Richard Powers: There Are Things More Interesting Than People
The Author of The Overstory on Writing About the Nonhuman World
Richard Powers hates the hulking white Chevy Silverado pickup he’s driving. He apologizes after picking me up at the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a cool evening in early April, that his Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid, is in the shop, and he has to maneuver this beast, with its 20 miles to the gallon, across winding country roads. He’s pretty sure the service-department guy at the Chevy dealer, having identified Powers as a treehugger, is still grinning at loaning him a four-by-four. I laugh off Powers’ apology, knowing he’s a good environmentalist, but am a little concerned when he veers into the opposing lane. “Holy, crap, sorry about that,” he says, nervously correcting an oversteer, as an oncoming truck whizzes by us.
A few miles from Powers’ home in the Smoky Mountain foothills, we stop at a scenic overlook. Powers strikes up a conversation with a Tennessee old-timer, who’s standing beside an immaculately restored 1935 Ford pickup. He opens the engine hood for us. “Ford’s early V8,” he says. “Look at that flathead,” Powers says. “A beauty.” Powers beams as the local septuagenarian, in a musical drawl, tells us about the days when the paved road we just drove up was dirt, dotted with farms. We climb back into the Silverado and head into Townsend, Tennessee, population 444. After a short drive up a winding road, Powers parks, and we walk down a gravel road. Around a bend sits Powers’ home, a dark wood, two-level chalet on stilts, encompassed by trees.
Powers moved here two years ago from Urbana, Illinois, to finish writing his new and 12th novel, The Overstory, about a disparate group of people who discover their inner activists and band together in the Pacific Northwest to save “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life,” trees. It’s an opera of conservation, with emotions ranging across a panorama of American thought and industry. Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific. The cast includes an acerbic Vietnam vet, a feckless psychologist, and a partying college student who accidentally electrocutes herself to death only to recover a minute and ten seconds later with visions.
As in many Powers novels, The Overstory stars a scientist, this time a dendrologist, Patricia Westerford, who discovers trees biochemically talk to one another and behave as members of a community, one now entwined with humans. Determined to get the science right, not for a superficial verisimilitude, but to animate his characters and readers with the “awesome and amazing connection” to nature that science brings, Powers read deeply in dendrology and botany, and traveled to see as many trees as he could. When he arrived in the Smokies, he says, “I just felt healthy. Literally healthy. When you live in the Midwest, you’re living in the middle of the chemical-additive business. My formulation is: ‘Buy a house, get an irreplaceable old-growth forest.'”
The Overstory just came out and has already sprouted a bouquet of glowing reviews. Powers has read them all and can recite sentences from each. As delighted as he is with the praise, though, he still spots in the reviews the received wisdom about his work—all head, no heart—which follows him around like a scolding teacher, waving a ruler at him.
To be sure, he has plenty of brainpower. Since he published his first novel in 1985, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about unseen connections among people through history, Powers has synthesized his stories with philosophy and science, embodied in a host of erudite protagonists. A decade before the genetic revolution made front pages in 2003, when scientists fully decoded human DNA, the biological data of our behavior, Powers published The Gold Bug Variations, about a geneticist who unravels a key function of DNA. While our culture now frets over artificial intelligence gaining autonomy, Powers illuminated the fear, with a poetic resolution, in Galatea 2.2, released in 1995. Yet after writing a long and rich story about a bi-racial classical music singer in The Time of Our Singing, and winning the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker, about a sister lovingly caring for her brother, afflicted with a neurological disorder that causes him not to recognize her, Powers figured he may have slipped free of his critical reputation.
Alas, he now says, over the stove in his kitchen, preparing eggs and grits, no such luck. With a dash of sarcasm, he intones the collective voice of his critic. “Powers is best known for his brainy, cold, distant, nonhuman, and impersonal narratives.” He forces a smile but the rap clearly infuriates him. His goal has been to show that apprehending the world through the so-called cold intellect can “produce a deeper affective, emotional response to it.” At the same time, he is anxious because he hasn’t heard anything yet about a New York Times Book Review of The Overstory. “That’s the big one,” he says.
Powers may strike dissonant notes about his novels’ public image, but in conversation he never resorts to fanfare. Still charmingly lanky at 60, with a boyish face just starting to pay a debt to aging, he articulates his views with an intelligence so free of self-importance that you wonder if there’s something wrong with his wiring. He listens patiently and respectfully, then dazzles with quiet authority.
“There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being.”
We sit down at the table. Every window in the house looks out on the forest. After 11 novels, I ask, why trees? “I wanted to bring in the plants,” Powers says. “Those previous 11 books were very much human-centric books. They were about human exclusivity and human independence. In The Gold Bug Variations, I was trying to reach outward toward a vision of awe and wonder at the process of natural selection and evolution, but I never entirely brought onto the stage the nonhuman world the way I’ve always wanted to do.”
Powers wants The Overstory to immerse readers in the world of trees and pierce them with injustice as timber companies bulldoze them. He wants to show that fiction can be about a lot more than omnipresent bipeds with big brains.
“Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing,” Powers says. “It’s embraced the idea that life is primarily a struggle of the individual psyche to come to terms with itself. Consequently, it’s become a commodity like a wood chipper, or any other thing that can be rated in terms of utility.” Literary fiction is like anything else that arrives from Amazon, he says. It may be a buzz when it shows up and we read it, but the effect wears off soon, leaving us feeling lonelier than before.
“I want literature to be something other than it is today,” Powers says. “There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being. When the Cherokees lived here, and told how the Smokies were formed, they said an enormous bird flapped its wings, and every time the wings touched the ground, they beat down a valley. I picture kids today sitting around and saying, ‘Oh, five stars, I loved it,’ or, ‘Three stars, it didn’t really hold my interest.’ We’ve just come so far down that path of thinking the use of a story is just for our private consumption, our private manufacture, the creation of internal meaning.”
The challenge Powers set for himself in writing The Overstory, he says, is nothing less than what now faces humanity. Treating plants and trees solely as materials to sate our appetites doesn’t fare well for humans in the long run. It also diminishes us in the short one.
“A huge part of human anxiety is fomented by what psychologists call ‘species loneliness,’ the sense we’re here by ourselves, and there can be no purposeful act except to gratify ourselves,” he says. “We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge. Unless forest-health is our health, we’re never going to get beyond appetite as a motivator in the world. The exciting challenge is how to make people plant-conscious, make them realize happiness depends on understanding and reintegrating into this astonishingly complicated and robust way of being that we have exiled ourselves from.'”
That’s an incredible challenge, I say. How do you even begin? “Start looking,” Powers says.
The late morning sun beams through the Smoky Mountain woods. As we hike up a trail bending through the forest, it’s clear Powers has missed his calling as a nature guide. But not any guide. There’s not a single note of singsong-y condescension in his voice. He describes the trees and flowers with muted care and wonder. He wants me to see and feel them as he does.
So far on the trail I’m doing pretty well at identifying the trees, thanks to an earlier tutorial by Powers on his front porch. I spot an eastern white pine, based on its cylindrical needles, which sprout in a bundle of five, wrapped at their base in what looks like a little paper sheath, affixed to the branch.
“And how about this one?” Powers asks. “What’s that?”
“Um, it looks like a fir.”
Powers smiles. “You’re going back to school, mister.”
In fact, it’s a hemlock. Powers instructs me to turn over the flat needles and see the two blue stripes on them. The needles are attached to the twig on tiny pegs. “If you pull the needles off, the peg stays on the branch. Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
A few hundred yards down the trail we stop again. “What do you see this time?” Powers says. Smooth, whitish bark, I say, and brown dead leaves with newly unfolding copper-colored ones. “Good. But what’s it doing with brown leaves on it in April? One possible explanation is that a deer trying to browse this tree will get a mouthful of dead leaves and won’t like it. That tends to discourage grazing on the American beech.”
The lessons continue along the trail, and I enjoy them at every stop. “Check out this tulip poplar that’s just riddled with woodpecker holes,” Powers says. “See how all the holes are in a straight line like that. That creates little sap flows and the bugs go in there. You know what? That may be what spared that tree’s life from the loggers. It loses its commercial value if it’s marred up like that.”
“We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge.”
We make our way up the mountain and the rather uniform spacing of the trees—a sign of second-growth forest, trees that grew after logging—gives way to fatter and taller maples and pines, dogwoods and beeches. The forest gets denser and more chaotic. Huge fallen logs, covered in mosses, sleep in the thickets. Powers loves this higher elevation. “This is the way the forest looked before white people cut it all down,” he says. “Some of these trees predate the arrival of white people on the continent. I love it up here.”
During our descent, I ask Powers if he could join his activists in The Overstory and burn down sawmills and more. “Set fire to a resort under construction? It’s hard for me to imagine,” he says. “But to write a book where activists are not condemned, to write in a genre that expects me to step back morally, be dispassionate, find pros and cons of all positions, and instead say their actions are completely understandable, well, I am being radical in my way. I’m breaking the law of literary good taste. I’m saying there are things more interesting than people, more essential than us. The whole book is a simple question: What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things?”
We walk without talking for a few minutes. Then Powers offers, “So much of the first part of my life was spent reveling in the best things that humans could make, those beautiful cities and the greatest monuments, and the greatest works of art.” Powers grew up in suburban Lincolnwood, just north of Chicago. As a teenager, he lived in Bangkok, where his father was a principal at an international school. He’s lived in Boston, Palo Alto, the Netherlands, and England, but most of his life in Urbana, where he taught writing and literature at the university; he’s an emeritus professor. “Now I’m listening to that bird, smelling the air, hearing that water, and looking at these crazy trees and wildflowers, and I’m thinking, if the second half of my life is spent reveling in what nonhumans make, it would be a pretty fair trade.”
Powers’ phone buzzes. “Holy crap, 18 new emails,” he says. He scans the subject lines. “All I see is ‘NYTBR,’ and ‘Wow, fantastic, congratulations.'” “Sounds like a rave in the New York Times Book Review,” I say. “Yep,” he says. If he’s relieved or elated, I can’t tell. “Who wrote it?” I ask. “I’m out of range now and can’t see. We’re going to have to wait till we get back in range.”
We mount the Silverado and make an hour-drive from the trailhead to Power’s house, with a brief roadside stop to look at two black bears ambling in the woods. We learn the Times review was written by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and is featured on the front page of the Sunday book section. Inside his house, Powers forwards me his email with a scan of the review in the newspaper; it’s not online yet. “Would you be averse to screening it for me?” he asks.
Powers watches me read as he makes us a tomato, spinach, and anchovy-paste pizza. The oven’s not working and so he heats up the pizza in the barbecue grill on the porch. “Hmmm, wow, OK,” I mutter as I read. “Which is it?” he asks. “Hmmm or wow?” “Oh, it’s wow,” I say. I don’t want to take away anything from Powers reading the review himself, and so I say, “I can assure you this review is safe to read.”
The next day, Powers seems beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstory “accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.”
When he read the review, Powers says, “It felt like companionship. When she asserts the two domains of science and art are not separate, I felt like I’ve found my people.” Powers has one regret about the review. “Kingsolver was my mom’s favorite writer,” he says, quietly. His mom died in 2009. “I just wish she could have read this review.”
Powers takes me on one last hike on a trail famous for its spring wildflower blooms—it lives up to its billing—before settling beside a stream in beach chairs he brought. I read him a short passage from The Overstory describing Patricia, the scientist, sitting alone at her desk, writing about the community of trees: “The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.”
“I really like that,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“It’s like photosynthesis,” Powers says. “Open up to the sun and let the sun do the work. That’s how she writes. She sits there until she is in communion with some prior, passive understanding she has gathered simply by looking.”
“Is the same true for you?”
“It is,” he says. “Since moving to the Smokies, my method is increasingly like hers. When I lived in cities, I wrote out of a tremendous work ethic. I felt if I were to be a serious writer, I needed to produce 1,000 words a day. When I didn’t, I was tremendously anxious. But since coming down here, and committing myself to communication with the plant world, I’ve been much more comfortable in letting an hour or two or more go by in a reverie state. I don’t feel compelled to have a word count at the end of the day, but rather to prepare myself as a ready receptacle for whatever might happen.”