Richard Powers Speaks For the Trees
His Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Overstory,” left him so drained that he didn’t know whether he would write again. His new book, “Bewilderment,” came to him when he imagined a child talking to him in a forest.,
TOWNSEND, Tenn. — On a cool, rainy morning in August, the novelist Richard Powers was in one of his favorite hiding places, a tiny pebble cove along a mountain stream in the Great Smoky Mountains. He has spent countless hours here, writing in his electronic notebook, swimming in the frigid churn until his limbs are numb and staring up at the canopy of alders, sycamore, beech, eastern white pine, hemlock, pawpaw and maple that has become as familiar to him as his own living room.
He was currently fixated on a seemingly unremarkable mossy boulder surrounded by ferns. “There could be 50 species of moss on a foot of rock,” he said. “These lichen could be 1,000 years old.”
“Don’t get me started on these guys,” he added as he paused to examine one fern.
Powers moved to Tennessee five years ago, when he was working on “The Overstory,” a multigenerational epic that centers on the mysterious lives of trees. He came to the Smoky Mountains to study the park’s old growth forest and was so bewitched by the place that he decided to stay.
He was hiking in the woods nearby one day when he had the idea for his new novel, “Bewilderment,” which W.W. Norton will release on Sept. 21. Set in the near future, “Bewilderment” is narrated by Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist whose search for life on other planets feels increasingly futile in the face of the coming collapse of life on Earth. As he struggles with the disasters unfolding around him, Theo fears for his 9-year-old son, Robin, who is consumed by grief over the death of his mother and the fate of the planet.
“Bewilderment” marks Powers’s latest and perhaps furthest foray into science fiction, but it has ominous echoes of contemporary America — catastrophic weather, political unrest, a Trump-like president who tweets erratically and spouts conspiracy theories about election fraud, a deadly virus that jumps from cows to humans and spreads rapidly before it gets detected.
The novel is also a coda to “The Overstory,” whose success catapulted Powers to new levels of literary fame. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, drawing praise from the likes of Barack Obama, David Byrne, Jane Fonda and Geraldine Brooks. But while “The Overstory” changed his life and career, it also left Powers, now 64, drained and uncertain if he would write again.
“I was thinking, maybe this is it, maybe I’ve earned the right to just enjoy the woods. Why do we have this idea that artists have to keep going?” he said. “The problem is, I wrote a book that asked a very hard question, which is, why are we so lost and how can we possibly get back? I thought, now you’ve asked the question, why not write a story about what that change would look like?”
Tall and thin with shaggy gray hair and a wide smile, Powers has the bearing of an absent-minded professor. On the day we met, he wore a threadbare red T-shirt and hiking pants and had hiking sticks, a mask and snorkel in the trunk of his Chevrolet Volt. More than once, he was stopped by hikers, not because they recognized him from his work, but because they assumed, correctly, that he knew his way around the woods. When a family heading out on the trailhead asked him how far it went, he responded, “All the way to Maine.”
He sometimes seems more at ease with plants than people and confessed to being flummoxed by humanity. “I don’t understand my species,” he said as we drove past a construction site where a new whiskey distillery is being built. Another time, when he spotted some roadside litter, he muttered, “Bipeds,” shaking his head in dismay.
For Powers, our inability to confront the climate crisis is a failure of imagination as much as a political and social one, a catastrophe that stems from humanity’s tendency to put ourselves at the center of the story.
“If you look at contemporary fiction, the stories that these books tell have no agency except humans,” he said.
Novelists are increasingly addressing climate change in their work — from sci-fi and fantasy writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, N.K. Jemisin and Jeff VanderMeer to literary realists like Ian McEwan and Jenny Offill. But while there’s a growing canon of fiction that explores the impact of extreme weather on humanity, Powers is proposing something more radical: He wants to challenge our innate anthropocentrism, both in literature and how we live.
“The world’s breaking down, and psychology begins to seem like a bit of a luxury,” he said.
Powers has always been fascinated by the intricacies of technological and biological systems, whether it is computer-based neural networks, the information embedded in genetic code, or the chemical communication signals of a maple tree.
Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1957, the son of a school principal and a homemaker, Powers studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught himself programming and moved to Boston, where he found work managing computer operations for a credit union.
During a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts one weekend, he saw a 1914 photograph of farm boys in Germany, and started thinking about the birth of the machine age. Inspired by the figures in the photo, he quit his programming job and started writing his 1985 debut, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.” It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, the first in a river of accolades, including a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Book Award.
For much of his career, Powers has used fiction to probe humanity’s relationship to technology, and how our creativity and ingenuity has come to define and ensnare us. He’s been labeled “our pre-eminent novelist of ideas,” “our greatest living novelist” and “the best novelist you’ve never heard of.” In his books “The Gold Bug Variations,” “Galatea 2.2,” “Plowing the Dark” and “Orfeo,” he wrote with precision about molecular DNA, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and gene editing, but more fundamentally, he seemed to be questioning what makes us human, and how transmutable those qualities are.
In retrospect, Powers feels all his novels were building toward “The Overstory,” which he was inspired to write after he saw a redwood while hiking in Northern California. “When you stand in front of a living thing that’s as wide as a house and as tall as a football field is long and almost two millennia old, and it’s still working on its plan,” he said, “you just start saying, I’ve missed something obvious here.”
Before he wrote the novel, he “couldn’t tell a poplar from a maple,” he said, but he read more than 120 books about trees and learned to identify dozens of species. After its publication and rapturous reception, Powers came to be regarded as not just a literary star but as a soft-spoken eco-warrior and environmental prophet.
“For the first time that I could think of in non-children’s literature, a tree was a character in the deepest, fullest sense,” said the environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. “It’s so rare to have something that we think of normally as inanimate animated in such a spectacular way.”
After “The Overstory,” Powers felt adrift. As an introvert who was unaccustomed to fame, he found the nonstop publicity cycle exhausting. He told Barbara Kingsolver, with whom he struck up a correspondence and later a friendship after she reviewed “The Overstory” for The New York Times, that he was planning to retire. “He said he felt finished and I said, ‘Oh no you’re not,'” said Kingsolver. “Writers write.”
Later, while walking in the forest near his home, Powers had a vivid, hallucinatory sensation of carrying a child on his shoulders. He and his wife, the scholar and translator Jane Kuntz, don’t have children, a choice that stems from his fear of bringing a child into a perilous world and his reluctance to burden the planet with another human. During his hikes, he began having conversations with this imaginary child. He started to formulate a story of a father and a son who are both grappling with terror over the climate apocalypse, which the father copes with by searching the stars for other habitable planets.
“I was deep into the story before I realized that I was writing a book that was trying to re-engage the questions that were left hanging at the end of ‘The Overstory,'” Powers said. “Namely, how did we lose our sense of living here on Earth? How did we become so alienated and estranged from everything else alive? How did we get convinced that we’re the only interesting game in town, and the only species worthy of extending a sense of the sacred to?”
After the interview, we drove to a spot on a ridge that overlooks the national park, more than half a million acres of forest. Powers wanted to show me the variation in greens as the trees changed with the altitude and microclimate, spanning six different kinds of forest, including hemlock, cove hardwood, pine-oak, spruce-fir. I asked what happened to the forest on the other side of the road, where the land is no longer protected.
“That’s the end of paradise,” he said, “And the beginning of biped world.”