disastrous consequences.

Powers makes no secret that his sympathies lie with those trying to halt the destruction of old-growth timber, a process one character likens to "burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records, all at once." But he does so with deep sensitivity, not dogmatism, and with a clear-eyed recognition that sometimes advocacy and zealotry tragically become one. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

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