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The Overstory The Overstory by Richard Powers
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“The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures-bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful-call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“You can’t come back to something that is gone.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“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.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks. “Here’s a little outsider information, and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“You have given me a thing I could never have imagined, before I knew you. It's like I had the word "book," and you put one in my hands. I had the world "game," and you taught me how to play. I had the word "life," and then you came along and said, "Oh! You mean this.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“The Greeks had a word, xenia—guest friendship—a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer. . . .”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells. Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town. The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run. Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Love is a tree with branches in forever with roots in eternity and a trunk nowhere at all”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Kindness may look for something in return, but that doesn’t make it any less kind.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees - trees are invisible.
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Something shines out, a truth so self-evident that the words dictate themselves. We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Once you’ve bought a novel in your pajamas, there’s no turning back.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“A seed that lands upside down in the ground will wheel --root and stem--in a great U-turn until it rights itself. But a human child can know it's pointed wrong and still consider the direction well worth a try.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“There's a Chinese saying. 'When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.' "
The Chinese engineer smiles. "Good one."
" 'When is the next best time? Now.' "
"Ah! Okay!" The smile turns real. Until today, he has never planted anything. But Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“It’s so simple,” she says. “So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory

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