Round about Earth Day, 2020
by Richard Powers
Norton 2018, paperback 2019
reviewed by Seana Graham
Near the beginning of Richard Powers’ remarkable, expansive novel centering around a motley crew of individuals who become activists for the trees in their lives, he recounts the true story of the American Chestnut. When the forebear of one of his main characters arrives on our shores, he is shown some of the abundance of the New World as people harvest chestnuts for free simply by throwing stones at the trees and having the nuts rain down in shovelfuls.
In the early 1900s, though, a blight came into the country with foreign trees brought in for landscaping purposes, and, like the native people here at the arrival of Europeans, the trees had no resistance. Humans watched in horror as stand after stand of the tree which Powers calls “America’s perfect tree, backbone of entire rural economies, the limber, durable redwood of the East” succumb to the blight. People don’t just stand idly by—they do everything in their power to combat it. Half of what they do makes the situation worse, like cutting down infected trees and then carrying the spores with them on their axes. “By 1940, the fungus takes everything, all the way out to the farthest stands in southern Illinois. Four billion trees in the native range vanish into myth.”
I was struck by this small tale within the large one when I read the book some months ago, but I am struck differently and perhaps more deeply in our singular pandemic moment. At the time, I didn’t know that such an essential part of an ecological system had been wiped out back east, because to me, in my few travels there, it wasn’t evident. In the time since this collapse, other species had come to fill the gap and it didn’t look empty. There seemed to be plenty of trees. I was also struck by the way that human intervention, with all the best will in the world, hadn’t helped.
Of course, now it all feels a good deal more personal—and relevant. It doesn’t seem that our current coronavirus emergency is going to take us all out, though its effects are horrible and tragic enough. But we are in the same highly vulnerable position to an invasive entity that these trees, as well as the native peoples, were. We are just luckier, at least as a species. What the blight of the chestnuts impressed upon me is that no species, however useful or previously flourishing is guaranteed the right to exist—not by nature, anyway.
In Powers’ book, humans are in fact a little like the virus is to us, from the point of view of the trees. We work industriously on, using trees for our own ends and mostly not stopping to think that the lives of trees have value in themselves. Powers is intent to show that human beings have a choice about that, though. We have the capacity to wake up and not see other living things as merely means to our own ends.
It might be a bit over the top to say that this book changed my life, although I certainly think it might have the capacity to do that. But it’s no exaggeration to say that in the writing of it, this book changed the author’s life. After his extensive research took him to the Great Smoky Mountains, Powers ended up moving to that part of the country. He wanted to live deep in the woods, where he says, “walking a trail has become as important to me as writing.”
For our sakes, though, let’s hope it doesn’t become more important. I eagerly await the book Powers writes that will address the aftermath of our current dilemma.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.