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Wald und Nebel


The Tree Of Life

Mensch gegen Natur - der alte Kampf, verheerend für beide Seiten. Der US-amerikanische Autor und National Book Award-Gewinner Richard Powers hat sein neues Buch „Die Wurzeln des Lebens“ einer sehr bedrohten Spezies gewidmet: den Bäumen.

Von Lisa Schneider

Welchen Stellenwert nehmen Bäume in meinem Leben ein? Diese Frage stellt man sich während der Lektüre des neuen Romans von Richard Powers. Er heißt „The Overstory“, auf Deutsch „Die Wurzeln des Lebens“. In nun schon zwölf Romanen hat Richard Powers immer wieder eine andere wissenschaftliche Disziplin, ein anderes Forschungsfeld in den Mittelpunkt gestellt, in deren Umfeld er seine Geschichte ansiedelt: von Musikwissenschaft bis Genforschung, von Neurowissenschaft bis künstliche Intelligenz. Jetzt ist Botanik an der Reihe.

Cover "Die Wurzeln des Lebens" von Richard Powers

S. Fischer Verlag

„Die Wurzeln des Lebens“ ist der 12. Roman von Richard Powers. Er erscheint in der deutschen Übersetzung von Gabriele Kempf-Allié und Manfred Allié im S. Fischer Verlag.

In „Die Wurzeln des Lebens“ folgen wir neun Charakteren und ihrer Beziehung zu Bäumen und der Natur. Nick etwa, ein Künstler, der, ebenso wie sein Vater und Großvater vor ihm, jahrzehntelang einen einzigen Baum auf ihrem Anwesen in Iowa täglich fotografiert. Ein Zeitdokument. Oder Mimi, die in Gedanken an ihre Vorfahren und ihre Heimat China einen Maulbeerbaum im Garten pflegt. Oder Adam, später Psychologe, der seine Leidenschaft für Ameisen vor allem deren Zuhause, einer großen Ahorn, verdankt.

Wie ein Geäst verzweigen sich die einzelnen Geschichten später, einige der Protagonisten werden zu Aktivisten in den Redwoods von Kalifornien, die Erzählzeit verschiebt sich in die späten 80er und frühen 90er Jahre. Menschen besetzen Bäume, sie gehen in den Untergrund, manche müssen sogar ihr Leben lassen. Gerade in Bezug auf die Proteste im Hambacher Forst in Deutschland, aber auch hinsichtlich der omnipräsenten Naturzerstörung in Nord- und Südamerika ist das Thema der Zwangsrodung aktueller denn je.

Außerdem nimmt Richard Powers mit diesem aktuellen Roman eine herausragende Postition in der zeitgenössischen amerikanischen Literatur ein: Wo sich da nämlich die meisten Dramen im Psychologischen oder Politischen abspielen, schiebt er den Fokus weg vom rein Menschlichen (oder menschlich Produzierten). So wie er hat das in letzter Zeit nur Annie Proulx mit ihrem Roman „Aus hartem Holz“ gemacht.

Richard Powers war mit seinem neuen Buch kürzlich zu Gast auf der Buch Wien. Ich durfte den Autor zum Interview über seine eigentlich ungeplante literarische Karriere, seinen neuen Roman und seine Idee einer „guten Geschichte“ treffen.

You actually read from your new book „The Overstory“ at the Buch Wien. Which is located right beside the Viennese Prater. Which happens to be a place very rich of trees. Did you get the chance to take a walk there?

Unfortunately, I didn’t. But I was so excited when we took the car there and we were driving past these great alleys of cultivated trees and I saw those beautiful big oaks and I was like: „Please just drop me off here, I’ll meet you at the book fair later!“ But well, maybe I get the chance to see them later.

You’ve started off your new book with the stories of nine characters and their relationship with nature, and with trees especially. If one of those characters would have been called Richard Powers – what would his tree-story be?

Well, one of the fun things about creating this community of main characters – it’s a high number actually, nine – I wanted to have enough people from different backgrounds with different relations to nature, to make it almost orchestral, symphonic, having lots of different voices combining with each other in different ways. One of the pleasures creating a cast that large ist that it allowed me to kind of indulge my own multiple personality disorder, where each and every one of them was a kind of speculation or hypothetical divergence of who I am, but located somewhere in me. For instance the character Adam, who is intranced by Ants, he understands them better than he does understand his school mates.

He’s a little crazy, isn’t he?

Yes, well – and so was I. For me it was bees instead of ants. I was a little boy in the time when they were first discovering this magical dance that bees do, the way that they communicate with each other, where the flowers are, where the nectar sources are. It just fascinated me, the way to think about how there is an intelligence coming out of the collective. I transferred bees to ants as an hommage to the scientist of Edward O. Wilson who’s theory „Biophilia“ is so important to this book; the essential explanation for our loneliness, the cure for our separation is this other creatures. So, Adam has a little of my childhood. Another character, Patricia, too. She is a little bit isolated as well, she discovers the magic of being able to see the differences and the distinct behaviors of this creatures. That’s also coming out of myself a little bit.

The story of the young Richard Powers, though, is that I fall away from that as I’m growin older. And I move from my fascination with biological sciences to physical sciences. I began to study mathematics and physics. And then I found myself in literature after a brief journey of making a living as a computer programmer. But I was 55 years old, before I realized, how tree-blind I was. And it was only my discovery of the Red Woods in California that opened my eyes to the fact that I was missing so much of creation, so much of the human story, having grown separate, apart from that childhood excitement. I think that every child is a little bit of a pantheast, you know, some kind of mixture of scientist and priest. So that the beauty of childhood is the absolute certainty that there is a certain magic in other living things. We grow up – we lose that. This is the story of nine people discovering it again, in one way or another. This overwhelming fact that we aren’t seperate from these other creatures – we never have been apart from then.

You’ve published a lot of novels over the last years – „The Overstory“ being number twelve.

Yes, this is novel number 12. The first book came out in 1985 – so I’ve been doing this for 35 years now.

Their topics reaching from artificial intelligence to neuroscience and genetics. The first one I read out of this twelve was „Generosity, An Enhancement“, in German „Das größere Glück“. It’s about the question whether there’s the possibility of writing happiness into our genes. It’s also focused on humans, only. When I compared this, my first Richard Powers read to my latest, your new novel, the most appealing thing to me was your shift from not only writing about human happiness, but world’s and nature’s happiness as a whole.

Richard Powers

Jimmy Kets

Yes. It may be the largest canvas, the biggest story that I’ve tried to tell. Not in length, but overall. It’s the story of a species that somehow lost it’s way. And got this idea somehow that in order to be safe and happy in this home it had to make itself exceptional in a way. Writing its own story. And of course it’s a book that suggests the absolute need to come back home, to rejoin this networked, dense forest of life.

And I think it does follow the life of these nine people, but especially five of those nine. Who are called up to take part in a resistance to this movement, the destruction of the last few per cent of old-growth forest in North America. Those are non-political people, who have the scales falling off of their eyes, getting to see the catastrophic relationship between humans and non-humans, who decide to take stand, to put their bodies and safety on the the line. And try to safe this ressource, that once it vanishes – is gone forever.

Talking about nature’s happiness again: the story of your new book definitely doesn’t end in happiness. Why did you decide to not let those people, who try to save the environment, succeed in the end? Your story is fictional, nevertheless.

There’s a moment when one of my characters is attempting to write a book. She’s a plant scientist, working on a book for general people, and she wants to open their eyes to this asthonishing facts that have been discovered in recent decades about the social nature of trees. How they warn each other over the air with chemical signals, that they are connected underground and that they share food and resources in this giant community. But she also wants to open their eyes to the fact that these creatures are in danger and she knows that it’s almost impossible to stop the course of history now, that capitalim has a logic to it that destroys everything that opposes it and pronounces it romantic or nostalgic to try to have any other view of the world except economic prosperity denied.

And she’s sitting down to write her book, she says, she’s just looking for the next sentence. She just wants to say something that is useful, true and hopeful. She knows how to make it useful, she also knows how to make it true. It’s the hopeful that is difficult. Because really to look at the relationship that we’ve struck up with the world, really to be honest about the prospects for our continued life here is to be overwhelmed by a process that began early on. It’s following internal logical that has a way of his own. It’s difficult to tell this story accurately, but also saying: We have to keep on working. While it is true that these attemps that these nine people make to open the eyes of their fellow men, to change the relationship between peole and the rest of creation. While it’s true that they seem to fail – they are arrested, they are killed, they go underground, they give up hope. It’s also true that the end of the book holds up the possibilty for a transformation, a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis of the human race into something else.

That was the way that I thought I could best get these three things together in one place: To tell a story that was true, that was being accurate about who we are and what we’re doing to the world. That was useful, that could show us what it might take to rehabilitate ourselves, to come back into the world. And that also held out just a little bit of hope that this astonishing ability of consciousness that life has evolved after 4,5 billion years might somehow be wise enough or resourceful enough to remember previous relationships that it had with the world, that were more sustainable, that were more connected, and that were ultimately happier. So - I don’t give up hope, but it can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, the depiction of just how far down the wrong path we’ve gone.

Novels engaging with environmental topics are often confronted with the prejudice of missionary thoughts, maybe even be called naive, or mystical. What do you make of that?

Let me take the charges one at a time. I’ll start with the mystical. It’s interesting to think that all of these discoveries that go under the heading of the new forestry or what life in a forest system is, might have at the moment of discovery seemed mystical. When first people showing the evidence of plants sending out chemicals, that they alert nearby plants if there’s an attack on the way – that sounds like a mystical thing. How can plants share an immune system? Similarly the discovery that this fungal system of networks underground that go into the roots of trees are taking food from one tree and giving it to another tree – that could be romantic. Or even nostalgic, naive. But in fact, those are deeply established empirical facts. Science has confirmed it.

To the charge of romantisicm or nostalgia: The characters in the book themselves put forward this question: What is more romantic? The idea that somehow we can have the lives of all other creatures in the world beside from ourselves for our own resources, to further our own story, make us happy? That we can have mastery and dominion over everything else there is? Or: The idea that we, like every other creature, have to accomodate the earth and live inside it and change with the seasons; to die when it’s our time, to give up the idea that we can make ourselves absolutely safe and invulnerable to change. Which of those stories seems more romantic or self-serving?

Point for you.


You just cited your novel, I’ll take it up: There actually is a young woman in your book saying: „The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.“ What, for you, makes a good story?

That’s a serious challenge because we’ve gone down so far into this model of the world that’s driven by individualism and human exceptionalism and personal meaning that we almost insist that our stories tell us that we’re gonna live forever, being happy forever. That somehow the struggle to overcome our internal values, the conflicts in our internal values is the most noble story that we can tell about ourselves. Certainly the notion of a good story is going to have to change if we’re mean to stay around here a little longer. But actually, when you think about it: A story that includes, that puts non humans at the center of a story is as old as humanity. Every culture on earth for most of human history knew that you can’t tell a story about humans without bringing in the non-humans.

But this idea that we need something to move us, some appeal to our emotion rather than to our intellect I think is pretty strongly demonstrated by psychologists. You can show people graphics and tables of statistics, and you can project using chemical and physical analysis - you can tell them what the world is gonna look like in 200 years or after two degrees of warming: It will roll right off. In fact, in my country, perhaps even the majority of people don’t believe those facts and figures at all. But show them a photograph of a little polar bear on a little piece of ice floating out to see – all of a sudden their heart is broken. They’re alarmed, they want to help. The novel is a form that deals on empathy. It asks this question: What would the world look like, if I wasn’t myself? And for a while, however long it takes us to read a book, we become someone else. And everything that we took for granted, everything we wished or hoped to be true, is challenged, because we’re someone else now. We have to identify with them. We have to see our kinship with them. We cross over the gender line, the race line, we become people from different time periods, and different places.

A good story is one that can convince us of the validity and urgency of another person’s values. This book does the same thing: It is still a struggle with empathy. It’s simply saying: There are other members of the family here, that we haven’t taken seriously, that we haven’t told stories about in a while. And now you have to see what the world looks like from their perspective. The stories of trees and the stories of men, of humans, are not seperate things. We are who we are because of what they allowed us to be. We built our civilisation out of them, we still depend upon them. They make our atmosphere, they filter our water. In the world that we need to recover and rebuilt it and cure, they’re gonna play an essential part.

Your position in American contemporary literature is outstanding. Most of the fiction written at the moment is about psychological or political drama, but there’s not too much being said about the drama between humans and non-humans. Besides Annie Proulx’ „Bark-Skins“, probably.

You know, I was quite alarmed, because she’s published as I was writing my book. I thought this is a bit too close to what I wanted to do. It’s a beautifully written book, and it does change the way you think about the relationship between people and trees. When I was working on my book, friends and family were asking me like: „What’s your new book about?“ And I was like: „It’s about trees!“ Some eyebrows rised. „You writing a non-fictional book, then?“, they asked me. „No, I’m not. It’s going to be a novel“, I said. And they would breathe deeply and say „Good luck, hopefully you know what you’re doing.“

And it did seem strange, and when Annie Proulx’ book came out I asked myself: „Is the world big enough for two novels about trees and people?“ Actually, it is. In fact, the more I tought about it, I was like: „Why doesn’t most of contemporary fiction bring in the non-human?“ It’s such an essential part of who we are and yet we’re blind to it, it doesn’t make its appearance in our stories. We think we’re here alone, but we’re not. As we realize that we have not defeated nature and not mastered and controlled the non-human world, that it’s coming back for its revenge, and we’re in the precarious situation of a changed world – their stories are coming back. Trees, but also animals and other plants, and all patterns of life are being rediscovered by fiction. As we see the rise of climate fiction, we also see the rise of fiction that challenges the notion of human exceptionalism and want to take a perspective of outside ourselves.

From novel to novel you dig deeper into a certain scientific or art’s discipline. One time the thought is near you’d rather wanted to be a musician, as for now, probably a botanist. How many more faces of Richard Powers are there to be revealed – hopefully within your novels?

You know, this is my 12th book, as we said earlier. Each time out it’s been a chance to live a differnt life, to see what it was to be a musician, or a pioneer of artificial intelligence, or a geneticist. They’ve all been this excursions into different ways of knowing the world, opening up the human experience through the eyes of some expertise, some specialised discipline. And everytime I’ve spent some years living in one of those specific lives – by the end I’ve been always been keen to go on and explore more, learn some new discipline and tell a story surrounding it.

This is the first time that I’ve gotten to the end of a large submersion in a field – and I haven’t wanted to change. I feel like staying in a forest. Now I have to find another story, one that is not yet answered in this book, that can extend this question of hope and truth and find yet another set of myths and fables that I can explore to see not just what it looks like when people become able to see trees, but what people look like from the perspective of trees.

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