Our November pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” is a fictional book about trees and a group of people who decide to defend them. But along the way, readers also find out many surprising facts about trees’ own capabilities, including how they communicate, protect themselves and each other, and even give back to forests after death.
After finishing the novel, many readers had one question for Powers: what books about trees did he read to inform this one?
Below, Powers shares his bibliography for “The Overstory” – 26 books that contain a wide range of information about trees, from how the American Chestnut disappeared to histories of radical forest activism.
In his words:
“Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot” by Peter Crane
“American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree” by Susan Freinkel
“Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan
“Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit” by Andrew Moore
“The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston
One of the great joys of researching “The Overstory” was immersing myself in books entirely devoted to particular kinds of trees. Crane’s book on the ginkgo examines every aspect of a tree taxonomically unlike anything else on Earth—a living fossil with motile sperm! Freinkel tells the devastating story of the American Chestnut, one of our greatest trees, which once made up a quarter of our eastern forests before all but vanishing in a matter of decades. Logan’s beautiful treatment opened my eyes to how much human experience on this planet has depended on the single (albeit wonderfully varied) genus Quercus. Moore examines the most remarkable American tree that you have never thought about, while Preston tells the story of the tree that brings so many of us to tree-consciousness: Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood.
“The Hidden Forest” by Jon R. Luoma
This may be the single best general-reader introduction to the startling discoveries and developments of recent decades that have come to be called the New Forestry. Luoma is great on the rich, dense, slow, huge, networked processes that make up a robust, fully-functioning, old forest. In particular, he shows how essential death and decay is for continued forest health and how much bearing that has on forest management. Read this to learn how truly social trees are and how complex a forest “superorganism” can be.
“Teaching the Trees” by Joan Maloof
Maloof is a scientist, activist and spiritual lover of nature, and her four marvelous books mix those qualities in different ways. This volume is an inspiring collection of essays about the countless species that link together to form the living web of an eastern woodland. Maloof is also the founder of the Old Growth Forest Network. If you want to experience firsthand the few remaining bits of primary forest on this continent, the OGFN’s registry can point you toward the nearest patch of American heritage.
“The Forest Unseen” and “The Songs of Trees” by David George Haskell
What goes on over the course of a year, in one square meter of old growth forest? Everything, to those who look. What does an individual tree connect to, through its countless networks? Everything, to those who listen. Haskell’s writing is natural history, in every sense of the phrase, at its very best.
“Legacy of Luna” by Julia Butterfly Hill
“From the Redwood Forest” by Joan Dunning
“The Final Forest” by William Dietrich
The Timber Wars are among the most startling, significant, and underappreciated chapters of recent American history. The fight to save the last few remnants of old growth forest in the U.S. was in many ways a referendum on our entire future relationship to the living planet. It played out the struggle between two world views—community and commodity—that we have yet to resolve. Dunning details the battle over a notorious clearcutting of ancient California redwoods, and Hill, the world’s most famous tree-sitter, recounts her long stay up in the canopy of the gigantic Luna, putting her life on the line to save a millennium-old tree. Dietrich’s is a rigorous, grueling account of the struggle over the use and meaning of forests throughout the Northwest. Note: the fight goes on, as does the attempt to harvest the remaining fragments of North American old growth.
“The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono
“The Man Who Planted Trees” is a short, radiant story—memoir? journalism? fable?—about the tremendous transformative power of an individual life to rehabilitate a place. Giono’s simple classic may just hold the secret to meaningful existence.
“The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter” by Colin Tudge
If you are looking for a single-volume introduction to the endless, incredibly diverse astonishments of trees, this is a fine place to start. Tudge travels the world, examining trees using every imaginable lens from the botanical to the sociological. Trees that use chemical scents to summon an air force of wasps to protect them from invading insects? Trees that remove all kinds of poisons from the soil? Trees that put out ten thousand roots? Seven hundred and fifty kinds of fig, each with a specialized wasp to pollinate them? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Tudge will convince you that all of history has always been the Age of Wood.
“A Natural History of North American Trees” by Donald Culross Peattie
For a taste of the old high-lyrical style of nature writing that disappeared around the middle of last century, dip at random into Peattie’s classic encyclopedia. He writes with clear-eyed beauty about all of the most important and intriguing species on our continent, and virtually every page has a sentence or two that will instruct and delight. Standout entries include those on Eastern white pine, redwood, beech and aspen. “Where the deer bound, where the trout rise, where your horse stops to slather a drink from icy water while the sun is warm on the back of your neck, where every breath you draw is exhilaration — that is where the Aspens grow” Peattie writes.
“The Long, Long Life of Trees” by Fiona Stafford
Stafford takes a beautifully-written rambling look at 17 species of trees, paying particular attention to the literary and cultural meaning that humans have assigned them throughout history. “Perhaps humankind finds it hard to cope with something that has seen so many regimes and policies come and go, and will carry on living into a future when all our aspirations have been forgotten,” she muses.
“American Canopy” by Eric Rutkow
A sweeping history of America, told through its trees. From the accidental killing of a tree older than human writing to the real Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, from wood’s role in America’s military might to the war between trees and climate change, these deeply-researched accounts will make you think of this country in a whole new light.
“Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest” by Diana Beresford-Kroeger
Maverick botanist Beresford-Kroeger’s approach to plant behavior and culture travels boldly beyond the conventional and academic. She’s at work assembling a bold “bioplan,” with trees as the chief tool of planetary repair. Part cultural history, part medicinal inventory, part gardener’s manual, this book explores 20 different kinds of trees for all their powers or rehabilitation.
“The Forest Primeval” by Chris Maser
Trees and people unfold on such profoundly different scales of times, and forests grow and change even slower than individual trees. Maser creates a majestic “biography” of the Oregon Cascades ecosystem, stretching out that story of succession over a thousand years. This detailed environmental narrative is also a human one, and the entwined tales of reciprocal dependence result in a call for a new kind of forest restoration.
“Casting Deep Shade” by C.D. Wright
What happens when a great American poet becomes obsessed with a single kind of tree and spends years developing “beech consciousness?” This book unveils a whole new way of attending and articulating the living world, combining history, autobiography, botany, myth and legend, linguistics, and so much more. This is Wright’s last book, completed just before her untimely death, and it moves the reader toward a luminous vision of the living Earth.
“Seeing Trees” and “Trees Up Close” by Nancy Ross Hugo and Robert Llewellyn
Between Ross’s expansive and attentive reflections and Llewelyn’s astonishing photos, these two books will reveal how you’ve failed to notice everything. But they also prove that it is never too late to stand still, lean in, and see.
The following titles will take you into deeper detail about direct action and forest activism:
“Direct Action Manual,” published by Earth First!
“Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat and Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign” by Kathie Durbin
“Fragile Majesty: The Battle for North America’s Last Great Forest” by Keith Ervin
“Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement” by Rik Scarce
“Ecological Resistance Movements” by Bron Taylor
“The Wisdom of the Spotted Owl” by Steven Lewis Yaffee