“... plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like most people.”
— from The Overstory by Richard Powers
Ah, a walk in the woods. Its inspirational powers have been celebrated by American writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to Cheryl Strayed and Bill Bryson. The novelist Richard Powers says the inspiration for his 12th novel came from his woodland hikes in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains while he was teaching at Stanford University in 2012. With it came a larger realization, one that Powers says has changed his life: a different, even radical way of seeing humanity’s relation to the nonhuman world in general and specifically to its trees.
Powers appears with novelist Tayari Jones (An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow) in a Lannan Foundation Readings & Conversations program on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
Powers, who won a National Book Award in 2006 for his novel The Echo Maker (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction), was living in Palo Alto, California, when he began escaping the Silicon Valley hubbub by taking to the redwood-covered hills. The trees he encountered weren’t the towering giants that once populated the coastal regions. They’re second growth, the redwoods that sprung up after timber companies harvested their ancestors. But among these already impressively sized trees, Powers discovered one of the old-growth behemoths the loggers had somehow left standing. Its stature stunned him.
“Certainly the sense of an individual creature operating on such a vast scale is humbling,” he said over the phone. “You get a certain feeling when you can’t see the top of trees that are five or six times larger than the largest mammal. A sense of time unfolds that’s different than what we experience, measured in millennia rather than our three score and ten.”
What overwhelmed Powers went well beyond a passion to save what remains of our forests. “Going back down into Palo Alto after seeing this 1,300-year-old creature, I realized that Palo Alto and San Francisco were there because of these trees, that there is this whole component of human history that we forget, there’s an amnesia that lets us think we made this world by ourselves. My consciousness was transformed.”
“This book is about the connection between the trees of the world and the people of the world,” Powers said, “the humans and the nonhumans. We’re in this process of planet-making together. At the heart of the book is a call for a realization for the nonseparability of humans from the rest of creation.”
Powers, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989 and the Lannan Literary Award in 1999, may sound like a professor when he talks about his motivations and research, but his narratives move along on sharp dialogue, insightful observations, and imaginative plot turns. Science is treated with wonder, occasionally taking on hints of magical realism. In her enthusiastic review of The Overstory in the New York Times, author Barbara Kingsolver said Powers “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.”
Still, Powers’ pessimism toward human endeavors sometimes makes for uneasy reading. (“Will trees survive?” he asked rhetorically, referencing mass extinctions. “Certainly. Humans? Almost certainly not.”) But that pessimism is balanced by the resilience and determination of his characters.
Powers’ curiosity and obsessive scholarship define his work. Born in Illinois, he moved to Thailand at the age of eleven when his father took an education job there, returning to Illinois in time to finish high school. His previous novels are staged against backdrops of genetics, music, microbiology, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. The Echo Maker, the story of a head trauma survivor in Nebraska who is convinced that his sister is an impostor, deals knowledgeably with neuroscience as well as the migratory practices of sandhill cranes. The birds serve as a wonderful metaphor for what comes and goes.
“I am a serial enthusiast,” Powers admitted, “and each book does take me obsessively into the view of a certain intellectual formulation or a set of cultural insights. My dad was a high school principal and encouraged curiosity in all five of us kids. As I was growing up, I kept changing what I was going to devote my life to — oceanography, entomology, paleontology. My books reflect that kid and all the things that he was surrounded with.” In The Overstory, these insights bring the trees to life. “It’s about people with the same compulsion that I experienced, that same sense of reorientation and desire to gain something that’s eluded them up to this point.”
Readers may not suspect the narrative tangle they’re about to get into when they begin the book’s initial section, “Roots.” The eight chapters that make up “Roots” are a poignant and involved collection of seemingly unrelated character sketches and family histories — Powers describes them as short stories — that in various ways have trees at their heart. The stories are braided together in the second section, “Trunk,” as the nine protagonists introduced in “Roots” are drawn into environmental activism and take to the trees. It’s in this second section that the cleverness of Powers’ title becomes apparent. All our human stories go on beneath the overarching canopy of the natural world that we, too, are a part of.
One of The Overstory’s central characters, the dendrologist Dr. Patricia Westerford, discovers amazing things about trees, research that suggests that trees and humans aren’t all that different. In the world outside of Powers’ fiction, there’s science supporting Westerford’s conclusions. Trees do communicate, they exist in communities, and they support and nurture each other. Discovering these kinds of ideas is a large part of Powers’ process. “I spent years blind to trees, then spent five and a half years writing, fully immersed in an exploration of trees’ place on earth and in human culture. The obsession was a great joy. I couldn’t get enough. I’m still reading about trees,” he said, noting that his obsession led him to move to the Great Smoky Mountains, home to one of America’s most diverse collections of plant and animal life. There, he spends as many as four days each week walking in the woods. “The research is not a means to a story,” the sixty-year-old Powers said. “I’m not just deploying what I’ve learned for its own sake but for the sake of the story.”
Powers told the Chicago Review of Books he intends to write The Overstory “again and again, from different aspects and elevations.” What does that mean? “The Overstory identifies an urgent problem: our alienation from the place we live and the creatures we share it with. My hope, if I get the time to continue and finish other works, is to bring that problem forward in stories that address our reintegration with the natural world and what that might look like.” ◀
▼ Richard Powers in conversation with Tayari Jones, a Lannan Readings & Conversations event
▼ 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Check for ticket availability, 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.com