I have to start from the beginning. Before being blown away by the sculpted, pristine sentences found in his novel, The Echo Maker, I was enthralled by another text: Richard Powers’s recount of the trip he made to Belgium in the autumn of 2005, his research on phantom limbs and neuropsychology.
For three weeks he was a writer in residence at Passaporta House of Literature in Brussels. “I and my wife, who had never before stepped foot in the Low Countries, found ourselves in a brilliant apartment on the Oude Graanmaarkt,” he wrote. “We do not live in our muscles and joints and sinews; we live in the thought and the image and the memory of them. All this is what I came to Belgium to write about.”
I read and re-read his essay Among the Missing, my eyes following the clean strokes of a long-distance swimmer across the page, the way his thoughts cut through a whirling river of ideas. His observations, his musings, all of them had been laid on page. Then came his voice.
In early 2017, The New Yorker released a podcast where Powers read and discussed Steven Millhauser’s story, A visit, with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Tribesman. “We’ve become incredibly good at talking about people trying and failing to get a long with others,” he said. “Somehow the notion that we are also at war with or contesting the world with other creatures who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, has been lost.” Humanity, the natural world, those are some of the themes he explores in his latest book, The Overstory.
In the context of Festival America, Powers visited Paris and Brussels in the fall of 2018, and despite a long line of commitments, he kindly agreed to continue the dialogue with me from a distance. Our conversations focused on humans and nature, trees, sustainability, changes in human consciousness, corruption, mindfulness and art.
Mauricio Ruiz: Of the three sources of drama: Man against man, Man against himself, Man against nature, the latter has atrophied or nearly disappeared from literature. Why is that? Does this reveal a collective attitude of apparent human control over nature?
Richard Powers: Stories about humans—both as individuals and societies—attempting to come to terms with a hostile, indifferent, or merely inscrutably different nature persist in Europe and North America into the late 19th century. Except for occasional and often nostalgic works of historical fiction, “environmental” dramas seem largely to disappear with the rise of Modernism.
The reasons are many and complex, but they come down, finally, to the foundational beliefs of Modernism itself: the belief that we have defeated “nature” and that technology now gives us unlimited dominion over all other living things on the planet. We have come to believe that we’re the only game left in town, that we can have things our own way, with no opposition. As a result, it began to seem to us that figuring out what we wanted to have and how to have it—that is, the problems of psychology and sociology—seemed to be the only interesting questions left of narrative art to address. It became rare for any novel to travel beyond those two domains and ask, again, the larger question of how human beings might live sustainably within the planetary systems that we imagined ourselves to be exempt from. Meaning became a merely subjective, invented, personal thing. Human exceptionalism, like its economic model, neoliberalism, grew entirely ascendant in public thought. There seemed to be no alternative.
Over the last couple of decades, we’ve increasingly realized that, far from subduing and dominating the planet, we’ve only broken and enraged it. Living systems are coming back with a vengeance to reassert themselves in the face of our abuse. And as we’ve come to realize how insecure our existence on Earth is in fact becoming, that third kind of drama—humans struggling to accommodate a nature hostile to the desires of capitalism and humancentric individualism—is making its way back into our literary fiction. Of course, that conflict never left certain other kinds of “genre” fiction, such as science fiction. It really is only Western literary fiction, with its commitment to private and synthetic meaning, that has had to rediscover the huge truth about human existence that it has been ignoring.
MR: Elsewhere you’ve mentioned an interest in exploring what it would take to effect the transformation in consciousness that humans need, perhaps through science fiction. Could you elaborate a little bit on this transformation, and how it would happen?
RP: To see how a revolution in “tree consciousness” might come about, it helps to look at what caused prior transformations of social consciousness. The cause of abolitionism in the US was furthered at least as much by a single book—Uncle Tom’s Cabin—as it was by all the rational arguments that came before. Child labor exploitation and grotesque food industry practices disappeared, after being exposed by photography and works of popular fiction. The Civil Rights movement and the Anti-Vietnam war movement were concentrated and intensified less by facts and figures and lecturing than by movies and music and poetry and novels. Woman’s Rights, the mainstreaming of LGBT: behind each moment of enlightenment, there are works of art raising the consciousness of individual citizens.
Psychologists have demonstrated through a variety of experiments that people rarely change their mind because of logical urging or intellectual persuasion. What’s needed is an emotional catalyst, an intense affective experience that brings the experience of injustice or exploitation home. For that, an invitation to identification is necessary, a way for an individual to feel as if the drama were happening to her.
The problem is that identification is easier when the Other can be shown to resemble us. “Tree consciousness” will require an art that makes these creatures who live such alien lives on such non-human time frames seem like an essential part of our own stories. Because they are.
It’s interesting to consider that for most of human history, in most of the world’s literatures, people would not have dreamed telling stories without the non-human world at the center. In indigenous tales from every quarter of the Earth, far from being mere resources, plants and animals were essential characters that defined, oriented, and gave meaning to human existence.
MR: You mention that to be able to change someone’s mind, “What’s needed is an emotional catalyst, an intense affective experience that brings the experience of injustice or exploitation home.” In many countries, artists have tried to explore the roots of corruption and nepotism, traffic of influences, hoping to make the individual feel as if the drama were happening to him/her. Yet these problems seem to have metastasized to other strata of society (kidnapping, extortion, etc.) Are artists failing? Or is there something else that is needed before we can see that change of consciousness?
RP: Art will never solve the endless ills that people manage to inflict on each other. But if art were to turn away entirely from those social ills and content itself with indulging the luxury of personal preoccupation, those social crimes of injustice and exploitation would proliferate far faster and farther than they do. Socially engaged art is definitely in the minority; perhaps if more artists were committed to a revolution in consciousness, the changes that art brings about would be even more evident. A television show, a stirring song, a book filled with brutal and indignant truth: each of those things have been known to change laws and tilt the course of history.
MR: There’s an assumption, especially among libertarians, that trees and wildlife are “just property.” Is there a way –besides a world depleted of resources– for people to acquire a different perspective/consciousness regarding the use of resources on the planet?
RP: The answer to that lies in a reexamination of the law’s approach to property and rights. One of my characters, an intellectual property lawyer, comes across a formative article that the real-life jurist Christopher Stone published back in 1972, called, “Should Trees Have Standing?” In it, Stone very presciently points out the problems with a legal system that require loss or damage to a human plaintiff before anyone can bring a suit. Shouldn’t we be able to bring a suit on behalf of a poisoned river or a gutted mountainside, even if there is no human being directly and immediately damaged by it, since we are damaged by it eventually, in the long run? If corporations and universities and ships have legal personhood, why not ecosystems?
It’s an incredibly powerful and provocative idea, one as timely now as ever. When living systems aren’t given standing and legal rights by the law, it’s an invitation to unlimited externalized costs and the kind of abusive damage that will seem as embarrassing and inconceivable to our descendants as human slavery is to us.
Environmental law in the U.S. has gone in a very different direction since Stone’s article appeared. In fact, in two years of the Trump administration, we have returned to a level of environmental abuse not permitted here for decades. But that return to the wild west can be only temporary, since it is, in fact, little more than the self-willed blindness of suicidal behavior. Meanwhile, countries such as Bolivia and New Zealand have brought Stone’s idea to reality and have implemented the idea of extending basic rights to living systems.
View this post on Instagram
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… …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 Overstory, Richard Powers This Ceiba tree is nearly 400 years old. • • • • • • #trees #ceiba #puertorico #vieques #TheOverstory #RichardPowers
MR: As I read your answers two words came to my mind: Corporations and Lobbying, especially when I read passages such as, “Human exceptionalism, neoliberalism… Shouldn’t we be able to bring a suit on behalf of a poisoned river or a gutted mountainside.” The push for the accumulation of wealth seems to trample any concerns for the environment (Trump, Koch Brothers, among many). Can liberalism and capitalism and over-consumption coexist with the ideas you’ve mentioned above? If not, what is there to do? Is the battle lost?
RP: Honestly, no: an individualist, human-centric, commodity-defined culture is utterly incompatible with our continued existence on this planet. We must live subordinated to and integrated into the same cycles and limits that govern the rest of the living world. If you believe, like Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism, than you will indeed feel that the battle is lost. But most of human cultures throughout most of history have been structured on other principles. The question is not whether we can overthrow the current definition of meaning and social structure. The question is how much catastrophe we will need to endure before we accept the fact that we must live here, in the finite, limited world. We can bring ourselves to heel through unthinkable efforts of collective will, or we can be driven there by biological, material fact.
View this post on Instagram
Do you ever just come across a sentence that just knocks your breath away? I was reading the magazine Poets and Writers and this was part of a Q&A article between #barbarakingsolver and #richardpowers. It astounds me when people in natural conversation utter such things. #getmeadictionary #poetry #nonfiction #article #read #writers #magazine
MR: You left Palo Alto and your teaching post at Stanford for a life in the mountains. What are the differences between a person choosing to live in a city, and another living close to nature?
RP: There is a problem with this question! All of us, everywhere, are living in the thick of nature. In fact, if I had to summarize the vision of The Overstory, it is that there is no separate and exceptional thing called “humanity,” and no independent entity called “nature.” All things are reciprocally bound together; there is really only species that struggles to grasp that! We have been leaving our mark on and altering “wilderness” for as long as we’ve existed, and even our most antiseptic cities are teeming with living things, large and small, that crucially determine what our lives in these densely urban areas are like.
For a person living in the mountains or a person living in the biggest conurbation, the nature of an attentive life is the same: to learn to see what is in front of us, not what we think is or ought to be. There are more than 5.2 million street trees in New York City. If you add to that the shrubs and bushes, there are vastly more woody plants in that city than there are people! But how many people in the city take these creatures seriously? How many realize that the quality of their air and water depends on these plants? How many are aware of the huge increase in their well-being that is being made by these beings who can turn sunlight directly into food and life? How many urbanites are capable of the endless joy in standing in front of a tree and asking, “What is this tree doing that no other tree does? What is it doing that I’ve never seen before?”
Whether in the Smoky Mountains or in the heart of Manhattan, tree consciousness comes down to the same thing: the cultivation of a sensibility that knows that we don’t make the rules, that we’re not alone, and that we are who we are by virtue of the work of all kinds of other living things.
MR: Reading your last answer (How many urbanites are capable of the endless joy in standing in front of a tree and asking, “What is this tree doing that no other tree does?), I was reminded of Merleau-Ponty’s quote: “To see the world…we must break with our familiar acceptance of it.” Some people complain that even if they wish they could stop and see the world, they don’t have the time. They would go crazy if they tried to have an attentive life every day. What is the cost of choosing to tune out many moments/aspects of life? How could one find the “right” balance between an attentive life and one’s daily occupations?
RP: Anyone who claims they don’t have time to slow down is deeply deluding herself. If our lives are frantic, relentless, overdrawn, and blunted with distraction, it is not because of material necessity but because we are searching for meaning in the wrong place. How many minutes of your day go into absolutely essential pursuit of income? How many go into the pursuit of prestige, gossip, overconsumption, social currency, and merely keeping up with “the latest?” Don’t kind yourself: we are making ourselves crazy, not because we have to, but because the things we so frantically pursue are so ultimately ephemeral and unsatisfying. Just stop and look. You can decide, later, as your urge to keep running starts to subside, whether or not you can afford to do so.