A butterfly was flitting around Richard Powers as he perched on a fallen tree trunk in the Great Smoky Mountains, the US’s most visited national park. The insect, a swallowtail with wings the colour of night sky, landed on his shoulder. I idly wondered if it sensed a kinship with this quiet, forest-loving man. “It’s probably because of my perspiration,” the prize-winning author said.
In his 37-year career as a novelist, Powers, 65, has explored how our thoughts and feelings are shaped by the systems in which we live. The son of an Illinois school principal, he sought answers to life’s big questions from an early age, and enrolled at university to study physics before switching to literature. In the first 11 of his 13 novels, he was mainly preoccupied with human-focused phenomena, from neuroscience to nuclear war. Then, around a decade ago, a visit to the giant redwoods in California prompted a “come to Jesus moment”, in which he realised he needed “to ditch anthropocentrism for a book about trees”. The resulting novel, The Overstory, which weaves the tales of nine people brought together by the destruction of America’s woodland, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barack Obama said “it changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it”.
Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain forests have been crucial to this journey, Powers told me beneath their whispering canopy. It was a research visit to the forest that first persuaded him he had to change his way of being entirely: “I’ve frequently compared it to that moment in The Wizard of Oz, where the film goes from black and white to colour. It was just eye-opening: it was the first time that I had seen a healthy, old-growth forest with the kinds of deciduous central and east-coast species of trees that I grew up with.”
Within a year, he had bought a house and moved from the west coast to the Deep South, where his approach to work and routine underwent a radical shift. Instead of remaining at his writing desk (“actually the writing bed, to be totally honest”) until he finishes his daily 1,000 words, he now plans his time around what is flowering, fruiting, spawning or being born in the park. Rather than producing “a quota or a commodity”, he immerses himself in the abundant biodiversity of the region, often literally. While walking by a river, he stopped to show me the spot where one day he had been sitting in the stream – wearing goggles and half-submerged – when an otter rose out of the water and felt comfortable enough in his presence to slide over a nearby rock. Ideas now pop up in a similarly surprising fashion, he finds, causing him to rush home to scribble them down.
There is something mystical about Powers – his surname adding to the sense of an other-worldly persona. Yet he is wary of the individualistic notion of “self-reliance”, as emphasised in the American literary tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I want transcendentalism without that focus,” he said, warning that, unless we can reconnect with the wider ecosystems we depend on, so much that is meaningful in life risks being lost. “Today’s stage of capitalism is increasingly intoxicated with the idea of increasing our power through technological control of time and space. When I was living in Silicon Valley, I’d go to dinner parties and people would say, ‘Just hold on a little bit longer, because we’re going to cure death.’”
Powers believes accumulation, in all aspects of life, has become the goal of our modern, capitalist existence. But the market’s desire for infinite growth is hitting the limits of a finite planet, and things are starting to break down. At this juncture, he explained, “you have two choices: you can imagine the end of the world, or you can imagine the end of capitalism. And most people right now are imagining the end of the world.” Conspiracy theories, attacks on “woke culture” and “playing tough with foreign powers” are all symptoms of this domination-seeking mindset, Powers said, which became widespread in the US during Donald Trump’s presidency.
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“We are deep in ‘salt-water syndrome’: the things that we’re using to cure our hunger and our thirst are making us hungrier and thirstier. In our commodity culture, the pleasure lasts for a few days, then has to be replaced by another accumulative gesture. Where once we had friends, now we have ‘friend counts’ and ‘likes’.”
But while Trump remains popular among large swathes of the American public, Powers believes his hold over those supporters will lessen if people can be shown “how to recover the meaning that they’re losing”. By this, he means replacing a world-view based on individualism and acquisitiveness with one rooted in the “shared destiny” of our interdependence with the natural world.
Powers’ philosophy is in part fuelled, he said, by transcendentalism, European Romanticism and indigenous cultural knowledge. He looks to authors such as the forest biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, the philosopher Bruno Latour, the scientist Suzanne Simard and the nature writer Robert Macfarlane – all of whom situate human experience within a larger ecological story, not above it.
He recommended learning the names of the organisms around us, pointing out wild sarsaparilla, and sweetgum pods that look like spiky coronaviruses. He showed me a yellow-spotted caterpillar that smells like amaretto when shaken gently in your hands. (Powers has so far learned only 24 of the 3,000 types of fungus inside the park; identifying them all would be “a lifetime’s work”.)
Powers fears that without a cultural shift we will be unable to halt our degradation of nature. Tackling climate change is “pitched to us as an engineering problem”, but really it is a “psychological one”. People bristle when told they have to “be less: to use less, travel less, consume less”, he said. “They are grieving for the death of a system that can’t be saved.” Yet the answers are all around us, he added – the patch of woodland in which we were sitting, for instance, was once destroyed by industrial logging but is now flourishing thanks to the protection of the national park.
Straddling the worlds of literature and advocacy is not easy. “It’s almost like the dirtiest [description] a reviewer can come up with about a novel is that it’s ‘propaganda’,” Powers lamented, referring to a particularly scathing review of his latest novel, the Booker-shortlisted Bewilderment, in the London Review of Books. “Where a Trump supporter says, ‘Don’t regulate me,’ a capitalist, humanist critic says, ‘Don’t hold me accountable to moral systems; don’t lecture me.’” But Powers has resolved no longer to write novels that ignore the world’s inequality and suffering. The Overstory has been referred to as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of ecology, and he is hopeful that, along with other books, it might help inspire a movement similar to that which overthrew slavery in the US.
“It’s daunting to try to imagine the scope and scale of what’s coming, especially in the Global South,” he said of the intense droughts, wildfires and floods of recent years. “The question is, how much suffering can we avoid by transitioning sooner rather than later? And what kinds of paths can we find where it can happen without widespread revolution, chaos and anarchy?”
For Powers, the answers must begin with transforming our psychology. “If you started to experience a kind of daily joy, a daily meaning from expanding your sphere of identification, of connection, of interdependence…” It was at this moment the swallowtail butterfly landed on Powers’ shoulder and he broke off to appreciate it. “Now how hard is it to cure human appetite when there’s that?”
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine