Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’ | Books | The Guardian

To reach the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, you must first die through the lurid streets of Gatlinburg. Hokey attractions line the road – theme parks, rollercoasters, mini-golf – in a shock of honkytonk tourism that ends alone at the gateway to the national park. “ Why would you come to the Smokies and think, ‘ What I truly want is a Ripley ’ s Believe It or not ? ’ ” says Richard Powers, “ There ’ s more believe-it-or-not here than there is in that place ! ” The three-mile hike to Albright Grove, which contains some of the ballpark ’ mho oldest surviving afforest, is a immerse into mysteries skill has barely begun to fathom. It is besides a family visit of sorts. Powers is calling on the relatives who populate his latest work, The Overstory. As a botanist in his history explains, trees and humans parcel a common ancestor, and a quarter of their genes. “ For five years I ’ ve been telling people I ’ meter writing a novel about trees, ” he says, with a smile, “ and they ’ ve said : ‘ truly ? ’ ”Richard Powers

‘ The book 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 At 60, with numerous accolades, including a National book award ( for The Echo Maker ), Powers has long earned the right to tackle any subject he pleases. Over a 30-year career his invigorating intellectual has scoured artificial intelligence and virtual world ( Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark ), music and genetics ( Orfeo, The Goldbug Variations ). Whether neuroscience or nuclear war, the result is normally a profound fresh bring on what it means to be alive. He has been described as “ the best novelist you ’ ve never hear of ” for so many years that ignorance is no long much of an excuse. At the consequence, however, this lightly spoken man is enjoying his character as forest lead. His wry self-titled “ smells of the Smokies ” go includes regular stops to rub leaves and scratch bark. A jaundiced birch gives off dizzy waves of muscle relaxant ( “ wintergreen ! ” ) ; rare sorrel tree avoided the settlers ’ ax, because it made big beloved. Sassafras has him particularly excited. “ Delightful international relations and security network ’ metric ton it, and slightly familiar ? Put it in a glass with bubbles and a match of methamphetamine cubes … solution beer ! ” Powers hadn ’ thymine peculiarly considered trees until his first encounter with a giant sequoia a few years ago, while he was in California teaching on Stanford ’ s creative writing fellowship course. “ When they ’ re deoxyadenosine monophosphate across-the-board as a house and american samoa tall as a football peddle you don ’ t have to be particularly sensitive to be wowed by it, ” he says. “ 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 creatures all the time. ”

We say we should manage our resources better. They are not our resources; and we won’t be well until we realise that

Richard Powers The result was, in his own words, a “ religious conversion ” : not in the theist common sense, but in the sense of “ being bound back into a organization of meaning that doesn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate begin and end with humans ”. He had addressed environmental issues before in The Echo Maker, but this time was unlike. “ ‘ Environmentalism ’ is still under the umbrella of a kind of humanism : we say we should manage our resources well. What I was taking seriously for the first time in this book was : they ’ re not our resources ; and we won ’ thymine be well until we realise that. ” With scientific preciseness, Powers ’ s new novel portrays the coordinated lives trees lead. Their demeanor – the ways they help and provide for each other, and other life things besides numerous to count – is a direct rebuke to the way we live today. It would be comfortable, watching him identify the plants, fungi and mosses around him, to think he had been a botanist all his life, as opposed to a man who spent a torment 12 months learning to tell oak from ash. But then Powers ’ s ability to absorb and comprehend a capable is one of the cornerstones of his write. He has been a give “ renaissance man ” since he was a child, one of five siblings born to a school principal and his wife in Illinois. “ I was curious about everything and every class was another passion, ” he recalls. “ When I reached 16 and it came prison term to start specialize, I felt a changeless panic. I remember freshman class in college I had a colliery in my digest the hale year. I ended up actually checking into the clinic – I thought I had ulcers or something. ” Powers studied physics, believing it would allow him to explore the big painting of life. It didn ’ thyroxine, nor did a chief ’ south in literature, where specialisations became increasingly esoteric : “ That ’ s when I pulled the ripcord and got out of academia. ” There followed an identity crisis where he worked as a computer operator and programmer. “ It wasn ’ metric ton me, but it at least prevent me from having to commit to who me was. ” once he had his idea for his first fresh – Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, published in 1985 – a career in which he could pursue his myriad interests became potential. “ I thought here it is : if I can get away with this then the possibilities for the self-reinvention are endless. ” Professorial in manner, Powers may quote Mikhail Bakhtin and Bruno Latour, and be unable to stop himself comparing a page in his hiking guide to a phase diagram of crystallization, but he engages with the world with patience and modesty. His reason has, however, sometimes been offputting to critics who have claimed to find a lack of heat in his compose. “ Some say my characters are always geniuses, ” he says. “ They ’ rhenium not, they precisely happen to have a passion, a room of organising the world, that may or may not be familiar to the readers. If person ’ randomness walking through the woods and says, ‘ I need a whiff of that sassafras, ’ it tells you something about them. ”‘Some find the old-growth forests too creepy’ … a Maple in Albright Grove. ‘ Some find the old-growth forests besides creepy ’ … a Maple in Albright Grove.

Photograph: Sue Cag His use of personal occupation as a phase of word picture is one of the aspects of his writing he is most gallant 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 slenderly unlike thing of dramatising philosophical issues knowing that the novel of ideas [ has ] had its day, and that day is not immediately. indeed there ’ mho always this compromise : how do you tell a floor of cerebral heat while making it warm adequate to be accessible ? ” In the case of The Overstory, a documentary about environmental activists from the Redwood Summer of 1990 – when guerrilla groups mobilised against the log of California ’ s giant star sequoia – inspired its kernel drama. Those who get besides caught up in the homo narrative, however, are in risk of missing the larger fabulist elements. Powers cites a late review that categorised his workplace as function of the “ distinguished realist tradition ”. “ I thought, what book have you read ? I ’ thousand flattered that person could read any of my books like that – but they ’ rhenium myths. ” He stops and laughs at himself. “ And they ’ rhenium allegories, which is even worse … ” even, he has poured plenty of himself into the nine main homo characters in The Overstory. The most obvious proxy is Nick Hoel : “ The introspective midwestern godhead and outsider, trying to solve the tensions between that intense introspection of his disposition with the outbound ambition of his career – that ’ s me. ” But there ’ south besides Mimi Ma, the mastermind who represents the pragmatic way Powers might have taken ; Neelay, a programmer who loses himself in alternative worlds, and Douglas, the war veteran to whom the generator gave his “ grim goofy humor ”. “ It was like a five-year-long therapy seance where I let all my multiple personalities off the leash and that was indeed satisfy. ” You get the sense that this reserve changed him. For a start, it brought him to the Smokies. On a research stumble 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 privy house deep in the mountains. His wife, Jane, a french interpreter, works in Chicago at the University of Illinois and he has the plaza largely to himself. The couple have no children – he has never wanted any. “ And it has been an issue with me in my life sentence, relationships have broken off because of that. ” At the same prison term, it strikes him as the best thing he ’ mho done for the global : “ a awful thing to say, ” he laughs, “ but I don ’ t mean it misanthropically – just pragmatically. ” When Powers isn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate hike, he can sit on the porch listening to the whippoorwill ( a goatsucker ), or workplace on his recipe for grits ( his unavowed : toast them beginning ). His following project will take The Overstory ’ south themes into skill fabrication, a genre silent considered defendant by some in the literary universe. “ But when you ’ re asking what would it take to effect the transformation in awareness that humans need, the lone people who ask these questions are the sci-fi writers. ” Powers recently read an Arthur C Clarke floor in which the protagonists discover life on Venus, in the form of plants that look like rocks. “ They say, ‘ Finally, proof that world is not alone in the universe. ’ ” He looks at the trees around him. “ And I ’ thousand remember – wait a moment, you didn ’ t actually have to leave Earth to find that out. ” Two hours of steady rise from the trail head, and Albright Grove reveals itself. After the dense, consistent trunks of the second-growth forest that dominates the southerly Appalachians – about every acre of these mountains was logged once the white homo arrived – the previous growth looks estrange. Giant tulip poplars, centuries old, plug the flip ; their trunks barely taper on their vertical travel. Around them, a batch of vegetation, live, dead and rotten, creates spiritual shapes. “ Some people don ’ metric ton enjoy the old-growth forests, ” says Powers. “ They find them besides creepy. ” But the biodiversity to be found in these all-but-eradicated spaces is the secret at the heart of his fresh. “ No human being has ever seen an old-growth afforest that ’ s been clear-cut come binding to the affluence and animation of what it was. Ever. ” It ’ s one of the reasons why President Trump ’ s act to open up national monuments such as Bears Ears in Utah to extraction and fly is so catastrophic. “ One hundred per penny of all forests would be removed if there was no consensual agreement to protect them, ” says Powers. “ It ’ s not about economics, it ’ second about ideology : we were told that the proper finish for world was domination. ‘ Stop putting handcuffs on us. Let ’ s drain the swamp ! ’ That political metaphor is what they want to do to the landscape. ” The modern homo assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are “ precisely property ” is, to Powers, the etymon of our much greater species problem. “ Every form of genial despair and terror and incapacity in modern life sentence seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alert. We ’ ra deeply, existentially alone.

“ Until it ’ south excite and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has representation and is inversely connected we ’ rhenium going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it ’ s domination or nothing. ” To that end, Powers hopes his book will be share of the restoration of a custom that has all but ceased to exist in modern literature. “ We are fabulously 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 nineteenth century, once we thought we had district over the land. Because we won that conflict. “ But now we know we didn ’ triiodothyronine, actually. And until you resolve that interrogate, how do we live coherently at family on this planet, the early 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. The Overstory is published by William Heinemann. To order a replicate for £15.99 ( RRP £18.99 ) go to or call 0330 333 6846. free UK p & p over £10, on-line orders entirely. call orders min p & p of £1.99 .

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