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It’s been a long day

It’s like watching a zoo animal circle its cage.

For the first time, she realizes that being alone is a contradiction in terms.

Even in a body’s most private moments, something else joins in.

~ Richard Powers, from “Trunk” in The Overstory: A Novel


Notes:

Miracle. All of it.

“We’ll keep the tub moist and free of weeds for the next six years. When you turn sweet sixteen, we’ll weigh the tree and the soil again.” She hears him (her Father), and understands…

In the summer of her eighteenth year, preparing to head to Eastern Kentucky to study botany, she remembers the beech growing in its tub of soil, out by the barn. Shame rushes through her: How could she have forgotten the experiment? She has missed her promise to her father (who has since passed away) by two years. Skipped sweet sixteen altogether. She spends an entire July afternoon freeing the tree from the soil and crumbling every thimble of dirt from its roots. Then she weighs both the plant and the earth it fed on. The fraction of an ounce of beechnut now weighs more than she does. But the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two.

There’s no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air.

Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

~ Richard Powers, The Overstory: A Novel


Notes

  • Photograph: Elena Shen with “Shades of Green” (Beech Tree)
  • Related Posts: Miracle. All of it.
  • Inspiration: Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Driving West Side Highway. With Chip off the Old Block (not).

It’s 5:40 a.m. An early jump to beat the morning rush to mid-town Manhattan. I’m in a 50 mph zone, and traffic is blowing by me as if I were standing still. No matter. I’m not chasing them, not today.  I’m on the West Side Highway. Manhattan condo’s tower overhead on my left. Hudson River flows silently on my right. Sun is rising and casting a dreamy glow over all things. Passages from Richard Powers’ new book (The Overstory) flick through consciousness:  It’s morning like the morning when life first came up on dry land.

And the mind panned from Now to yesterday. From Richard to Rachel. To my Rachel.

Rachel’s birthday was yesterday. She took the day off and came home. “You don’t expect me to work on my birthday do you Dad?” With Mom and Dad both working, she was going to spend the day alone at home. Now that doesn’t seem right.  I cancelled meetings, worked from home and scheduled lunch with Rachel at the Rowayton Seafood restaurant.

She orders the Lobster Roll (butter poached with lemon on brioche). Plus fries. Dad orders the blackened salmon on a bed of corn, tomatillo and asparagus. Plus fries.

Waitress asks her if she’d like a glass of wine with lunch. “No Thank you. Ice water would be great.” I watched her interaction with the waitress, her unfolding of her napkin and placing it on her lap, her straightening her dress over her knees, her ease in the surroundings, her comfort in her own skin. Wow. Look at what you’ve become. [Read more…]

Running. With Restraint. And With None of It.

What do you excel at?

A) Habitual repeating. (Professional kind)

Consistent, effective execution. Compulsive in following through on commitments. Dependable. You can count on him.

And that’s life isn’t it, the antithesis of what makes you effective at “A”, makes you a disaster a “B”.

B) Habitual repeating, in bulk. (Personal kind. Random, exculpatory list below.)

  • Thoughts. (Swirling, incessant, dark)
  • Doubts. (Many)
  • Food (Binges, sugar, fast food, anything).
  • Running ‘paths’ (Note emphasis on paths and not running, there should be zero inferences to mastery in frequency, distance or pace.)
  • Blog post ‘themes’. (Note emphasis on themes. And no mention of original work.)

How many times can you spout on about the same sh*t? Let’s see. Let’s use metaphors, not your own of course. Because that would take talent, effort. How many times? Richard Powers, “A thousand—a thousand thousand—green-tipped, splitting fingerlings.”

So here we go again. [Read more…]

She addresses the cedar

She addresses the cedar, using words of the forest’s first humans. “Long Life Maker. I’m here. Down here.” She feels foolish, at first. But each word is a little easier than the next. “Thank you for the baskets and the boxes. Thank you for the capes and hats and skirts. Thank you for the cradles. The beds. The diapers. Canoes. Paddles, harpoons, and nets. Poles, logs, posts. The rot-proof shakes and shingles. The kindling that will always light.” Each new item is release and relief. Finding no good reason to quit now, she lets the gratitude spill out. “Thank you for the tools. The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The paneling. I forget. . . . Thank you,” she says, following the ancient formula. “For all these gifts that you have given.” And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know how hard it is for you to grow back.”

~ Richard Powers, from “Patricia Westerford” in The Overstory: A Novel (April 3, 2018)


Notes:

Aspens alone quake when all others stand in dead calm

She gets out of the car and walks up into the trees on the crest west of the road. Aspens stand in the afternoon sun, spreading along the ridge out of sight. Populus tremuloides. Clouds of gold leaf glint on thin trunks tinted the palest green. The air is still, but the aspens shake as if in a wind. Aspens alone quake when all others stand in dead calm. Long flattened leafstalks twist at the slightest gust, and all around her, a million two-toned cadmium mirrors flicker against righteous blue.

The oracle leaves turn the wind audible. They filter the dry light and fill it with expectation. Trunks run straight and bare, roughed with age at the bottom, then smooth and whitening up to the first branches. Circles of pale green lichen palette-spatter them. She stands inside this white-gray room, a pillared foyer to the afterlife. The air shivers in gold, and the ground is littered with windfall and dead ramets. The ridge smells wide open and sere. The whole atmosphere is as good as a running mountain stream…

This, the most widely distributed tree in North America with close kin on three continents, all at once feels unbearably rare. She has hiked through aspens far north into Canada, the lone hardwood holdout in a latitude monotonous with conifer. Has sketched their pale summer shades throughout New England and the Upper Midwest. Has camped among them on hot, dry outcrops above gushing streams of snowmelt, in the Rockies. Has found them etched with knowledge-encoded native arborglyphs. Has lain on her back with her eyes closed, in far southwestern mountains, memorizing the tone of that restless shudder. Picking her way across these fallen branches, she hears it again. No other tree makes this sound. The aspens wave in their undetectable breeze, and she begins to see hidden things.

~ Richard Powers, from “Patricia Westerford” in The Overstory: A Novel (April 3, 2018)


Notes:

Sunday Morning


The snarl of saws and feller bunchers, somewhere in the distance. A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.

Some days, dawn breaks in Arthurian mists. There are mornings when the chill threatens to kill him, noons when the heat knocks him on his semi-numbed butt. Afternoons so profligate with blue he lies on his back and stares upward until his eyes water. There come mocking and merciless rains. Rain the weight and color of lead. Shy rain, auditioning with stage fright. Rain that leaves his feet sprouting moss and lichen. There were huge, spiked skeins of interwoven wood here once. They will come again.

Sometimes he works alongside other tree slingers, some of whom speak no language he recognizes. He meets hikers who want to know where the forests of their youth have gone. The seasonal pineros come and go, and the hard cores, like him, keep on. Mostly, it’s him and the brute, blank, stripped-down rhythm of the work. Wedge, squat, insert, stand, and boot-tip seal.

They look so pitiful, his tiny Douglas-firs. Like pipe cleaners. Like props for a train set. From a distance, spread across these man-made meadows, they’re a crew cut on a balding man. But each weedy stem he puts into the dirt is a magic trick eons in the making. He rolls them out by the thousands, and he loves and trusts them as he would dearly love to trust his fellow men.

Left alone—and there’s the catch—left alone to the air and light and rain, each one might put on tens of thousands of pounds. Any one of his starts could grow for the next six hundred years and dwarf the largest factory chimney. It could play host to generations of voles that never go to ground and several dozen species of insects whose only desire is to strip their host bare. Could rain down ten million needles a year on its own lower branches, building up mats of soil that grow their own gardens high in the air.

Any one of these gangly seedlings could push out millions of cones over the course of its life, the small yellow males with their pollen that floats across entire states, the drooping females with their mouse tails sticking out from the coil of scales, a look he finds dearer than his own life. And the forest they might remake he can almost smell—resinous, fresh, thick with yearning, sap of a fruit that is no fruit, the scent of Christmases endlessly older than Christ.

Douglas Pavlicek works a clear-cut as big as downtown Eugene, saying goodbye to his plants as he tucks each one in. Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us.

~ Richard Powers, from “Douglas Pavlicek” in The Overstory: A Novel (April 3, 2018)


Photo: Biology.unm.edu

There’s something you need to hear…

When I needed to escape the digital-utopian future, I’d head up into the hills. I was not, then, particularly attuned to the magic of trees. But it doesn’t take great sensitivity to be stunned into silence by redwoods — the sight, sound, and smell of those forests, which feel to so many people like holy places.

One day, up near Skyline Road, I came across a tree the width of a house and the length of a football field. I would learn later that this single living thing was almost as old as Christianity. It dwarfed every other trunk on that ridge. As I looked at it, I began to realize that all the trees I’d been walking through were in fact no more than a hundred years old. This one tree had escaped the clearcutting that had built and rebuilt San Francisco. And the forest that it came from must have been, compared to the one I was standing in, as the OED is to a pocket dictionary. When I went back down to Silicon Valley that evening, I had the seed for a story…

When a person says, “I live in the real world,” they generally mean that they live in the artificially created social world, the human-made world that is hurtling toward a brick wall of its own making. This is what I’d ask the critics of the literature of extra-human awe: Which is more childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical: the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, or the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility? …

Tree-consciousness is a religion of life, a kind of bio-pantheism. My characters are willing to entertain a telos in living things that scientific empiricism shies away from. Life wants something from us. The trees say to each of these people: There’s something you need to hear…

A friend came to visit me here in my home in the Smokies. Despite the winter turbulence that whipped the jet stream around like a jump rope, making for 80-degree days in February and polar-vortex March nights 20 degrees colder than average, spring was creeping back in. The first ephemerals were rising everywhere through last year’s leaf litter: hepatica, trailing arbutus, star chickweed, spring beauties. I stopped on the trail where we were walking and pointed out the crown of a maple infused in red, like a blurry watercolor.

My friend, who’d grown up surrounded by these trees, was astonished. “Maples have flowers?”

Yes. They’ve been flowering every spring, for the last hundred million years. They flowered in every year you’ve been alive. And with luck, they’ll flower for a few years yet to come.

~ Richard Powers, excerpts from Here’s to Unsuicide: An Interview with Richard Powers by Everett Hammer (Los Angeles Review of Books, April 8, 2018)

Powers new book: The Overstory: A Novel was published this month.


Photo: imgfave (via goodmemory)

Luminous

woman, portrait,hands,listen

Q: “The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.” What do you mean by that?

RP: You start the song, it has a pulse, three-quarter time, one hundred and twenty beats per minute, and you know, even as you round the corner of the first verse, that it’s only going to last for four and a half minutes. All you can do is keep moving to it. When the beat stops, you are aware of having had that beat moving through you, and moving you, and you are aware of the ephemerality of your own existence, the fragility of your own body, the fact that your body is already becoming something else.

~ Richard Powers, In an Interview in The Paris Review


And, this tune, for me, does exactly that…

↓ click for audio (Max Richter– “Luminous”)


Credit: Photograph – Daniel Lehenbauer

Books


Unfortunately, I didn’t understand a word* that was spoken on this short clip, but loved it anyway. The writer and producer of this film, Lou Salloum, explains that this film is a reflective narrative inspired by Matthew 6:6. This short film reminded me of a quote by Richard Powers on Reading in an interview by The Paris Review:

It’s an invisible, sedate, almost inert process. Reading is the last act of secular prayer. Even if you’re reading in an airport, you’re making a womb unto yourself—you’re blocking the end results of information and communication long enough to be in a kind of stationary, meditative aspect.


* Updated on Thanksgiving Day Nov 27, 2014. Lou Salloum was kind enough to offer an English translation.

Think of the things you are thinking about because you are more than just your thoughts. Life is weird, especially when you’re present in someone else’s imagination, thinking it’s the only place one ought to be alive. Find a place, create this place, where you can find yourself. A place where you can know who you are and discover what you could become. A place where you can hear the cry of pain in the beauty of this world, and find hope in the agony of this generation. A place, where you reflect and discover your own heart. Away from everything around you, everyone within you. At first, you may find it hard, but when you do take this quiet time alone, away, something magnificent will happen.

Inspired by Matthew 6:6

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