The Pulitzer prize-winning novel, “The Overstory,” takes place largely in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the trees themselves are almost like characters in book. We’ll listen back to an interview with author Richard Powers discusses his book, his life, and what forests can tell us about humanity.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The novelist Richard Powers is our guest for the hour today. He has written a dozen novels. Much of his latest, The Overstory, takes place in the Pacific Northwest. 98% of old growth forests in this country have been turned into posts and beams and shingles and pencils. Powers tells us the story about the lengths some people went to, to save the last 2%, but the novel is also about trees themselves, majestic, crafty, cooperative communicative beings. As one of the human characters writes about her beloved trees, ‘billions of years ago, a single fluke self-copying cell learned how to turn a barren ball of poison gas and volcanic slag into this peopled garden and everything you hope, fear and love became possible.’ When I talked to Powers in October of last year, we started by having him read from the very first page of his book.
Richard Powers: First, there was nothing, then there was everything. Then in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground leaning against a Pine, its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. It’s needles scent the air in a force, hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tuned down to the lowest frequencies, the tree is saying things in words before words. It says sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering. It says a good answer must be reinvented many times from scratch. It says every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. There are more ways to branch than any Cedar pencil will ever find, a thing can travel everywhere just by holding still. The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds. Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the Alders speak of long ago disasters, spikes of pale Chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen. Soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind’s gossip, persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes, and Roan’s, their blood red clusters. Ancient Oaks wave prophecies of future weather. The several 100 kinds of Hawthorn laugh at the single name they’re forced to share. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over. Something in the air’s scent commands the woman, “Close your eyes and think of willow! The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an Acacia thorn, nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. What hovers right above you, what floats over your head right now, now.” Trees even farther away join in, all the ways you imagine us, bewitched Mangroves up on stilts, a Nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight up missile of a Saul are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You missed the half of it and more. There’s always as much below ground as above. That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them unseen, right here, right next, creating the soil, cycling water, trading in nutrients, making weather, building atmosphere, feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count. A chorus of living wood sings to the woman, “If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.” The pine she leans against says, “Listen, there’s something you need to hear.”
Miller: That is Richard Powers, reading from just the first page and a half of his novel, The Overstory and that is after you and after some of your characters have really started to listen to trees, started to look at trees. Before that, for you, when you would walk through a forest or see a tree in a city, before your research for this novel, before writing the novel, what would go through your mind?
Powers: It’s interesting. I was not oblivious to environmental questions and stories. I’d written 11 novels, at least two of them had environmental themes of one kind or another. But I’m ashamed to say that I reached the ripe old age of 55 not really taking trees seriously. And I liked them. They were beautiful. And I could be stopped by an individual tree and amazed by it as everybody is. But I did not think that they we’re doing things, interesting. I didn’t think they had will or agency or desire. I didn’t see them as separate enterprises. I didn’t make, I couldn’t tell an Elm from an Ash, right? I simply, they were much more likely to present themselves to me as commodities, than communities. And it really was only an eye opening experience that I had while teaching out in Stanford in Silicon Valley and walking the regrowth, redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I thought, wait a minute. These are the neighbors. They’re trying to do things that I have not even begun to think about.
Miller: So it was about giant trees that was the start of the epiphany for you.
Powers: Yeah. Another thing that I’m not entirely proud of either, that it took a Redwood to open my eyes. I mean, you don’t have to be a particularly enlightened soul to stand in front of a tree that’s 17 ft in diameter and 300 ft tall and 1500 years old to think my conception of life has been limited up until now. So yeah, it did take a rather big blunt instrument to the side of my head to open my eyes. But once, once it did then all trees became fascinating, whatever their lifespans or sizes.
Miller: You ended up reading a ton and traveling a lot including to the foothills of the great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, a place where you moved to. What was it about what you saw there that changed your life in that way, that made you want to change your life in that way?
Powers: You know what’s interesting that you put it that way, as I hear you say that, I realized this book was taking over my life and it was going to change my life independent of the geographical location where I lived in.
Miller: Could you say about your other books, because you’ve done this 11 times before, immersed yourself in all kinds of esoteric, technical, scientific knowledge and then created a fiction out of it. But you haven’t had that transformation before.
Powers: That’s exactly right. I mean, I’ve been at this for a long time, been writing. When I started this book, I’d already been publishing for a third of a century. This was my 12th novel. I’ve written 11 previous books. I’ve been changed by those books, of course. I developed deep passions and was intellectually challenged and transformed by spending years on any one of these books. But I never had my life completely hijacked in the way that this book hijacked my life. That had already been happening to me from that moment that I had this confrontation with this enormous Redwood, but I might, it quite literally moved me across the country and set me on a different daily path. I kept reading that there’s so little old growth forest left, especially in the east, especially in the east. That figure that you gave in the opening of 3%. That’s nationwide and it’s higher in the west than the east. In the east, it’s closer to 1%.
Miller: Of old forests that are left.
Powers: Of forests that have never been cut in any in any pronounced way. And as I was doing this research, research that ended up having me read close to 120 books on the topic and that’s not counting articles or internet text. I kept reading that if you wanted to see what an intact broadleaf deciduous eastern forest looked like before the Europeans came, the Smokies was the place to go.
Miller: What did you find when you got there?
Powers: Yeah, I mean I didn’t, I’m an easterner. I was born in Illinois. I grew up in the Chicago area. I moved abroad for a while, came back to the east, lived in Boston for a while. I thought I knew what an eastern forest looked like. I wasn’t especially literate in it, but I had a sense of the look and the feel and the smell and the sound of an eastern forest. When I went to the Smokies and I walked up into those mountains and I passed from the second growth, from the regrowth forests into the uncut forest, again it was an act of awakening. It was an act, you do not need to be tree literate to realize you’re walking into a completely different world. An old growth forest, as you know, as Oregonians, as Cascadians will know, when you go into the uncut stuff, it looks different, it sounds different, it smells different, the quality of light is different. And I stood there in the middle of this forest on a hillside in Tennessee thinking this is my patrimony, this is my legacy. I have never seen a fully functioning healthy eastern forest before, even though it was, this is my country, my forest, my native flora. And here I was looking at it for the first time. Eight months later, I was still thinking about it, nine months later, and I went back and I bought a house and I’ve been living there ever since.
Miller: I want to play you a short clip from an interview that we had with Barry Lopez, the great Northwest writer, global writer. This was in the spring. He had written in his most recent book that in all of his work and travels, he’s never gotten tired of the Pacific and I asked him if he’s gotten tired of any place. This was his answer.
Barry Lopez: You know, someone would say, well, you’ve traveled all over the world, you’ve been here and there, blah, blah, blah, Timbuktu. And is there, where is your favorite place? And I say the same thing. It’s my home. I’ve been living in the same house on the Mackenzie River, 40 miles west of Eugene for 49 years. And the reason I say that it’s my place to go to sentimentally, my favorite place, is because that’s where I’ve had the longest conversation with a physical place. And I know as the years go by, there’s always something I never thought of or imagined that will blossom there one day when I least expect it.
Miller: Really, here he’s talking about, I think it’s fair to say, attention, about being attentive to the world with as many senses as you can bring to bear. What role does attention play for you when we’re talking about forest?
Powers: Great question. I first want to just pay homage to Barry Lopez, a writer who’s had a huge impact on me, a deep, deep soul. His answer is quite profound and I will second that, that place, the place of of our upbringing, whether or not we are literate in it, imbricates itself into us and we know the sound of it and the smell of it and the scent of it, even if we don’t know the names of it and part of the tragedy, of the present, part of our deep anxiety about what we’re bringing on in the world is caused by and a symptom of estrangement from home.
Miller: Because we’re literally changing our home and we, on a deep level we know we’re going to make it unrecognizable.
Powers: And we’ve also been caught up in this aspect of humanity that wants to be its own master and its own its own boss, and that that has required taming home or or domesticating it and not and not living in it. So to go back to your question about attention, we have we have cultivated a kind of life that has made us believe that place is no longer important, that it’s interchangeable, that we have created a human space, making all geographical and natural places somehow equivalent because the franchises and the architectural style and the culture is computable and fungible, no matter where we are.
Miller: Let alone the online world, which is literally the same everywhere.
Powers: That’s right. It’s homogenous and ubiquitous and it doesn’t require attention and presence to the distinctive geographical place, the here of your life. And this is, it’s those people who say the answer to the environmental crisis and the only possible future that we can go forward into has us becoming indigenous again. That is to say, using attention and using presence and a reverence for place, making us at home again in the world where we are, as Thoreau put it, to breathe the air, to drink the drink, to eat the fruits, to live in each season as it passes and resign yourself to the influence of the earth. We have for a long time been living a dream that says, we do not need to resign ourselves to where we are and how it operates. We can make our own rules and we can make our own place - it doesn’t work.
Miller: One of your characters, who is a scientist, and then later an author, she gives a lecture near the end of the book. She tells her audience: if we could see Green, we’d see a thing that keeps getting more interesting, the closer we get. If we knew what Green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between the Earth’s interests and ours, they would be the same. What does she mean? What do you mean by seeing Green? And this relates to what we heard the very beginning when you talked about the earth raining messages.
Powers: That’s right. And it’s it’s not separate from the message that is in Barry Lopez’s observation about home and presence and attention and the crucial thing about seeing green is remembering the degree to which we are beholden to the primary producers of the world that this artificial exceptionalism that we’ve created, this belief that we humans have made our own rules and we’ve done it all on our own terms is an absolute lie. It’s rubbish. And not only do we need to acknowledge the degree to which our life is completely contingent on the processes that plants are undertaking every day, the creation of the atmosphere, the creation of the soil filtering the water, the conversion of sun into food, the whole pyramiding scheme of life depending upon this, we’ve been oblivious to it. We’ve turned these communities into commodities to reverse the formulation that we were talking about earlier.
Miller: Let’s take a call from Carl, who has called in from Wheeler. Carl, welcome to the show.
Caller: Yes. Hello. My little town is on the coast and right above my house, they multiple times clear cut the property. It’s private timberland. And yet just a few minutes away at Short Sands Beach, I can walk among trees that are larger than my living room in an old growth forest heading down to the sea. And I want to just say your observations and then also your approach to this, I take it as a learner, are really powerful and I think that we, as humans, have been tasked with protecting something we don’t even fully understand. The few scraps that remain of it are depending upon our ability to even begin to grasp what is at stake here and not just what is at stake, but what it can teach us and who we can be as our best selves. I’m just curious, your thoughts as an author when you’re writing on this topic and when it has so moved you, what are the things that go through your mind as you attempt to convey that wonder? And also just that urgent, I don’t know, sorrow, hope that we will yet realize what we have before we’ve lost it.
Miller: Carl, thanks very much for that huge question.
Powers: It’s a beautiful question. Thank you Carl. And as you were speaking, I was envying you the fact that you can walk out and be in old growth because very, very few people can say that. My eyes were open coming across the astonishing statistic of how much forest community rich, complex, interconnected ecological community has been reduced to monocrop plantation or to worse, just to human development that tries to deny access to any other large life forms. But my eyes were open to just how different even a secondary recovering forest is from an old growth forest. And much of the book is actually inspired by research over the last few decades about the immense complexity of behavior in a forest that we were completely unaware of.
Miller: That’s an example of one of the things that you learned that has been learned by humans relatively recently, that just astounded you that you thought had to end up in the book.
Powers: There were dozens and the fact that the trees signal each other over the air, that a tree that’s under attack from insects will send out distress chemicals that will alert other nearby trees to begin preemptively to produce insecticides against the invader even prior to their being attacked. The fact that trees are connected underground by fungal filaments and are exchanging sugars and secondary metabolites in an enormous network not only among other individuals of their species but across the species barrier. You know that a scientist named Suzanne Simard has demonstrated the exchange of nutrients and metabolites between Douglas Fir and Birches and trees in a kind of shared immune system, trees in a kind of mutual community, these things are happening in old growth forests. They do not happen in the same way in plantations. for sure.
Miller: Why do they cooperate? What do they know about cooperation that can make it so hard for our species to, even if we are trying to teach our kids, it’s very hard to actually practice it as adults.
Powers: It’s a deep question. We have profoundly misunderstood the way that natural selection works. And this new research is opening our eyes to the degree to which cooperation is every bit as important as competition in the formation of a stable ecosystem. When the formulation which wasn’t originally Darwin’s, it was Spencer, survival of the fittest. When that began to penetrate the general public’s mind, we had this idea that fittest somehow meant strongest or most dominant.
Miller: The sharpest telephone.
Powers: Yeah, right. The sharpest telephone. So the reality is and the new research is demonstrating this in so many provocative ways, fittest means best adapted to the environment. And what is becoming increasingly clear is that the environment is not some neutral geochemical thing, the environment is other living creatures. The survival of the fittest means the durability of those species that are best suited that have been shaped by natural selection to coexist with the rest of the living species that comprise their environment. So, back to Carl’s question, the reality is there is an immense complexity of environment in an old growth forest that is lost through clear cutting. All of those network connections that we’re talking about, those deep fungal long, long, duration processes that connect living things in these cooperative matrices, those get destroyed. And there’s an immense diminishment in species count, in energy transfers, in symbiotic and mutualist relationships between species. No one alive, no one ever has ever seen a cut forest returned to the complexity and density and interconnectivity of an old growth forest. I think of that of the famous Aldo Leopold, the first rule of intelligent tinkering is never throw away the parts. We are throwing away the parts.
Miller: We have to take a quick break and then we’re going to see, we’re going to sift through some of those parts more with Richard Powers, the author of a dozen novels, including The Overstory. Stay tuned. I’m Dave Miller. This is Think Out Loud. If you’re just tuning in, we’re spending the hour today with Richard Powers. He is the author of 12 novels, including The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing and Galatea 2.2. His latest novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize is The Overstory. It focuses on the lives of trees and the lengths that some people will go to save them. We’ve been talking about whole collections of trees and other organisms, all working in concert living in concert. You also give us all kinds of fascinating tidbits about individual species of trees, including Douglas Fir, which is a pretty important tree here in the Northwest. What should Oregonians, what should everybody know about Doug Firs?
Powers: You know, it’s a pretty important tree nationwide actually, even though the range is primarily here. I fell in love with this tree when I was researching the book and one of my characters actually takes that tree as a personal emblem. There are so many wonderful things about the tree, it’s an astonishingly flexible tree. The reason it’s so prominent out here is it can actually do pretty well in most aspects and elevations and it manifests itself physically differently depending on whether it’s close to the coast, farther inland, on on the west side of the mountains of the east or what the solar aspect is, but it’s magnificent everywhere. At its very best, this is one of the tallest trees in the world. In fact, there is a lot of suggestion that there were measurements made in the 19th century of trees that were felled back then, that place the tallest Douglas Firs as taller than Coastal Redwoods. I mean if these measurements are to be trusted, it’s like a 400 ft tall tree, which means that as is the case with a lot of these majestic, Pacific Northwest trees, very few people have actually seen what they can do. In terms of its importance to the country, it’s probably only second to the Eastern White Pine in terms of its commercial utility. The variety of ways and the massive cutting and the massive amounts of board feet that this tree was turned into. I love the tree,it’s a self pruning tree. In other words, it sheds its lower branches as it goes, so you get these great columns, these great, really vertical straight columns of tree and when you see a big girthy, several hundred year old tree, it’ll suck the breath out of you.
Miller: Speaking of that, I’d love to have you read another section from your book. This is about the Redwoods. At one point, two of your characters, Nick and her tree sit, her direct action name is MaidenHair. They spend, they think they’re going to go up to this tree, sit to prevent this Redwood from being cut down for some short length of time. I don’t want to give too much away, but they end up spending longer there. They call this tree Memos, at least that’s how I pronounce it. How do you pronounce it?
Powers: I say Mimos.
Miller: Okay, Mimos.
Powers: I could write a song about that.
Miller: Could you read from a section? This is early on when, there, at least one of these two characters is just getting his footing up, way up in this tree.
Powers: Right. So as a lot of your listeners will know, the tree sit was one of the most powerful techniques used by direct action people to prevent cuts. We humans give a sacredness to human life that we don’t give to other forms of life, so to protect these other forms of life, to put a human up there would effectively stall cutting for long periods of time. “He wobbles out onto a waving branch, the wind blows and Mimos’s entire crown dips and bucks. He’ll die. Plunged 20 stories onto a bed of ferns, but he’s getting used to the idea. There are worse ways to go. They head off in different directions. No point in trying to spot each other. He inches along one barrel sized limb, cabled in, scooting on his pants seat. The scraped branch smells of lemons. A twig growing out of it holds a shock of cones, each one smaller than a marble. He takes one and taps it out onto his open palm. Seeds fall out like coarsely ground pepper. One sticks in the crease of his lifeline. From such a spec came a tree that holds him 200 ft in the air without flexing. This fortress tower that could sleep a village and still have room to let. From high above, she calls, ‘Huckleberries! A whole patch up here.’ Bugs swarm, iridescent, party coloured minuscule horror film monsters. He works his way to a strange junction, careful never to look down. Two large beams over the course of centuries have flowed together like modeling clay. He grapples to the top of the hill that confines it hollow. Inside is a small lake. Plants grow along a pond flecked with tiny crustaceans. Something moves in the shallows speckled all over in chestnut bronze, black and yellow. Seconds passed before Nick coughs up a name: Salamander. How did a damp seeking creature with inch long limbs climb two thirds of the length of a football field up the side of dry, fibrous bark. Maybe a bird dropped it here, fumbling a meal into the canopy. Unlikely. The chest of the slick creature rises and falls. The only plausible explanation is that his ancestors got on board 1000 years ago and rode the elevator up for 500 generations. Nick edges his way back the way he came. He’s propped up in the corner of the grand ballroom when MaidenHair returns. She’s ditched the safety umbilical. ‘You’ll never believe what I found. A six ft. Hemlock growing in a mat of soil this deep.’ ‘Jesus Christ, Olivia, were you free climbing?’ ‘Don’t worry. I climbed a lot of trees when I was little.’ She kisses him, a quick preemptive strike. ‘And you know, Mimos says he won’t let us fall.’
Miller: Is that all based on reality? There are Huckleberries and six foot Hemlocks and ponds and salamanders 200 feet up?
Powers: There is a lot more than that. There are species that only live in the tops of Coastal Redwoods. Incidentally, there are species that only live in the tops of old growth Douglas Firs. The Spotted Owl was the famous one and that was the tool that environmentalists were using to save a lot of the forests.
Miller: A legal tool.
Powers: That’s right. The legal tool. But the amazing thing about the complexity of life in the top of a Redwood forest, large vertebrate species that don’t occur anywhere else is that we did not know about them until very recently. And this comes back to your question about attention too. There is a researcher, his name is Steve Sillett, he’s at Humboldt University, and he tells the story as a graduate student telling his advisers that he wanted to go up to look at the canopies and studied life up there and they told him, don’t bother. It’s a desert up there. There’s nothing interesting. And he went up anyway and it was simply that insistence of looking, of being present, paying attention that opened up this vast hitherto unknown complexity of life at 200 to 300 ft or higher in the air.
Miller: That and, and so many other passages and just sentences in the book, they create awe, they create wonder. I’m wondering what you see as the value for us as readers or just as humans of being awed. And just to put a, to put the question even more forcefully, the value of awe now, in this time of accelerating ecological collapse.
Powers: That’s the real question. We talk about regenerative agriculture and regenerative economics, and what I wanted to do in this book was to create regenerative literature and what would that look like, exactly? And somebody made the comment when I was doing a reading in California. They said, other books that treat the environmental catastrophe that human exceptionalism has created, use the technique of shocking people by a representation of everything that’s going to be lost by what’s coming. Your book seems to want to shock the reader into remembering everything that there is, that’s out there, that hasn’t been lost yet, and that we have lost for ourselves by ceasing to pay attention. To me, the fecundity of the book, the relentless living, interconnected texture, the attempt to find the style that will do justice to all of the relationships, visible and invisible, between all of this endless speciation and ingenuity, natural ingenuity. The purpose of that is to turn us away from ourselves simply to use astonishment as a way of remembering that this story that we’ve told about ourselves, that we’re the only interesting game in town is laughable and there’s so much, there’s so much that can restore significance to our our lives simply by remembering and being present to it.
Miller: One of the ways in terms of the narrative that you accomplish a lot of what you’re just describing is in your manipulation of time, because that’s one of the biggest, there are a trillion differences between us and trees and maybe a trillion similarities, but one of the more obvious ones is our, the different ways that we experience time. How did you deal with that as a writer?
Powers: You know, trees? Well, first of all, it’s important to point out that, if you think about these, something on the order of 60 to 100,000 species of them in the world, I mean even counting species is problematic, which is one of the amazing things about how diverse and and varied these creatures are, but they themselves operate on vastly different timescales. There were trees that roughly duplicate our three score and 10, that, that basically unfold at the same rate as we do. And then there are trees like the Bristlecone Pine, in California and Utah where there are individuals that are centuries older or even a millennium or more older than writing.
Miller: Thousands and thousands of years old. What do you do with that if you’re crafting a story that humans are going to read?
Powers: But you know, it’s funny because I wanted, I initially thought it would be really interesting to to write a novel in which trees were the exclusive protagonists that they, this would be focalized entirely from trees point of view and that rapidly, it was obvious to me that they were going to be pretty severe challenges there to make it interesting.
Miller: How long did you go with that as an idea? I mean was it more than a day with that as an idea?
Powers: It was more than a day, it was more than a day, probably less than a couple of months. But you try out everything and, and that’s the joy and the beauty of writing that it’s like life itself. You make a lot of attempts and a few of them work out better than others and the durable ones keep going and becoming new things, endless forms, most beautiful as Darwin said. But once I decided no, I’m actually telling a story about the relationship between humans and trees that neither one should dominate the story, that I really need to find a narrative that will be relational. Then I needed to invent various narrative devices to do that conversion. And for instance, the opening chapter deals with an American Chestnut and one that’s brought out into the Midwest by an immigrant, a Norwegian immigrant who comes from Brooklyn and moves to Iowa and accidentally carries a few Chestnuts in his pocket, plants them and these trees grow up on the farm that his own family cultivates for generations. But the tree, of course, is unfolding so slowly that it can’t be seen by individuals and generations of this family come and go as this tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And the device that I used for that is one of the descendants of this original immigrant becomes fascinated with photography, early mass market photography and begins to take a picture of this tree on the same day every month, from the same vantage point on this Iowa farm and his son takes over the project and his son takes over the project until they have 75 years of photos of this tree and they make a flip book and they produce what amounts to a short, silent film of this creature unfolding over the better part of this century.
Miller: Let’s turn to another really important part of this story in the Northwest, which is the people whose lives and livelihoods and in some ways identities are tied up with cutting down trees. It’s not a character that we really, we don’t get inside the minds of loggers in this book. There are a few scenes where we hear some of their voices, but we don’t inhabit their consciousness at all. How did you make that decision?
Powers: I should say first, I mean, maybe this doesn’t need to be said here, where so much of this drama played out. But I always say in other parts of the country, it’s important for people to realize that this isn’t the fantasy, that the book really does derive from real world historical events. Now, Cascadians will know, and have memory of a lot of these confrontations, some victorious and some not to save the trees of this area. But it is important for us to say that however mythical or fabulous the book wants to be at times, it is also a historical novel and it is trying to recreate these years of the timber wars. The decision not to dramatize the foresters’, the logger’s perspective. It’s an interesting question. It should be said that the loss of jobs to logging was never as much a product of resistance to old growth forest cutting as it was a mechanization of that industry. So, I could have written the story about that, and actually, I think other people have, Annie Proulx’s book about logging, I think very much directly, tells the story of the transformation of that way of life over the course of a long period of time. To me, this wasn’t a classical humanist drama about the moral ambiguity, the arguments for and against a way of life. It was a question of the unambiguous rightness of saving the last remaining bits of this unique ecosystem that will never return again once it’s cut and what it would take for an ordinary person who isn’t political and who doesn’t have a, up until a certain point, doesn’t have a particularly emotional or intellectual connection, who just suddenly has this moment of conversion where they say 98 is enough, 98% is enough. And to see what happens to that person, where they might draw the line of the limits to the right action of resistance, to then ask the other question of what about the lives of people whose, who need to find other livelihoods, I think would vitiate that story.
Miller: I want to play you one more piece of an earlier interview. This was more recent. This was with the fungus expert, Paul Stamets. This is part of what he had to say in the course of our conversation.
Paul Stamets: When we deforest, we rob the menu of wood and plant material for the fungi to digest to create soils. So we are denaturing our ecosystem by cutting the trees. And I guess the important thing is, give up the concept of the Elizabethan yard where you have highly manicured yards that are these grass landscapes. When we remove the forest debris, we rob the menu for these fungi to create soils. We end up losing biodiversity and then we have to externally export, import nutrients. So it’s that neighbor down the street that’s got the disheveled yard and nature lights highly fractionalized structures, so multiple dimensions. So the increase in the fractalization of habitats creates multiple niches where all these different organisms can exist and the test of the biodiversity and the resilience of an ecosystem is the members of the community that have created guilds, cooperation between these networks to be able to give rise to healthy ecosystems.
Miller: You actually have a couple in your book, who I think would make Paul Stamets happy. Can you describe what they do in their later years?
Powers: Oh, yes, I know what you’re talking about. They decide to wage their own war with City Hall by letting their yard rewild. And that’s it. Our future is going to depend upon relinquishing control and allowing the affordances of life to do what it can do everywhere.
Stamets is exactly right that everything in the forest is the forest. And life is not a series of individuals competing against each other. It’s a rich society. Trees are immensely social and it’s fungi that allows those societies to form.
Miller: Toward the end of the novel, there is what to me, was a kind of ambiguous set of passages about artificial artificial intelligence. You call them the learners, and as you describe them, they develop a better grasp of the interconnectedness of all living things, a better grasp than we have as humans. Certainly, a better grasp than we practice as humans. And that feels sort of hopeful. But is that a post human vision? Where are the people in that future where AI understands the interconnectedness of living things?
Powers: If there is hope for the future, it will not be for the kind of life that we have created now. We will not get over the finish line with our stuff, right? We will not succeed in remaining autonomous and outside of and in control of what life wants to do. We’re going to have to remember that we are just one species in an incredible tapestry of species. We’re going to have to come home or die, as the characters in the book say.
Miller: I think I’m so embedded in 21st century American life that I don’t have a picture in my head of what that means. I mean, is it hunter gatherer life without iPhones and without...
Powers: That’s why this technological frame is in the book. We need to become indigenous again to place. We need to see what place wants and what life can do in a place and for all those things we do need to remember and recover indigenous wisdom and we need to look at the way that people who have truly belonged to place do it. But we at 7.5 billion aren’t going to go back to a pre-technological state. We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves. We simply can’t get there from here without an unthinkable catastrophe. But it is conceivable that we can use the best of these prosthetics and these leverageable extensions of our minds and bodies to begin to hear what life is saying to us.
Miller: If we choose to, instead of using those prosthetics to figure out faster algorithms so we can sell each other things.
Powers: That is exactly right. Every technology, at every point in history, from the very beginning has both positive and negative affordances.
Miller: You said in an interview a year and a half ago, “In the past when I finished the book, I was always ready and excited to go on to a new topic. Something new and different from anything I’ve written about before now. I just want to walk, look, listen to, read and write the same book again and again from different aspects and elevations with characters as old and large as I am able to imagine.” That was a year and a half ago. Do you feel the same way?
Powers: I absolutely do. I have stayed in the forest. I’m working on a new project. My life is different now. It makes a lot more space and room for listening and smelling and seeing. And the story that I’m working on now is very much a continuation of the adventure that I embarked on in this book.
Miller: What have we taken you away from? Because you’re now embarked on a multi-city tour instead of being in your great Smoky Mountains in the fall.
Powers: First of all, although much is taken, much abides. I leave the Smokies, I come to Portland on what must be very close to peak foliage. The colors here are spectacular. The species are amazing. When I go back to the Smokies, I will see them afresh for having been reminded of the astonishment out here.
Miller: Richard Powers, I look forward to sitting down with you again to talk about anything. Thank you very much.
Richard Powers: Thank you.
Miller: Richard Powers is the author of 12 books, including his latest, The Overstory. We spoke in October of 2019. He is still thinking through the ideas embedded in the book. In the first few months of the pandemic, he said this in an interview with GQ: “The coronavirus is just a very rapid reputation of this idea that we live in a completely human, moderated, human mastered, human controlled world and that all the stories will basically be about ourselves. We haven’t even begun to see the ways in which that notion is going to fall apart in the years ahead.” Here’s one last note before we go, if you’re interested in learning more about the history of conflicts over logging in the northwest, I highly recommend the recent OPB podcast, Timber Wars. It’s a deep dive into a history that is absolutely still reverberating to this day.
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