The Post-humus: Decomposition and Circulation in The Overstory by Richard Powers


  • Rebekah Zammit Independent Scholar


Anthropocentrism, Decomposition, Entangled Life, Planthood, The Overstory


Since antiquity, humans have endeavoured to unveil the question of life by seeking answers in bodies and matter within their domain. Humanity’s understanding of the natural world has traditionally been dominated by anthropocentric and zoocentric accounts of what constitutes life and the living. Accordingly, vegetal life has been relegated to the periphery of nature’s feats, subservient to the instrumental benefit of human progress. In this paper, the question of life is reviewed in terms of a rerooted ontology that departs from an anthropocentric understanding of life to consider the vibrancy and vitality of an entanglement of coevolving organisms. Through a reading of The Overstory by Richard Powers, the intersection of human and nonhuman life is rethought in light of the roles and realities of plants in stories. In the novel, language appears as a tool that extends beyond the human, encapsulating the infinite modes of communication within a system of entangled life, particularly as expressed in the circulation of matter, decomposition, and replenishment. Effectively, the representation of plant life in contemporary literature provokes a refreshed understanding of the lived experience of plants, challenging anthropocentric assumptions about what constitutes valuable life. To guide this research into the hidden realm of planthood, reference is made to works by Peter Wohlleben, Michael Marder, Matthew Hall, Jeffrey Nealon, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Suzanne Simard, Merlin Sheldrake, Jane Bennett, and Tim Ingold. Their emergent botanical studies and theories of entangled matter contribute to the rerooted ontological outlook on the nature of the humus and what lies beyond it. As the novel attracts a readerly rumination over vegetal stories and the correspondence between organisms, it seeds itself in the reader’s mind bolstering action so that what was given up may blossom into something just as miraculous.


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How to Cite

The Post-humus: Decomposition and Circulation in The Overstory by Richard Powers. (2023). Postgraduate English: A Journal and Forum for Postgraduates in English, 44.