EDN's Artists For The Earth™ Spotlight: Richard Powers. | Earth Day Network

“Literary Fiction…has been so slow to treat the central drama of the present: climate change. Writers need to turn their eyes outward and start asking…what myths we need to tell ourselves, and what perceptions we need to cultivate to truly live here and not in an imaginary, self-exempting place that externalizes all costs and acknowledges only private and individual meaning.”

Richard Powers interviewed in Sierra
by Michael Berry

In 2005 Bill McKibbon, founder of 350.org, in an article in Grist wrote, “One species, ours…managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter.  But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it.  It hasn’t registered…isn’t part of our culture.  Where are the books?  The poems?  The plays?”

Fortunately things have changed since 2005 as artists in every medium address the urgent issues of the environment, and now one such novel – The Overstory by Richard Powers – has won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, achieving the rare plaudit of being both an absorbing fiction about a group of people who take a stand to save a forest – and a fascinating science-based discourse (on the life of trees).

The novel tells the tale of nine interlocking characters’ lives – lives whose unique experience with trees brings them together.  Although all become activists, five of them band together in a radical group to protest a timber company that plans to take down a virgin redwood forest to pay off a mortgage.  But alongside these nine characters, the trees that surround them are so vividly portrayed that they become characters themselves.  The story is about how this small group of people learns how to see this world, become part of the “overstory” (a term for a forest’s highest layer, or canopy) and who are drawn into its unfolding ruin.

The novel was inspired by the 1990 Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest when drastic reforms to state logging regulations were being proposed (Proposition 130) and timber companies rushed to fell trees as quickly as they could.  At that time, the forestry department reported that 95% of the estimated original 2 million acres of virgin redwoods had been cut down, and three times as fast as new trees could grow.  A small band of people organized by the Earth First! Movement tried to stop the harvest through protest, civil disobedience and backwoods confrontation.

Through the voice of one of the characters in The Overstory, a scientist, we learn that trees are capable (based on real science) of communicating, remembering, forming networks, joining with others to stave off insect infestation, supporting weaker trees through underground roots, giving gifts, sending their offspring to a better location, learning and communicating in a chemical language transmitted from root to root.

The Pulitzer committee praised The Overstory as “An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.”  And echoing that, the author has said the success of the book is partly the result of “…people who need to think some other way about the world we’re going through very quickly…hungry for a story that re-connects us to this world that we’re so alienated from.”  The novel makes the trees real, which is the theme of Powers’ novel – that there is a world alongside ours – vast, interconnected, resourceful and inventive – and that world is vitally connected to us.

The story does not end happily, the action to save the trees fails, disaster befalls some and some return to their former lives.  When asked in the BBC’s Open Book interview what he wanted his book to achieve he said, “…all I need is for somebody to say I’m looking at the world differently.  That itself is a form of activism and it’s the first necessary step for the kind of consciousness that we’re going to need all together in order to continue.”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Thirty years after the Timber Wars, on July 20, 2019, the New York Times reported, “Countries in the Amazon are falling behind on their targets to cut deforestation.  Effective conservation policies have proved successful, but enforcement is lacking.  We must quickly reverse current trends and ensure that economic development is not at odds with conservation to avoid reaching the tipping point.”   

In the novel, the character Ray states, “Life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale and the world is failing because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.”  But Powers has made that contest for the world compelling by bridging the gulf between art and science.  When we can both relate to the characters in a story and grasp the science – see the real dimensions of the world and learn to view all of its elements as essential – if like the trees, we can come to each other’s aid, and see humans and non-humans as cooperating entities that cannot exist without the other, then the will to action is possible, the world will not fail, and there is hope.