The Traumatic Epiphanies: 
The Role of Trauma and Eco-kinship 
in Richard Powers’ The Overstory

Anjitha M S
Dr. Binny Mathew

Richard Powers through his ecological trauma narrative, The Overstory projects and defends the individuality of trees. Man’s ignorance and selfishness make them blind to the ancient geniuses in the world. Through the novel he analyses the eco healing and companionship experienced by a person during trauma. Defending existence of trees is necessary, but radicalising it through acts of eco-terrorism cannot be justified. This paper tries to analyse the role of trauma and the various levels of trauma included in the novel. It also studies the relationship between trauma and disability. The individual, collective and cultural levels of trauma and the ecological kinship, are analysed in the paper. Trauma induced commitment to environmental activism can sometimes cause disasters. Finding a kinship with the non-human living entities may help humanity in the journey. Richard Powers believes in the community and individuality of the trees and urges to respect spaces. This paper also notices the guilt in the perpetrator’s psyche and the impact of mediated trauma in community. 

Key words: Ecological kinship, disability, collective trauma, cultural trauma.

Richard Powers in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory tries to argue on behalf of the trees and their individual status in this world. In the narrative he unknowingly connects the traumatic past of his main characters with the environmental activism in which they engage in the later stage of their lives. As an American writer who writes about technology and science, and lives in the Great Smoky Mountains, Richard Powers demands more attention from the part of the readers’ community. Richard Powers got much acclaim and fame after the publication of The Overstory (2018).

The Overstory, is a multigenerational saga of living with the trees. The novel is structured like a tree, beginning with Roots and followed by Trunk, Crown and Seeds. He tells the story of humans in comparison with the slow lives of trees. He gives an individual status to the trees. This article proposes to study the trauma faced by the characters which led them to eco-activism and then eco-terrorism and the traumatic lives they lead after the fateful event of eco-terrorism. It is an attempt to find how the author has set the trauma, survival, disability, and surrender of human characters in the background of the legendary life of the trees. Essentially, the paper seeks to address the relation of trauma, disability, and ecological kinship.

Trauma influences a person to the core and takes an important role in the identity formation of a person. Trauma studies associates with literature. Trauma theory is enriched with arguments and counter arguments since its origin in psychoanalysis. Trauma theory is indebted to Freud’s contributions upon which later theorists expanded their thoughts, especially his studies on hysteria. Cathy Caruth’s work Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996), plays the role of a base in trauma theory. McNally expanded and counter argued Caruth’s theories.  Kai Erikson tries to define collective trauma and Ron Eyerman concentrates on cultural trauma. 

This paper analyses the various levels of trauma. The first part of the paper attempts to study the individual and cultural trauma and the impact of disability on the identity formation of the characters. Second part of the article is all about the transformation of characters. It describes the traces of collective trauma in the lives of the characters and the solace they find in eco-kinship. 

Roots of trauma

Trauma acts on various levels in the novel The Overstory, the individual, cultural, and collective levels. Five characters follow the path of eco-activism because of a certain trauma in their lives respectively. Later they cross each other’s paths and part their ways after a traumatic incident. Thus, trauma in the lives of those five characters can be viewed as before and after eco-terrorism. On the other hand, the four characters and their trauma have the presence of trees moving in and out of their lives. The four characters are not part of the eco-terrorism. In the review titled “Speaking for the Trees: Richard Powers’s ‘The Overstory’”, Claire Miye Stanford finds problem with the emphasis on trauma in the novel. She says;

Each of the eco-activists experiences a deeply traumatic event that in some way motivates the extreme lengths they are willing to go to in order to protect the trees they love. This pivot in character development seems odd. Is the novel suggesting that one must undergo such trauma — in most cases, a loss of human life, or, at least, its dire endangerment — in order to appreciate fully the nonhuman life that surrounds us? (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The role of trauma and the defence of environmental causes in the novel demand attention and discussion.

Trauma can be defined as an unpleasant or disturbing experience that causes emotional stress and problems to someone. Michelle Balaev in the article “Trends in Literary Trauma Theory” defines trauma and “trauma novel” as, “Trauma, in my analysis, refers to a person’s emotional response to an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual’s sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society. The term “trauma novel” refers to a work of fiction that conveys profound loss or intense fear on individual or collective levels” (150). Richard Powers in his novel uses trauma as a tool to state his idea about the individuality of trees, but it does not belong to the category of trauma novel.  It is rather an ecological narrative of trauma and co-existence. His narrative stands for a higher purpose.

The first part of the novel “Roots” traces the pasts of the nine characters. For some characters Powers provides the history of generations. The individual and cultural trauma act in this part, as a catalyst in finding their purpose in eco activism and as an essential factor in their identity formation. Powers provides the story of generations of Hoel family only to describe the lifespan of their family chestnut tree.  The immigrant’s successor starts to have a strange obsession. John Hoel photographs his coeval and this intergenerational transfer of obsession soon becomes the keeping of ancient promises. These photographs reveal the eternal search of the tree for “something in the sky. A mate, perhaps. More light. Chestnut vindication” (Powers, 16). The years of this tradition only helps to reveal the story of this lone tree. In its story the photos hide the entire history of a period and Hoel family’s life. In a long passage Powers describes what the photobook of the tree hides.

The photos hide everything: the twenties that do not roar for the Hoels. The Depression that costs them two hundred acres and sends half the family to Chicago. The radio shows that ruin two of Frank Jr.’s sons for farming. The Hoel death in the South Pacific and the two Hoel guilty survivals… The barn that burns to the ground one night to the screams of helpless animals. The dozens of joyous weddings, christenings, and graduations. The half dozen adulteries. The two divorces sad enough to silence songbirds… The lawsuit between cousins. The three surprise pregnancies… The hushed-up incest, the lingering alcoholism, a daughter’s elopement with the high school English teacher. The cancers (breast, colon, lung), the heart disease, the degloving of a worker’s fist in a grain auger, the car death of a cousin’s child on prom night...The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood. (19)

The family’s life changing events and history are not present in the photographic history of the tree. Chestnut tree, the lone tree of that species in that distant land of Iowa also served as a symbol of belonging in a different place. It represents the rooting of Hoel family in American land.

Nick Hoel breaks this tradition and moves to art school before he could take part in this tradition of ancient promises. Subjects for Nick’s artistic perception varied and he learned to paint branches from the very old Chestnut tree itself. He loses his entire family to a gas tragedy later. He revives his consciousness only to realise that the only living companion to his life is a Chestnut tree planted by his “gypsy-Norwegian great-great-great-grandfather, one hundred and twenty years before” (22). This tragedy which changes Nick’s life forever and determines his destiny loses importance and becomes “so insignificant, so transitory” in the life of a tree (25).

Companionship is very important in a person’s life. Nick starts to have an obsession for this tree companion and spends his days making tree paintings. Nick waits for a companion. Nick’s trauma has the nature of a personal trauma. It is emotional and is part of his identity. Nick decides to move out of his house when he finds that his long living companion the Chestnut is dying. When Olivia is drawn to his paintings by the sign “FREE TREE ART”, he confesses to her: “Well. You’re the first” (155). The tree’s death left him ultimately orphaned and he for the first time felt abandonment. This negation of love and companionship makes him cling on to his only visitor’s friendship. He adapts to Olivia’s purpose and journey because, they share a common traumatic solitude. Loneliness is part of his emotional anguish and art is his way of venting his emotions.

Mimi Ma is a product of personal and cultural trauma. Her father Winston Ma is a Chinese Muslim of Persian Origin. Winston Ma is not less than a mystery to his children. He is a Chinese electrical engineer but he does not speak Chinese at home, neither has he said the “Jesus stuff” (34). The only time he speaks Chinese is to distract a bear from his children. He finds it meaningful to talk in the language of his soul to a being of nature and apologise on the behalf of man, but not to his children who were born and brought up in a world so far from his ancient land. Even though the identity of their father is confusing Mimi understands and accepts him as a “distant thing” (34). Mimi’s encounter with racial prejudice at a younger age affected her identity formation. Mimi’s personal trauma originates in her father’s death and her mother’s dementia. Her mother’s dementia starts in her “quiet, automotive sainthood” (37). Mimi by choice becomes a ‘LUG’: lesbian until graduation and finds her purpose in following her father to engineering. 

Winston Ma commits suicide, when he feels that his jobs are done. His work has come to fruition, his mulberry tree which he planted in memory of his father dies, and fishing going down each year, he lacks purpose in his life. He shoots himself. Mimi, the heiress of his wisdom, cleans the backyard where her father died. The bloodied paving stones, the brain tissues that “housed his ideas”, and the colour of blood brings new changes to her life, an inevitable traumatic loneliness (42). Mimi inherits the Fusang the tree of the future, but she understands that now she has to live “[I]n the shadow of the bent mulberry” (46). This traumatic loneliness as well as the traumatic eternal presence of her father follows her entire life. 

Mimi cannot accept a spring without her father, she finds it cruel that the world’s flow is unaffected by the death of the most important person in her life. Mimi is obsessed with his death and tries to invest her complete time to study, travel and work. She learns various things, travels to different continents and is promoted in her work. Her relationships with both men and women indicate her lack of clarity in her relationships. She decorates her cabin with the arhat scroll of her father and finds solace in the pine grove in front of her office. It gives her a traumatic reminiscence of her father and a nostalgic relief. Mimi becomes an activist overnight out of her outrage at the cutting of pine grove. This traumatic loneliness and remembrance affect her life and even decides her life’s journey. Unlike Nick, Mimi finds the expression of her trauma in psychology and one of her patients plays an important part in the expression of Mimi’s trauma. 

Nick and Mimi are suffered from personal trauma whereas Adam, Patricia and Neelay are guided by the disability they suffer in their lives. Patricia is born with the physical disability which connects her to nature and Adam’s disability is social and psychological and Neelay suffers from a self-induced disability. Ray Brinkman also suffers from paralysis at his later life which brings him close to the nature. Olivia finds her purpose not out of personal trauma or disability but from her encounter with death. Douglas Pavlicek is a war veteran, whose life is determined by war, disability and loneliness. 

Disability and trauma overlap on various occasions. James Berger tries to realise the need for an overlapping analysis of trauma studies and disability studies in various cases, in his essay “Trauma Without Disability, Disability Without Trauma: A Disciplinary Divide” (2004). In his essay Berger explains the difference between a disability with a person is born and a disability that occurred at a later stage of life that tremendously changes their way of life. In the second case trauma is involved with its inevitable consequences and he demands a change in our approach to study disability and trauma. He says: 

Not all instances of disability are traumatic, certainly not in a direct way. But many are, such as those produced by war, accident, and sudden debilitating illness, both for the individuals affected and for their families. And in cases of disabilities existing from birth, while the disabled person will not suffer trauma since the person knew no previous condition, trauma will very likely be part of the family’s life. Disability, particularly when experienced after infancy or childhood, involve loss, and loss entails mourning. A theory of disability might well try to include a theory of loss specific to disability-that is, the loss of physical, mental, and neurological capacities. The world itself and one’s own body, must be relearned, processes clearly analogous to some of the central concerns of trauma studies. (572) 

The characters of Powers’ novel fall into both categories. Disability and trauma play an important role in the identity formation and eco-activism of the characters.

Patricia Westerford’s character gives a scientific colour to the novel. She is deaf and her world belonged to silence. She hated her hearing aid and lived in her own little plant world. Kids didn’t play with her and she found that the “Acorn people are so much more forgiving” (106). She shared this plant world with her father, the only person who could really understand her love for plants. He encouraged her studies and together they did experiments. Patty loses her father to an accident and thus the grief and loneliness claims her solitude. She shuns all the ornaments during her high school period and she does not date anyone. Her disability and attachment to nature made her a social outcast and more vulnerable to the impact of personal trauma. The disability and the silence are meaningful to her but the grief over her father’s death determines her later life.  She finds solace and purpose in plant research and she pursues forest management. 

Patricia hides her gender by changing her name into Dr. Pat Westerford, a reference to the gender disparity in the scientific field. Her research on trees led her into a truth; “The biochemical behavior of individual trees may make sense only when we see them as members of a community” (117). This finding causes controversies. Initial acceptance of her findings later changes into rejection and mocking. It disheartens Patricia. Patricia’s personal loss of her father’s death confined her world into plant research and a negative experience from the academia shatters her mind. She tries to commit suicide and at the last moment she changes her decision. This act changed her fear into a courage and freed her from the shackles of academic perspectives. The reaction to her trauma is impressive, she pursues independent research.

Adam Appich is somewhat “socially retarded” (48) according to his mother and family. In his case also, Berger’s view finds meaning. He accepts his social retardation fact because he believes that there is “something wrong with regular people” (48). He is bullied by boys and neglected by others. Adam at one moment of anger slaps his mother and his father teaches him a “lesson that involves twisting his wrist until it fractures” (52). His father is abusive to his children and wife sometimes. His brother Emmett also hurts him. Adam’s study of the ants is noticeable, because it is a patient and matured endeavour of a retarded boy. Emmett complains that people don’t get him. He presents his findings about ants in the district science fair and doesn’t get any appreciation. Powers here indicates the academia’s nature of rejecting the original works, counting flimsy reasons. 

Unhealthy family relations and estranged social life sculpt Adam in a different way. In addition to these his sister Leigh’s disappearance and possible death shatters him. He mourns for his sister’s death and it makes him further aloof from the world. He takes assignment writing as a business and makes money out of it. During one of his assignment-ventures he happens to read Rubin Rabinowski’s books and he finds the solace to his trauma in psychology. Here psychology is the possible expression for a socially retarded person’s traumatic life. Adam meets his companions in crime in the course of his research. Psychology equips him in tremendous ways to live with trauma and guilt. 

Olivia Vandergriff was a careless college student, who led an undisciplined life of parties, drugs and sex. Trees have no role in her life. She divorced her husband recently and wants to celebrate it. Her married life was abusive and toxic. Accidentally she electrocutes herself and dies for some seconds. The accident changes her life forever. Olivia’s change in purpose, perspectives and motives, is brought not by disability or personal trauma but by the crucial encounter with death. She starts to hear spirits talking to her, whispering the purpose of her life to her ears. She finds her purpose in life: “The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help” (148). She blindly follows the spiritual voices and meets her fateful end. She is the one who leads the other four characters, especially Nick to the inevitable collective trauma of their life.

Berger in his essay says; “We must look not to a character’s physical condition, but rather to his response to the traumatic event, the moment of loss, that caused the physical condition” (575). It is the reaction to disability that happened at a later stage of life and the endurance to the trauma it brought, that make Neelay, Douglas, and Ray Brinkman differ from other characters. Neelay Mehta is an Indian boy who loves computer coding. In a sudden rage he insults his American teacher and the racial insecurities and fear of consequences dispirits him. He decides to injure himself a little by jumping from the oak tree, just to win sympathy. His plan fails and he slips and falls to the ground, breaking his spine. When his family and friends struggle to accept the fact, Neelay receives it as it comes. He wants to tell his teacher; “It’s not the end of the world” (99). His acceptance of his body in the paralysis state, defines his entire life. He accepts the disability without any particular trauma. His body or avatar might have gone through a lot but not he. For him “[N]othing important in the code has changed” (98).

Even though he concentrates on coding and forgets about his disability, in the long run trauma is in store for him. He is admitted to Stanford and he develops games. During his exploration of Stanford Campus, he accidentally sees the “most mind-boggling organism he has ever seen” (102). He is mesmerized by the world of plants and decides to create a game. He becomes popular among the gaming community, but he does not upload any photo of him. Thus, nobody knows about his disability; “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a breached, elongated freak, unable to move without machines” (101). His mind and brain are completely involved in the world of games but his body is frustrated because of its inability to move. The desires and needs of a man and the trauma and frustration caused by the unfulfillment of needs can be seen in some of the scenes. For instance, during an interview with a young reporter of his age, desire rushes Neelay and he doesn’t care about the appearance of the man. He wants to ask him, “Would you like to go out together sometime? (But going out have to be going in). Nothing needs to happen. Nothing could happen, in fact. That’s all gone. We could just … sit together somewhere, talk about all things, no fear, no hurt, no consequences. Just sit and talk about where people are going” (204).

The desires, disappointment and frustration are very clear in these words. A sudden disability causes trauma not only to the person but also to the entire family of the person. Neelay’s mother is disappointed and she wants her son to get married. Her grief makes Neelay suffer more and he lies to his mother about an imaginary girl who loves him. After consoling his mother Neelay gets frustrated. He does not have hope in marriage and is fully aware of his physical inabilities. Out of sudden rage he breaks one of the bones in his hand. Disability at a later age certainly involves some kind of loss and loss involves pain and thus, trauma.

Douglas Pavlicek is a war veteran who participated in the infamous Stanford Prison experiment in his young age. The torture, confinement and the toxicity of the experiment affects his psyche. In the prison he found his identity shrinking into a mere prisoner 571. Later he joins the US Airforce as a technical sergeant. During one of his missions his plane is hit by a missile and a fateful accident happens. Douggie is saved by a tree. In the middle of the narration Powers takes time to introduce the life story of the tree. When he comes to consciousness, he hears the words; “Tree saved your life” (79). During the accident he accidentally discharges his gun and a bullet makes him crippled. This disability forces him to leave his job, because “THE AIR FORCE has no use for gimps” (80). Later he joins an elderly couple and attends to their horses leading a weary life. During those nine years, “six jobs, two aborted love affairs, three state license plates, two and a half tons of adequate beer, and one recurring nightmare”, define his life (80). He smashes a raw of potholes in the road so that drivers slow down their cars and he could see their faces. The loneliness to which he is exposed, is enough to justify his actions. But his life takes an unexpected twist during his journey to meet his friend. 

On his way to his friend, he finds a hillside entirely clean of trees. It hurts Douggie and his conversation with the cashier at the gas station reveals the difference between a national forest and national park: “You’re thinking national parks. National forest’s job is to get the cut out, cheap. To whoever’s buying” (83). As an atonement Douggie joins the contractor to plant the Douglas-fir seedlings back into the hillside, the motive that drives him towards this mission is his inherent belief that he owes his life to a tree. Later he realises that he worked for the same people who exploited the land. An unknown man in the bar pricks the bubble of Douggie’s dreams in which he invested his four years. The man tells Douggie; “Every time you stick one in the ground, it lets them raise the annual allowable cut.” And not just that, he says; “You’re putting in babies so they can kill grandfathers” (167). Douggie is disappointed and he walks for miles to get out of his despair. He encounters the pine grove and happens to resist the pine cutting. He is arrested and fined for his offense. When he returns, he writes on the trunks of the cut trees, “CUT DOWN WHILE YOU SLEPT” (184). It is here, he meets Mimi and together they join the protests. Douglas’s life is determined and shaped by loneliness, war memories, traumatic confinement, pain and disability and the truth that he owes his life to a tree. Personal trauma and disability play important role in his life.

Ray Brinkman is an intellectual property lawyer and Dorothy Cazaly is a stenographer. Tree means nothing to both. Dorothy is a free-spirited woman who does not want to be anyone’s property. The personal trauma of Dorothy and Ray is related to their childless marriage. The intense desire of Dorothy to have a child affects their relationship and eventually they get estranged. They find an alternative excitement to life through reading, but their interests vary. The loss of love and companionship in a relationship causes tremendous trauma to the participants. Dorothy, in attempt to be ‘free’ gets involved in an extramarital relationship. The same day when Dorothy demands a divorce from Ray, he gets paralysed. Dorothy who always wanted to be free, who always claimed that she is not anyone’s property, the same Dorothy prisons her life to take care of Ray who is in a vegetative state now. This event is not only traumatic to Dorothy but also haunts Ray. They gradually find solace in each other and the nature around them. Trauma can change a person’ behaviour in unexpected ways. In addition to personal or individual trauma and disability induced trauma, instances of cultural trauma can also be traced in the novel.

In his essay “Cultural Trauma and Collective Memory”, Ron Eyerman says that cultural trauma is essentially formed out of a collective remembrance “that grounded the identity- formation of a people” (Eyerman, 01).  Eyerman in his essay differentiates between physical trauma and cultural trauma; 

As opposed to psychological or physical trauma, which involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual, cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion. In this sense, the trauma need not necessarily be felt by everyone in a community or experienced directly by any or all. While it may be necessary to establish some event as the significant “cause”, its traumatic meaning must be established and accepted, a process which requires time, as well as mediation and representation. (02)

The events of cultural trauma turning into a personal one can be seen in the roots of Mimi and Neelay.

Mimi represents an ancient wisdom. Her father Winston Ma is part of an identity crisis. He is a Persian Muslim living in China who migrates to America. They fear communists and expect their end soon. The fear of communists is intergenerational, it haunts even the generations ahead. The land of America stands for their hope, future, their “Fusang” (29). Sih Hsuin’s transformation into Winston Ma, an identity in an unknown country is referred to as a “simple engineering fix” (32). The trans-generational transmission of cultural trauma can be witnessed in the discussion of Winston Ma’s three daughters who have no direct encounter with the fear of communism. Mimi, the firstborn, nine years old bemoans her family’s fate under the mulberry tree, the Fusang. She says; “It’s all Mao’s fault…That pig Mao. We’d be millionaires if it wasn’t for him” (33). Mimi later explains to her siblings that Mao stole everything from their “Chinese grandpa” (33). The use of “Chinese” before the word grand pa is an emphasis of their racial identity. Winston Ma on the other hand tries to avoid the encounter with his cultural identity. 

Mimi encounters racial prejudice in her playground. In tears and agony, she asks her father; “Are Chinese all Communists who eat rats and love Mao?” (34). Racism and traumatic hands of the cultural trauma do not spare the kids too. Winston Ma describes stories to his daughter, about the Chinese migrants in America. Mimi to her astonishment finds that “the U.S. and the Communists were fighting over her father’s brain” (35). The identity crisis and trauma of existence in an unknown country, morphing into new faces, the remembrance of cultural trauma pass on to next generations, deepening its hold in the society.

Racial fear is inherent in Neelay’s life. As a son of an Indian expatriate, he has an identity crisis in him. A mix of two different cultures. The psychological fears of Neelay after swearing at his white teacher has a racial tone to it: “He swore at a teacher, and his old, golden life shatters in the single, terrible syllable. This disrespect of white people will cripple his father…Word will spread through the community of Indian expats. His mother will die of disgrace” (96). Powers describes his psychological fears in a third person point of view. The racial intolerance in the society is not one sided. The racial pride on their own race and prejudices against another race, and the inherent urge to insult others to get a cruel satisfaction, all are part of the cultural setting. The racial intolerance of Neelay’s mother is also significant; “He hears his mother howl: You let that rat- haired woman humiliate your entire family? Soon a distant country filled with aunts, uncles, and cousins will know what he has done” (96). 

Neelay is also troubled by his father’s response. His father sacrificed his culture, his values to live in this land of opportunities. He considered the opportunities more valuable than his cultural trauma, but he has the burden of cultural trauma and the fear of the whites, and the sufferings of his ancestors on his shoulder. Neelay knows his response, or rather Powers predicts his response; “And his poor father, who has made himself invisible for years, just for the right to live and work in this Golden State: he stares at Neelay in horror, wondering how a child might be so arrogant as to think that he could talk back to an American authority and live” (97). The consequences of cultural trauma can be really fateful. Neelay feels responsible to keep the pride of an unknown country and community intact. Neelay, a child feels shame and guilt for the transgression and causes his accident. The responsibility and fear of a community is passed on to the next generation and makes cultural trauma trans-generational.

Eco-activists act as a cultural community enduring resistance, pain, and suffering for a common cause. Nick and Olivia take the names Maidenhair and Watchman to join the protests. Their attempts to protect the redwoods are resisted fiercely. Nick and Olivia live in a large tree named Mimas for almost one year, but they couldn’t protect her and the loggers cut the tree. The loss of Mimas affects Nick and Olivia deeply causing mental trauma to them. Mother N is killed in a bomb blast. The protesters get arrested and Mimi even gets embarrassed by urinating in her handcuffed position in the midst of others. The loggers attack the protesters physically in various ways. Douglas gets stripped in front of the crowd and police officers spray pepper into his private parts. Torture as a reply to encroachment. Police officers even use pepper spray against women. 

The series of tortures meted out to the protesters dispirit the participants. Adam joins Olivia and Nick initially for his research and later for his own internal satisfaction. The violent suppression of the protesters affects the community. The violence meted out to them become the part of a communal collective memory. It is the memory of these events that lead to the eco-terrorism act of the five characters. The passivity of the governments and the brutal fate of their protests kindle a revenge in them. An urge to avenge the wrong doers fills their heads and they deviate from peaceful eco-activism to eco-terrorism. They start to adopt radical means. They plot to arson the construction equipment on a site in Idaho. But their calculation misses and Olivia is severely injured. She later dies. After twenty years of these protests and the eco-terrorism, the action and the writings as messages reappear, proving that eco-activists have turned into a cultural traumatic memory.

Collective trauma and ecological kinship

Life for the five characters is not the same after their act of eco-terrorism. Eco-activism sometimes displays frustrations through radical means like eco-terrorism. FBI defines eco-terrorism as “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally- oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.” The act of eco-terrorism even though it has a nature of justified resistance and has a right cause, it is an act of domestic terrorism which cannot be justified. The characters of the novel also suffer from guilt, once they commit the crime. The cause which guided them and made them eco-warriors vanished into thin air and the identity remained is one of murderers and criminals. Olivia’s death and the night of their crime becomes part of a collective trauma.

Kai Erikson in his essay “Notes on Trauma and Community,” quotes his own words from his 1976 work Everything in its Path. He defines collective trauma as:

By collective trauma… I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and even insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it, so it does not have the quality of suddenness normally associated with "trauma." But it is a form of shock all the same, a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and that an important part of the self has disappeared…"I" continue to exist, though damaged and maybe even permanently changed. "You" continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But "we" no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body. (Erikson, 460)

The group’s identity as eco activists’ shatters. They are supposed to guard their hidden identity as criminals, so they split their ways. The courage and togetherness they felt as a community enduring pain and struggle for a higher cause give way to fear, loss and guilt. Olivia’s death fuels their psychological dilemma. 

Mimi, Adam, Nick and Douggie throw Olivia’s body to the fire and they escape. Only Adam and Mimi are able to manipulate their selves and live with their guilt. Nick suffers from the trauma and Douggie succumbs to it. Nick never escapes from Olivia’s death. He goes in search of the ghost of Mimas and later live and work in hide to defeat his traumatic memories. As an act of finding companionship, he digs out his art and the book filled with photos of the chestnut. He even finds solace in random arts. Nick’s transition as an artist is worth noticeable. At a younger age, he suffered from individual trauma and personal trauma. His art mainly in paper, was an attempt to find his purpose. Later Olivia’s death leaves a huge impact on his psyche. He was the one who painted the messages in the walls. Even in hide he paints in the walls, to escape from his traumatic memories. Walls act as a bigger canvas to receive his pain as part of a shattered community. At the final stage, he stands for the collective and the canvas for his magnum opus is nature. He creates a large sculpture visible even from the space which says ‘STILL’. His process of maturing and transitioning as an artist is through enduring pain and trauma. 

Mimi is able to get a good sum from her father’s scroll arhat. She becomes a therapist years later.  She adapts to another identity and name and a damaged face. Even though she could settle her life, the fear of being caught is still with her. The patient Mimi meets during her therapy sessions plays a significant role in the life of Mimi. Her patient and Mimi talk through their eyes, shares their deepest secrets and griefs. Therapy becomes a give and take process where the patient and therapist together find relief. For Adam and Mimi, psychology is a tool for survival and a source of relief.

Douggie who works as a caretaker for a ghost town is the person who gives a plot twist. He is followed by the voice of Olivia and he often dreams of her. He is left aimless by Mimi’s departure. He surrenders to the individual and collective traumatic past. He journals honestly about the night using the tree names of his companions. Alena a girl who joins him one day betrays him and he is arrested. In order to save Mimi, Douggie betrays Adam. Adam becomes a successful psychology professor years later. Adam is arrested and he refuses to give any other’s name. He gets 140 years of imprisonment, leaving his son and wife helpless. When he is arrested, he sees a ‘maidenhair’ grieving his fate. In addition to the collective trauma these four characters suffer from Perpetrator’s trauma too, a trauma induced by the participation in a particular act of harming others. The act of eco-terrorism and Olivia’s death caused guilt and trauma to the characters. 

In his essay “Social theory and trauma”, Ron Eyerman differentiates between individual and collective trauma; 

Individual and collective traumas have in common that they issue from shock. The wounds that incur are collective and social as much as they are individual. Individual and collective trauma may also be thought of as reinforcing one another, making the shock and sense of loss even greater. In economic crisis as in war, one's personal loss is intimately tied to those suffered by others. The cumulative impact would only intensify the trauma, where a sense of belonging, a collective identity, is shattered along with individual identity. (43)

The collective trauma the characters suffer from has a recurring nature. It constantly returns to the sufferer’s memory, tormenting them. Douggie depends on journal to escape from the trauma. The society and the future of eco-activism have the collective memory inherent. After the latency period of twenty years, the eco-terrorism and the messages reappear. 

Another kind of trauma present in the novel is mediated trauma. It is a secondary trauma, where the sufferers are not directly involved in the trauma. Media act as a carrier of meanings and trauma. It adds to the collective suffering of the people’s psyche. Ron Eyerman in his essay “Cultural Trauma and Collective Memory”, explains the role of media in the transfer and interpretations of trauma;

National or cultural trauma (the difference is minimal at the theoretical level) is also rooted in an event or series of events, but not necessarily in their direct experience. Such experience is usually mediated, through newspapers, radio, or television, for example, which involves a spatial as well as temporal distance between the event and its experience. Mass- mediated experience always involves selective construction and representation, since what is seen is the result of the actions and decisions of professionals as to what is significant and how it should be presented. (03)

The struggles of eco-activists and the cruel suppression of their protests are known to the world through the media. The protesters knew the importance of media and they wanted to hold on to the struggle until the media gets there. Patricia, Ray and Dorothy know the struggle from the news. It causes pain and trauma to them. Twenty years later Adam and Mimi get to know about the reappearance of their act from the news, it instigates fear and guilt in them, once again.

On the other part three characters undergo spiritual transformations, Ray, Dorothy and Neelay. After Dennis’ demise, Patricia is lonely and feels his presence. She suicides in the middle of her invited talk, her only possible reply to the world which mechanically thinks and believes’ in material values. Her resistance to a world which neglects the wisdom of nature and trees are shown through her act of suicide. Only person who attempts to stop her is Neelay. He tries to create a new world through his popular game ‘Mastery’. The last part of the novel is titled as ‘Seeds’. The trees give life through seeds. Seeds have the power of regeneration. Ultimately seeds represent the regenerative power of trees, where as human fate is to wither away. Each and every character of the novel undergo trauma to find connection with the living outside humanity. Eco-activism is also triggered by trauma or disability. The characters find solace and comfort in their ecological kinship. They share a belief that drives them to their inevitable future: “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…” (122).


Richard Powers’ The Overstory represents the wisdom and individuality of trees. It tries to differentiate between the right and wrong approaches to the conservation of trees. Trauma plays a major role in the internal transformation of his characters. Trauma acts on various levels in this novel. Individual trauma and disability, cultural, collective, perpetrator’s trauma and mediated trauma are discussed in the novel. Among his nine protagonists five characters out of rage and anger caused by trauma engage in an act of eco-terrorism. Eco-terrorism is an act which cannot be justified by any means. The characters undergo further emotional struggle and trauma because of this act. On the other hand, four characters undergo spiritual transformation enabled by trauma and find ecological kinship. Most often this companionship is recognized out of trauma, but traumatic ignorance of boundaries can cause trouble. Richard Powers calls for an attention towards the individuality of trees. Non-human entities are not properties of human beings. Defending their rights to exist is necessary, but radicalising it into a crime is not the way. A life harmonized with nature, understanding eco-kinship, is necessary. Powers considers it important to tell the story because like Adam says in the novel, he believes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (419).


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Berger, James. “Trauma Without Disability, Disability Without Trauma: A Disciplinary Divide.” JAC, 2004, Vol. 24, No. 3, Special Issue, Part 2: Trauma and Rhetoric (2004), pp. 563-582.  10 Nov. 2021
Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” American Imago, Winter 1991, Vol. 48, No. 4, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma: II (Winter 1991), pp. 455-472. 23 Nov. 2021
Eyerman, Ron. “Cultural trauma and collective memory.” Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity.  Cambridge University Press, 2001.
---. “Social theory and trauma.” Acta Sociologica, February 2013, Vol. 56, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 41-53.  07 Nov. 2021.
FBI. Testimony. May 2004. 14 Nov. 2021
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Stanford, Claire Miye. “Speaking for the Trees: Richard Powers’s “The Overstory”.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 10 May 2018.  23 Nov. 2021.
Anjitha M S
Research Scholar
M G University
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Dr. Binny Mathew
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S B College
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