Over the years, I have been privileged to keep in touch with DeKalb native Richard Powers, who has become a widely acclaimed novelist and winner of the prestigious National Book Award.
Those who were around here 40 years ago may recall Powers, who graduated from DeKalb High in 1975. I know four of his teachers – Joe Locascio, Harriett Kallich, the late Mary Penson and the late Betty Bischoff would be very proud of him.
His 12th novel may be the best seller yet, with kudos coming in from reviewers all over the country. I quote from only one – BookPage: “Vast, magnificent and disturbing … An array of human temperaments and predicaments as manifold as Charles Dickens’ or Leo Tolstoy’s. … I have never read anything so pessimistic and yet so hopeful.”
Then I read the New York Times book critic’s glowing review and emailed Powers to ask why he chose this subject. He is on a nationwide book tour but found time to respond. It reveals so much about his intellect that I will quote word for word from his email.
Powers responded: “I was teaching at Stanford and living in California’s Central Peninsula, just between Silicon Valley and the narrow strip of redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains.
“I could feel the incredible tension between the future, on one side – the corporate headquarters of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook and so many others – and on the other side, the past of the virgin American continent and our vanishing connection to nature and wilderness. One day, hiking in the mountains, I came across a gigantic, ancient redwood, as wide as a house, as tall as a football field was long, and perhaps as old as Jesus.
“And I realized what the ancient forests in the area must have looked like before they were cut to build the culture that would in time become Silicon Valley.
“It occurred to me that our story was dependent on the story of trees in a way that I’d never come across in a novel.
“I quit my job at Stanford and came back east, where the broadleaf trees and forests of my childhood now opened up to me in a way that I had never before felt.
“They had been invisible to me all my life.
“Now I was beginning to see, and I went to work writing a novel where trees were taken just as seriously as people, and indeed became half their story.”
I quickly downloaded “The Overstory” onto my computer and began reading. It is so much easier to digest than his 11th novel “Orfeo,” which lost me in the highly technical details. But this time he picked a subject close to my heart – trees – so I am enjoying every chapter. I even sent him the recent column on my favorite trees, which he may someday find time to read.
But for now he is totally immersed in his book tour, which started on the East Coast in Philadelphia, New York City and Cambridge, going all the way to the West Coast – Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and then back to Asheville, North Carolina, in May.
I found so many quotable gems, but space is limited. One I will mention is a quote from Buddha: “A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”
You can bet the Sierra Club will make this required reading for its supporters. I once considered myself a “tree hugger” and helped delay the inevitable destruction of the Arboretum at NIU when I was with the Daily Chronicle in the early 1970s, threatening to sit with students in front of a bulldozer if they tried to level it. But years later they did decimate it.
Thank goodness we have activists and authors like Powers who are a powerful reminder that trees, like humans, have a place on this planet, and we have to be careful stewards.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at email@example.com or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.