REVIEW: The Overstory Book
The hair of the earth
A compilation of articles on working with trees

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


The Overstory Book: Cultivating Connections with Trees, 2nd edn.

Edited by Craig R. Elevitch
Permanent Agriculture Resources, 2004
526 pages
ISBN: 0970254431

April 18, 2005: Ten percent of your body is made up of microorganisms. They’re crawling all over you and inside you, and good thing too. Without them, you would die. It is not so different for a tree, which depends upon the bustling microbial life in the soil (a paperclip worth of soil can hold up to ten billion microorganisms). Microlife is just one of the many subjects in The Overstory Book that relates to working with trees. The compilation of 127 articles spans everything from growing live snow fences to choosing species for timber production, from inoculating logs with mushroom spores to marketing strategies, from growing a fruit and nut windbreak to cultivating wild $500/pound ginseng (don’t count on it). The bios of contributing authors and organizations alone take up fifteen pages. The upside of that is that if you don’t like a writer you can skip to the next article. The downside is that you may only get a few pages of the one you especially like.

It would be true but insufficient to say that The Overstory Book is about trees (‘overstory’ means canopy). The book is also about the soil in which trees are rooted, the fungi and insects that help or hurt trees, the shaded environment under trees known as the ‘understory’ (when we buy ‘shade-grown coffee’ we are purchasing an understory crop). Knowledge of these intricate interactions and systems can help us go about things more intelligently. For example, the Kayapo people in Brazil introduce nests of odorous Azleca sp. ants on trees infected with leaf-cutting ants. These “smelly ants” emit pheromones that repel the leaf-cutters. The ants also have medicinal value and are crushed and inhaled to relieve stuffy sinuses. The end result is a healthy tree and free medicine without toxic by-products or waste.

The Overstory Book offers practical advice on how to establish such multi-purpose permaculture systems (no, you won’t have to snort crushed ants). Examples include using greywater—the non-sewage waste water from the house—to water the yard; planting nitrogen-fixing trees to buffer street noise as well as provide mulch for the garden; and incorporating a chicken tractor in the yard so that you can simultaneously mow the lawn and feed the chickens (for those deep-rooted weeds, bring out the high-powered snuffling pig tractor). The hands-on recommendations are interspersed with just enough scientific background to convey the richness of these agroecosystems without bogging the reader down in overly specific detail. The contributing writer Alex Shigo describes the rhizosphere—the interface between the soil and the roots—as the place where“[a]moebae are eating bacteria. Some bacteria are poisoning other bacteria. Fungi are killing other fungi. Nematodes are spearing roots. Fungi are trapping nematodes. Earthworms are eating anything they can find” (p. 83). It’s easy reading, but the subterranean complexity comes across.

The book’s heft and design gives it the appearance of a specialized textbook for agroforestry students, but the simple language—with little, if any, technical jargon—makes for fast reading. Simple is good, although occasional articles treat us like simpletons (do we really need to be told that when you visit a farm you shouldn’t ask to use the farmer’s telephone and you should make sure to say thank you when you leave?). The excellent resources section at the end is so extensive that it is fair to say its title, “The Agroforester’s Library,” is no exaggeration. There is also an agroforestry glossary for those who, like me, thought that “live fence” refers to the infamous electric wire on which teenage boys deliberately zap themselves in a demonstration of idiotic manly courage (in agroforestry a live fence is a boundary made by planting trees and/or shrubs and—once they are big enough to serve as posts—attaching wires to them).

Towards the end of The Overstory Book there is a half-page photo of several trunks soaring into the sky, as if the photographer took the photo lying on his back. The caption reads: “Hawaiians considered trees to be ‘the hair of the earth’…” It reminded me of a section in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass where the poet is reminiscing on how he could not respond when a child once approached him with a handful of grass and asked him what it was. But now that he is alone, the poet reflects: “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves…” That seems to me as good a reason as any to care about the grass or the trees.

Constantine Markides lives on Monhegan Island, Maine. He can be reached at