Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
In Richard Powers's The Overstory, trees are one of the main focuses; they're a character as much as any of the people who fight to save them. Powers writes:
The grain under his fingers swings in uneven bands—thick light, thin dark. It shocks him to realize, after a lifetime of looking at wood: He’s staring at the seasons, the year’s pendulum, the burst of spring and the enfolding of fall, the beat of a two-four song recorded here, in a medium that the piece itself created. The grain wanders like ridges and ravines on a topo map. Pale rush forward, darker holding back. For a moment, the rings resolve from out of the angled cut. He can map them, project their histories into the wood’s plane. And still, he’s illiterate. Wide in the good years—sure—and narrow in the bad. But nothing more.
This shows the reverence the author has for trees as well as the reason why the characters are willing to devote so much to saving them. They aren't just plants; they're part of the natural world. They're something that sustains people, measures time, keeps the air clean, keeps the Earth moving. They don't exist for humans. They exist alongside them.
After the characters realize they get more done by destroying equipment, they decide to keep doing so. It's more effective. When the group goes to destroy equipment one last time, there's an accident. Olivia is killed. Olivia's death paralyzes Nick. In the moments before she dies, he's unable to answer her question. After, he's unable to function. Powers says:
People turn into other things. Twenty years later, when everything depends on remembering what happened, the facts of that night will have long since turned to heartwood. They put her body in the fire, facedown. Three of them will remember that. Nick will remember nothing. Bedrock in the minute she needed him, he turns worthless in the aftermath, seated on the ground by the flames, close enough to singe his eyebrows, as senseless as the burning corpse.
Olivia herself, however, even tells them not to get the police and to finish their mission instead. For Nick, however, what he values is taken away from him when the blast happens.
When Nick, Adam, Mimi, and Douglas drive away, they decide not to confess or turn themselves in. Time, they say, is on their side. However, Powers writes:
But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.
It's appropriate that he compares time to circles like the age lines inside a tree. He's showing again how little concept humans have of the world they inhabit; the natural world is what survives and lasts. It governs everything that happens in it. Humans can only survive and hope to better understand the concept of time.