Excerpt from The Overstory by Richard Powers, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Overstory

A Novel

by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers X
The Overstory by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Excerpt
The Overstory

First there was nothing. Then there was everything.

Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying

things, in words before words.

It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.

It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.

It says: Every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. There are more ways to branch than any cedar pencil will ever find. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.

The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds.

Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind's gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather. The several hundred kinds of hawthorn laugh at the single name they're forced to share. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over.

Something in the air's scent commands the woman: Close your eyes and think of willow. The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an acacia thorn. Nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. What hovers right above you? What floats over your head right now—now?

Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg's inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There's always as much belowground as above.

That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we'd drown you in meaning.

The pine she leans against says: Listen. There's something you need to hear.

NICHOLAS HOEL

NOW IS THE TIME of chestnuts.

People are hurling stones at the giant trunks. The nuts fall all around them in a divine hail. It happens in countless places this Sunday, from Georgia to Maine. Up in Concord, Thoreau takes part. He feels he is casting rocks at a sentient being, with a duller sense than his

own, yet still a blood relation. Old trees are our parents, and our parents' parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity... .

In Brooklyn, on Prospect Hill, the new arrival, Jørgen Hoel, laughs at the hard rain his throws bring down. Each time his stone hits, food shakes down by the shovelful. Men dash about like thieves, stuffing caps, sacks, and trouser cuffs with nuts freed from their enclosing burrs. Here it is, the fabled free banquet of America—yet one more windfall in a country that takes even its scraps right from God's table.

The Norwegian and his friends from the Brooklyn Navy Yard eat their bounty roasted over great bonfires in a clearing in the woods. The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.

Excerpted from The Overstoryby Richard Powers. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Powers. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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