Last Friday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers returned to his one-time home to tour the new high school and the library where he had once spent many hours each week. He addressed a crowd that nearly filled the lobby area of the library that evening.
He spoke fondly of his growing-up years in DeKalb, even though he said it was quite a culture shock coming here from Bangkok, where he had lived from ages 11 to 16. His family had gone there when his father took an administrative position at an American school.
While going to high school, his family lived on North Fourth Street, not far from the library, where “My education was hugely influenced by what I found serendipitously by just walking up and down the stacks. I can remember the authors – these are books that stayed with me the rest of my life,” he said.
Talking about his latest novel “The Overstory,” he said he was completely unaware of West Coast forests until he was teaching at Stanford University and took time to visit the redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains. He was astonished and experienced an utter conversion in his life when he came across a giant redwood that had survived the logging era – a tree that was 25 feet across at the base and as tall as a football field is long, probably 1,500 to 1,800 years old.
“Everything in my life was changed from that moment,” he said.
Doing some research, he learned that 95% of the old growth trees had been cut, and a small group of people, who weren’t otherwise political, had gotten together and decided to try to save the remaining 5%. This gave him even the incentive to write this novel.
“It has to do with the denial of the connection we have with all living things … also reflected in what I think is the crucial crux of our age. We are living on this earth. … It’s not going to last very much longer. ... Why did we develop this colossal arrogance to think that we’re separate from every other living thing and they are just our resources?”
When he came back to the Midwest and then went east, where he visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has one of the few remaining old growth forests, he said he realized that each tree has purpose, each one was doing some astonishing biochemical thing that set it apart from all the other trees that there are.
“All of a sudden the world went from being a geophysical thing to a living thing,” he said. “Reality is: We don’t take any form of life seriously except ourselves. We don’t give sanctity to anything except ourselves.”
I found his book both brilliant and a wake-up call that we need to pay more attention to what is happening on our planet. Each of us should try in our own way to treat other living things with respect, whether they be trees or animals. I think Richard Powers will be a major influence in that movement from now on.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. Past columns can be found on his website at www.dekalbcountylife.com.