‘ Some find the old-growth forests too creepy’ … A tuliptree in Albright Grove. Photo: Sue Cag figcaption > source >
His use of personal occupation as a kind of characterisation is one of the aspects of his writing he is most proud of.” It’s not hot-blooded like jealousy, rage, envy, love, but for me it’s a more genuine, robust picture of who we are because for most of us our vocations shape us deeply .” He explains that he has ” tried to do this slightly different thing of dramatising philosophical issues knowing that the novel of ideas[ has] had its day, and that day is not now. So there’s always this compromise: how do you tell a story of intellectual passion while constructing it warm enough to be accessible ?” In the case of
, a documentary about environmental activists from the The Overstory Redwood Summer of 1990– when guerrilla groups mobilised against the logging of California’s giant sequoias- inspired its core drama.
Those who get too caught up in the human narrative, however, are in danger of missing the larger fabulist components. Powers cites a recent review that categorised his work as part of the” grand realist tradition “.” I believed, what book have you read? I’m flattered that someone could read any of my books like that- but they’re myths .” He stops and laughs at himself.” And they’re allegories, which is even worse …”
Still, he has poured plenty of himself into the nine main human characters in
The Overstory . The most obvious proxy is Nick Hoel:” The introspective midwestern creator and outsider, trying to solve the tensions between that intense introspection of his temperament with the outward aspiration of his vocation- that’s me .” But there’s also Mimi Ma, the engineer who represents the pragmatic path Powers might have taken; Neelay, a programmer who loses himself in alternative worlds, and Douglas, the war veteran to whom the author dedicated his” relentless goofy humour “.” It was like a five-year-long therapy session where I let all my multiple personalities off the leash and that was so fulfilling .”
You get the sense that this book changed him. For a start, it brought him to the Smokies. On a research trip three and half years ago, he realised he felt” better than I had ever felt before” and within six months, he had left Palo Alto and his well-paid teaching post at Stanford for a secluded house deep in the mountains.
His wife, Jane, a French translator, works in Chicago at the University of Illinois and he has the place largely to himself. The couple have no children- he has never wanted any.” And it has been an issue with me in my life, relationships have broken off because of that .” At the same day, it strikes him as the best thing he’s done for the world:” a terrible thing to say ,” he laughs,” but I don’t mean it misanthropically- simply pragmatically .”
When Power isn’t hiking, he can sit on the porch listening to the whippoorwill( a nightjar ), or work on his recipe for grits( his secret: toast them first ). His next project will take
The Overstory ‘ s themes into science fiction, a genre still considered suspect by some in the literary world.” But when you’re asking what would it take to impact the transformation in consciousness that humans need, the only people who ask these questions are the sci-fi writers .”
Powers recently read an Arthur C Clarke story in which the protagonists discover
life on Venus, in the form of plants that look like rocks.” They say,’ Finally, proof that mankind is not alone in the universe .'” He looks at the trees around him.” And I’m thinking- wait a minute, you didn’t actually have to leave Earth to find that out .”
Two hours of steady ascent from the trail head, and Albright Grove uncovers itself. After the dense, uniform trunks of the second-growth forest that dominates the southern Appalachians- almost every acre of these mountains was logged once the white man arrived- the old growth looks alien. Giant tulip poplars, centuries old, plug the sky; their trunks scarcely taper on their vertical journey. Around them, a mess of vegetation, living, dead and rotten, creates unearthly shapes.” Some people don’t enjoy the
old-growth forests ,” says Power.” They find them too creepy .”
But the biodiversity to be found in these all-but-eradicated spaces is the secret at the heart of his novel.” No human being has ever seen an old-growth forest that’s been clear-cut come back to the richness and vitality of what it was. Ever .” It’s one of the reasons why President Trump’s move to open up national monuments such as
Bears Ears in Utah to extraction and felling is so catastrophic.
” One hundred per cent of all forests would be removed if there was no consensual agreement to protect them ,” says Power.” It’s not about economics, it’s about ideology: we were told that the proper destination for humankind was dominance.
‘Stop putting handcuffs on us. Let’s drain the swamp !~ ATAGEND’ That political metaphor is what they want to do to the landscape .”
The modern human assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are” only property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species problem.” Every sort of mental desperation and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.
” Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing .” To that objective, Powers hopes his book will be part of the restoration of a tradition that has all but ceased to exist in modern literature.” We are incredibly good at psychological and political dramas, but there’s another kind of drama- between the humans and the non-humans- that disappeared in the late 19 th century, once we thought we had
dominion over the Earth. Because we won that battle.
” But now we know we didn’t, actually. And until you resolve that question, how do we live coherently at home on this planet, the other two kinds of stories are luxuries .”
* Richard Powers will be at the Edinburgh international book festival on 21 August. He will be at the London Review Bookshop, London WC1A, on 27 September.< em> The Overstory is published by William Heinemann. To order a copy for PS15. 99( RRP PS1 8.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99.