Richard Powers Talks Kinship, Community, and Consciousness
From the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this extensive interview, Richard Powers discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, and his intention to tell a story in which humans are not separate from the living world around them.
From the episode:
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee: The Overstory is filled with myths about trees—Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Native American myths—and you’ve said that you are trying to resurrect a very old form of tree consciousness. Could you talk about this and your use of myth throughout the book?
Richard Powers: It was thrilling, as I began to do my research, to discover that wherever I looked, in whatever culture, if I went far enough back, trees were right at the center of the foundational stories. In particular, this notion of permeability, this idea that we weren’t really all that separate, that we weren’t as far away from these other creatures as we believed. The great example of that for our own tradition would be Ovid, and the Metamorphoses is a central organizer of the book. It’s almost as if these stories—standing as they do, outside of the human-exceptionalist story, either long before or on the threshold of this notion of setting off into our own mythos—these stories are warnings that call us back to kinship. Again and again, they are about how our destinies, and our bodies, and our souls are contingent and intertwined with trees.
It was also really marvelous—as I dug deeper into the mythologies of transformation, and metamorphosis, and communication, and kinship—to discover how deeply derived cultures are from the plant life of their location. There are somewhere between sixty and one hundred thousand species of trees on the planet, and that number itself is so fluid, and trees have been around for so very long. The basic solution of arbor essence goes back four hundred million years, which is roughly two thousand times longer than the entire history of our own species, anatomically modern human. So that’s a bit sobering in itself, but because that category is so taxonomically loose and so dependent upon the local conditions of geography, the idea of what a tree is, is hugely variable. We know that, in a fairly banal way, to grow up in New England and to be surrounded by sugar maples produces a very different kind of consciousness than if you were to grow up down here in Southern Appalachia and be surrounded by tulip poplars, and hickories, and rhododendrons, and an entirely different experience again growing up in Northern California surrounded by redwoods, or in the Southwest in the shadow of giant saguaro cacti. The plants of an area are absolutely indispensable in the formation of the local character of humanity.
Part of the technological myth—part of this seduction of the huge leverage that our prosthetic tools have given us—is that we can globalize and become a kind of single culture, independent of where we live. So much of the push of post-industrial North America has been toward homogenizing place. You can think about this as you travel, how much of the world that you’re traveling through has been redesigned in order to comfort you with this illusion of familiarity and continuity. To sit in a Comfort Inn, or a La Quinta—or in some interchangeable place on some interchangeable interstate, watching some interchangeable cable program in this interchangeable culture that we’ve created—and then, to look out the window and see that remnant of native life that reminds you, oh wait a minute, I’m not in Kansas anymore, or California, or Tennessee. It is quite a remarkable moment to remember just how badly deformed we’ve come to think about place and how amnesiac we’ve become about the power of place to be something different, everywhere.
Richard Powers is the author of twelve novels. His most recent, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award, and he has been a four-time National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.