Why saw the branch you’re sitting on?

Anita Roy | Updated on October 24, 2019

Rings of the redwood: “Tees are a community of creatures, humming with multiple voices”   -  ISTOCK.COM

The Extinction Rebellion uprising parallels Richard Powers’s Pulitzer-winning book ‘The Overstory’ in its fierce devotion to fighting climate change

Richard Powers’s novelThe Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is not just a book about trees — it’s structured like a tree itself. The narrative is divided into four sections — Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds — and there is something arboreal about the way the story is told. Instead of the traditional narrative arc, the story is laid down like the rings of a tree, traced in cross-section.


The Overstory; Richard Powers; William Heinemann; Fiction; ₹699


The first section, Roots, anchors the narrative by introducing the nine main characters. Each one has a backstory that is intimately connected with trees. The characters are regular people, not madcap firebrands, and their connection with trees is intimate and immediately recognisable. Take a young man who flips through a stack of photos of a tree that his father and grandfather had taken once a month for over 75 years. “Each picture on its own shows nothing but the tree he climbed so often he could do it blind. But flipped through, a Corinthian column of wood swells under his thumb, rousing itself and shaking free.”

Roots leads to Trunk, where the characters converge in the forests of southern California to form a human barricade between one of the world’s most ancient living beings — the great Californian redwoods — and the merciless chainsaws of the logging industry.

Powers’s story is based on real events, during the summer of 1990 when as many as 1,500 activists came from all over the US to try and save the last stands of ancient sequoia, trees over 500 years old.

As I read about their actions — chaining themselves together, disabling machinery, scaling great heights on the flimsiest of platforms, daubing slogans on company walls, tangling with the police, calling upon the media, dressing up in wild costumes and painting their faces — people are doing similar things not far from me in London. As I write, the two-week Extinction Rebellion (referred to as ‘XR’) ‘uprising’ has just drawn to a close. Thousands of people have been arrested — not just ‘hippies’ and ‘crusties’ and dreadlocked weirdoes that the media (and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson) would have us believe. But ordinary law-abiding citizens across races and backgrounds, all putting their lives on hold and their liberty on the line, for the planet.

Now or never: Activists supporting the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement raise a banner in Berlin, Germany   -  REUTERS/ HANNIBAL HANSCHKE


I met a middle-aged, middle-class protestor who had spent a night in jail. Prison was not somewhere, she said, that “a person like me” imagined ever being. Another spoke of the extraordinary gentleness of the police: “‘Whose planet? Our Planet! Whose Police? Our Police!’ That was what we were chanting. And I asked one of the policemen what it was like to be policing people that had such goodwill towards them. He said it was wonderful.” One had told her that many of them go home at the end of their shift, change into regular clothes, and come back to join the protestors.

The Overstory is not just a novel about trees — it’s a book about what happens to ordinary people when they are radicalised. The word has its root in the Latin radix or ‘root’, a double-whammy that Powers particularly enjoys. For him, it came when he encountered his first giant redwood: The realisation that meaning does not begin and end with humans. That the world is alive. And that trees are a community of creatures, humming with multiple voices. That we need not look to blips from the farthest stars to realise — we are not alone. In fact, ‘we’ is not a narrow term, limited to our own species. We are legion — two-legged, feathered, four-legged, furred, six-legged, many armed, slithering, leaping, branching, acorn-bearing, rooted, shooting, a multi-leaved multitude.

One of the characters, a scientist called Patricia Westford, struggles to describe a Norway spruce called Old Tjikko, whose root-system is almost 10,000 years old. What use is a tree like this? she asks herself, to which there is only one response: “His use is to show that the world is not made for our utility”. As the people change out of their XR gear and back into civvies, they come back changed and charged, grief-stricken yet more hopeful than they left. Re-entry into ‘normal’ life can, for some, be a challenge — as those who have lost a loved one often find. How do you just ‘carry on’? What do we eat, that will not further damage this damaged planet? How should we work, when so much ‘work’ works against the natural world? In short, how on earth do we go back to the branch that we’re sitting on and stop sawing? I can only end with an old Chinese proverb that one of the characters in The Overstory quotes: “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.”

Anita Roy   -  BLINK



Anita Roy is a writer, editor and publisher;

Published on October 24, 2019

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