In The Overstory: A Novel (W. W. Norton & Co., 2018), author Richard Powers explores the problematic relationship between people and trees. Although humans generally appreciate trees—as material resources and natural ornamentation—we do not fully appreciate their value as part of complex forest ecosystems. This ignorance serves as the seemingly indomitable antagonist in Powers’ work, against which a collection of ill-fated characters fight to preserve the last few acres of virgin woodlands.
The character Patricia Westerford, a scientist who advances the knowledge of the sensory and communicative capacities of trees, takes a particularly heroic stand against this adversary. As a university student taking classes in forestry, Westerford quickly became disillusioned with the traditional model of silviculture, the science of forest management. Denouncing an approach that she believes has benefited resource extraction at the cost of ecological resilience, she questions why forests—which first appeared between 300 and 400 million years ago—would ever require the management of humans? For her, silviculture has facilitated the destruction, not sustenance, of forest ecosystems.
In one scene, Westerford gives testimony during a courtroom trial concerning lumber companies’ logging of old growth forests. After the scientist makes the case for the intrinsic worth of untouched woodlands, the judge inquires: “Young, straight, faster-growing trees aren’t better than older, rotting trees?” To which Westerfeld replies, “Better for us. Not for the forest. In fact, young, managed, homogeneous stands can’t really be called forests.”
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