‘ The volume was like a five-year-long therapy session where I let all my multiple personalities off the leash’ … Richard Powers. Photograph: Mike Belleme for the Guardian </ figcaption > </ source >At 60, with numerous accolades, including a National book award( for The Echo Maker ), Powers has long earned the right to tackle any topic he pleases. Over a 30 -year career his invigorating intellect has scoured artificial intelligence and virtual reality (< em> Galatea 2.2 , Plowing the Dark ), music and genetics( Orfeo , The Goldbug Variations ). Whether neuroscience or nuclear war, the result is usually a profound new take on what it means to be alive. He has been described as” the best novelist you’ve never heard of “~ ATAGEND for so many years that ignorance is greater much of an excuse.
At the moment, however, this softly spoken human is enjoying his role as forest guide. His wry self-titled” stenches of the Smokies” tour includes regular stops to rub leaves and scratching bark. A yellow birch makes off woozy waves of muscle relaxant (” wintergreen !”); rare sourwood avoided the settlers’ axe, because it stimulated great honey. Sassafras has him particularly excited.” Delightful isn’t it, and somewhat familiar? Put it in a glass with bubbles and a couple of ice cubes … root brew !”
Powers hadn’t particularly considered trees until his first encounter with a giant redwood only a few years ago, while he was in California teaching on Stanford’s creative writing fellowship course.” When they’re as wide as a house and as tall as a football pitching you don’t have to be particularly sensitive to be wowed by it ,” he tells.” But once I started looking, I realised it’s not about the size and scale … it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing beasts all the time .”
The result was, in his own words, a” religious conversion “: not in the theistic appreciation, but in the sense of” being bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humen “. He had addressed environmental issues before in
The Echo Maker , but this time was different. “‘ Environmentalism’ is still under the umbrella of a kind of humanism: we say we should manage our resources better. What I was taking severely for the first time in this volume was: they’re not our resources; and we won’t be well until we realise that .”
With scientific precision, Powers’s new novel portrays the interconnected lives trees contribute. Their behaviour- the ways they help and provide for one another, and other living things too numerous to count- is a direct rebuke to the behavior we live today. It would be easy, watching him identify the flowers, fungis and mosses around him, to think he had been a botanist all his life, as to report to a humankind who spent a frustrating 12 months discovering to tell oak from ash.
But then Powers’s ability to absorb and see a subject is one of the cornerstones of his writing. He has been a dedicated “generalist” since he was a child, one of five working siblings born to a school principal and his wife in Illinois.” I was curious about everything and every year was another passion ,” he remembers.” When I reached 16 and it comes down time to start specialising, I felt a constant terror. I remember freshman time in college I had a cavity in my stomach the whole year. I aimed up actually checking into the clinic- I supposed I had ulcers or something .”
Powers analyse physics, believing it would allow him to explore the big picture of life. It didn’t , nor did a master’s in literature, where specialisations is more and more esoteric:” That’s when I drew the ripcord and got out of academia .” There followed an identity crisis where he worked as personal computers operator and programmer.” It wasn’t me, but it at the least avoided me from having to commit to who me was .”
Once he had his idea for his first novel-
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance , published in 1985- a job in which he could seek his myriad interests became possible.” I thought here it is: if I can get away with this then the possibilities for the self-reinvention are endless .”
Professorial in way, Powers may quote Mikhail Bakhtin and Bruno Latour, and be unable to stop himself comparing a page in his hiking guidebook to a stage diagram of crystallisation, but he engages with “the worlds” with patience and modesty. His intellect has, nonetheless, sometimes been offputting to critics who have claimed to find a lack of warmth in his writing.” Some mention my characters are always geniuses ,” he tells.” They’re not, they just happen to have a fervour, a route of organising the world, that may or may not be familiar to the readers. If someone’s walking through the lumbers and mentions,’ I need a whiff of that sassafras ,’ it tells you something about them .”
, a documentary about environmental activists from the 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 worlds largest” fabulist components. Powers cites a recent review that categorised his job as part of the” grand realist tradition “.” I belief, what book have you read? I’m flattered that someone could read any of my volumes like that- but they’re myths .” He stops and chuckles at himself.” And they’re allegories, which is even worse …” The Overstory
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 temper with the outward ambition 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 made 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 satisfying .”
You get the sense that this book changed him. For a start, it brought him to the Smokies. On studies and research journey 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 mansion 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 pair have no infants- “hes never” craved any.” And it has been an issue with me in my life, relationships have broken off because of that .” At the same hour, it strikes him as the best thing he’s done for the world:” a awful thing to say ,” he laughs,” but I don’t mean it misanthropically- just pragmatically .”
When Powers 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 the fuck is it take to consequence 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 accordance with the arrangements of flowers that look like rocks.” They mention,’ Ultimately, 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 be noted that out .”
Two hours of steady ascent from the road psyche, 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 age-old growth looks alien. Giant tulip poplars, centuries age-old, plug the sky; their trunks barely taper on their vertical travel. Around them, a mess of vegetation, living, dead and rotten, generates unearthly shapes.” Some people don’t enjoy the old-growth woods ,” says Power.” They find them too creepy .”
But the biodiversity to be in these all-but-eradicated spaces is the secret at the core 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 tombstones such as Bears Ears in Utah to extraction and felling is so catastrophic.
” One hundred per cent of all woods would be removed if there was no consensual arrangement to protect them ,” mentions Power.” It’s not about economics, it’s about ideology: we were told that the proper destination for humankind was domination. ‘Stop putting handcuffs on us. Let’s drain the inundate !~ ATAGEND’ That political metaphor is what they want to do to the landscape .”
The modern human assumption that trees, flowers and all other wildlife are” just property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species difficulty.” Every form of mental hopelessnes and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some manner to this complete estrangement 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 scared and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing .” To that terminate, 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 drama, 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 topic, 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 volume celebration on 21 August. He will be at the London Review Bookshop, London WC1A, on 27 September. The Overstory is published by William Heinemann. To order a transcript 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 orderings min p& p of PS1. 99.