A book that makes you think

We are coming to understand that our fishing is deeply interwoven with everything else, the state of our environment and the attitude of our society towards it, in particular.

I read a critique of this book in the Hudson Review and was drawn to the idea of both an environmental novel and a writer who is being compared to Melville.  The unifying image of the book is trees.  All types of trees and the roles they played in the various character’s lives. It opens with what I would call novellas of each character, their tree and where it brought them. Later the author ties them all together in an interesting and engaging way, making it an entertaining exercise in reading. I suppose that is why it was on the New York Times Best Seller list.

The theme, however, is not trees but life. 

Not our life but the planet’s life and the idea that we are not only a very new addition to the life forms of our world but also that all the other life forms have a right to be here as well.  A right to be free to live their lives without our overwhelming greed consuming everything that has taken eons to develop.  It puts it in perspective. We seem to be the ultimate invasive, destroying everything in our path.

In an introduction to the last chapter he really shook me and my thinking.

Page 475. (Keep in mind that the earth is said to be 4.5 billion years old.) Forgive my paraphrasing:

Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day, (the end of that day being today).

First there is nothing.

Life doesn’t show up until 3 or 4 am. Even then it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces – simple cells.

Then there is everything, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve into organelles.

9 pm brings jelly fish and worms. Plants make it up on land just before 10 pm. Then insects.

By 11 pm dinosaurs leave and birds and mammals are in charge for an hour.

In the last 60 minutes life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start to teach their children about the past and the future.

Anatomically modern man shows up 4 seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear 3 seconds later. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species.

Powerful imagery for me. 

Our time here is so short and yet we have impacted the place so completely and with only ourselves in mind. Manifest destiny on a planetary scale. All of us complicit. Our self-centric thinking and actions leading the way to whatever the second day of our planet will be like. Makes me wonder about when we are gone: hopefully the planet will rest and take the time to start again yielding a more intelligent, far seeing being who will know not to bite the apple.

These are the kinds of thoughts that are provoked by this work by Richard Powers.  Why not give it a read and see what comes to your mind?  

The Overstory by Richard Powers, W.W. Norton & Co., 2018