Richard Powers Speaks for the Trees

TOWNSEND, Tenn. — On a cool, wet morning in August, the novelist Richard Powers was in one in all his favourite hiding locations, a tiny pebble cove alongside a mountain stream in the Great Smoky Mountains. He has spent numerous hours right here, writing in his digital pocket book, swimming in the frigid churn till his limbs are numb and staring up at the cover of alders, sycamore, beech, jap white pine, hemlock, pawpaw and maple that has grow to be as acquainted to him as his personal lounge.

He was at the moment fixated on a seemingly unremarkable mossy boulder surrounded by ferns. “There could be 50 species of moss on a foot of rock,” he mentioned. “These lichen could be 1,000 years old.”

“Don’t get me started on these guys,” he added as he paused to look at one fern.

Powers moved to Tennessee 5 years in the past, when he was engaged on “The Overstory,” a multigenerational epic that facilities on the mysterious lives of bushes. He got here to the Smoky Mountains to review the park’s previous development forest and was so bewitched by the place that he determined to remain.

He was mountaineering in the woods close by someday when he had the thought for his new novel, “Bewilderment,” which W.W. Norton will launch on Sept. 21. Set in the close to future, “Bewilderment” is narrated by Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist whose search for life on different planets feels more and more futile in the face of the coming collapse of life on Earth. As he struggles with the disasters unfolding round him, Theo fears for his 9-year-old son, Robin, who’s consumed by grief over the loss of life of his mom and the destiny of the planet.

“Bewilderment” marks Powers’s newest and maybe furthest foray into science fiction, but it surely has ominous echoes of up to date America — catastrophic climate, political unrest, a Trump-like president who tweets erratically and spouts conspiracy theories about election fraud, a lethal virus that jumps from cows to people and spreads quickly earlier than it will get detected.

“Bewilderment” is out Sept. 21.

The novel can be a coda to “The Overstory,” whose success catapulted Powers to new ranges of literary fame. It gained the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, drawing reward from the likes of Barack Obama, David Byrne, Jane Fonda and Geraldine Brooks. But whereas “The Overstory” modified his life and profession, it additionally left Powers, now 64, drained and unsure if he would write once more.

“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 mentioned. “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 skinny with shaggy grey hair and a large smile, Powers has the bearing of an absent-minded professor. On the day we met, he wore a threadbare crimson T-shirt and mountaineering pants and had mountaineering sticks, a masks and snorkel in the trunk of his Chevrolet Volt. More than as soon as, he was stopped by hikers, not as a result of they acknowledged him from his work, however as a result of they assumed, accurately, that he knew his approach round the woods. When a household heading out on the trailhead requested him how far it went, he responded, “All the way to Maine.”

He generally appears extra relaxed with crops than folks and confessed to being flummoxed by humanity. “I don’t understand my species,” he mentioned as we drove previous a development website the place a brand new whiskey distillery is being constructed. Another time, when he noticed some roadside litter, he muttered, “Bipeds,” shaking his head in dismay.

For Powers, our incapacity to confront the local weather disaster is a failure of creativeness as a lot as a political and social one, a disaster that stems from humanity’s tendency to place ourselves at the heart of the story.

“If you look at contemporary fiction, the stories that these books tell have no agency except humans,” he mentioned.

Powers gained the Pulitzer Prize for “The Overstory,” a multigenerational epic that facilities on the mysterious lives of bushes.

Novelists are more and more addressing local weather change of their work — from sci-fi and fantasy writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, N.Okay. Jemisin and Jeff VanderMeer to literary realists like Ian McEwan and Jenny Offill. But whereas there’s a rising canon of fiction that explores the impression of utmost climate on humanity, Powers is proposing one thing extra radical: He needs to problem our innate anthropocentrism, each in literature and the way we reside.

“The world’s breaking down, and psychology begins to seem like a bit of a luxury,” he mentioned.

Powers has all the time been fascinated by the intricacies of technological and organic programs, whether or not it’s computer-based neural networks, the info embedded in genetic code, or the chemical communication indicators of a maple tree.

Born in Evanston, Ill., in 1957, the son of a faculty 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, the place he discovered work managing laptop operations for a credit score union.

During a go to to the Museum of Fine Arts one weekend, he noticed a 1914 photograph of farm boys in Germany, and began fascinated by the delivery of the machine age. Inspired by the figures in the photograph, he give up his programming job and began 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, together with a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Book Award.

For a lot of his profession, Powers has used fiction to probe humanity’s relationship to expertise, and the way our creativity and ingenuity has come to outline 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, synthetic intelligence, digital actuality and gene enhancing, however extra essentially, he gave the impression to be questioning what makes us human, and the way transmutable these qualities are.

In retrospect, Powers feels all his novels have been constructing towards “The Overstory,” which he was impressed to put in writing after he noticed a redwood whereas mountaineering 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 mentioned, “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 mentioned, however he learn greater than 120 books about bushes and realized to determine dozens of species. After its publication and rapturous reception, Powers got here to be considered not only a literary star however 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,” mentioned the environmentalist and creator Bill McKibben. “It’s so rare to have something that we think of normally as inanimate animated in such a spectacular way.”

“I wrote a book that asked a very hard question, which is, why are we so lost and how can we possibly get back?” Powers mentioned. “I thought, now you’ve asked the question, why not write a story about what that change would look like?”Credit…Shawn Poynter for The New York Times

After “The Overstory,” Powers felt adrift. As an introvert who was unaccustomed to fame, he discovered the nonstop publicity cycle exhausting. He instructed 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,’” mentioned Kingsolver. “Writers write.”

Later, whereas strolling in the forest close to his house, Powers had a vivid, hallucinatory sensation of carrying a toddler on his shoulders. He and his spouse, the scholar and translator Jane Kuntz, don’t have kids, a selection that stems from his worry of bringing a toddler into a dangerous world and his reluctance to burden the planet with one other human. During his hikes, he started having conversations with this imaginary baby. He began to formulate a narrative of a father and a son who’re each grappling with terror over the local weather apocalypse, which the father copes with by looking out the stars for different liveable 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 mentioned. “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 nationwide park, greater than half one million acres of forest. Powers wished to indicate me the variation in greens as the bushes modified with the altitude and microclimate, spanning six completely different sorts of forest, together with hemlock, cove hardwood, pine-oak, spruce-fir. I requested what occurred to the forest on the different facet of the street, the place the land is not protected.

“That’s the end of paradise,” he mentioned, “And the beginning of biped world.”