The Overstory – “The second best time is now”

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is a genre-defining book. I don’t say that lightly; it truly is like nothing I’ve ever read, to the point that when someone asks me what it’s about, all I can say, slightly lamely, is “trees”.

It is about trees or, more accurately, forests. It is a network of stories, loosely connected by its characters and themes, and all essentially cohering around different aspects of our 21st century relationship with plants and the natural world.  

Just go and read it. 

There were numerous little magic moments throughout The Overstory, moments which made me stop and think, and consider my place in the world. One which stands out is the novel’s treatment and retelling of one of my favourite proverbs, in the novel by a father to his wide-eyed daughter. 

The best time to plant a tree was 100 years ago; the second best time is now. 

The idea is that you can always defer doing something by saying that now isn’t the right time, that you’ve missed the boat etc. It’s an easy excuse to give but, actually, this proverb helps you to realise the value of the present moment, the eternal ‘Now’ that we all live in, and in particular the fact that we can always start something great right now. Doing this is the best thing we can do, being where we are, in the present (and not 100 years ago), and that’s alright.

I also like this idea, because it gets at the small, incremental improvements that James Clear explains so eloquently in Atomic Habits. A tree doesn’t grow in a day, but each day it does grow a little; the magic of compounding means that 100 years later something truly magnificent has grown. (As another show of the magic of compounding, if you started doing something today, and got just 1% better at it every day for the next year, by the end of the year you’d be 37 times better than when you started. See here for more on this.)

One strand of The Overstory takes this idea, and also flips it on its head. ‘Now’ is simultaneously the moment that is also always second-best. Now becomes a kind of nostalgia, a historic FOMO, a loss or failure which can never be rectified; yesterday we missed a(nother) chance to start saving the planet from climate crisis and today things are just that little bit worse, or yesterday you spent time with a loved one and today you only have their memory. 

Finally on the theme of time, a quote from Master Oogway 

Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present. 

I hope you all have a great day!

PS This blog is rather less flattering about The Overstory (so read it if you want a different perspective to mine) but interestingly gives the context for a Chinese poem quoted at a very moving moment in the novel. 

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