The Echo Maker by Richard Powers has won the National Book Award for Fiction. Image Credit: Supplied

To reach the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, you must first pass through the lurid streets of Gatlinburg. Hokey attractions line the route — theme parks, rollercoasters, mini-golf — in a shock of honkytonk tourism that ends only at the gateway to the national park. “Why would you come to the Smokies and think, ‘What I really want is a Ripley’s Believe It or Not?’” says Richard Powers, “There’s more believe-it-or-not here than there is in that place!”

The three-mile hike to Albright Grove, which contains some of the park’s oldest surviving forest, is a plunge into mysteries science has barely begun to fathom. It is also a family visit of sorts. Powers is calling on the relatives who populate his latest work, The Overstory. As a botanist in his story explains, trees and humans share a common ancestor, and a quarter of their genes. “For five years I’ve been telling people I’m writing a novel about trees,” he says, with a smile, “and they’ve said: ‘Really?’”

At 60, with numerous accolades, including a National book award (for The Echo Maker), Powers has long earned the right to tackle any subject he pleases. Over a 30-year career his invigorating intellect has scoured artificial intelligence and virtual reality (Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark), music and genetics (Orfeo, The Goldbug Variations). Whether neuroscience or nuclear warfare, the result is usually a profound new take on what it means to be alive. He has been described as “the best novelist you’ve never heard of” for so many years that ignorance is no longer much of an excuse.

At the moment, however, this softly spoken man is enjoying his role as forest guide. His wry self-titled “smells of the Smokies” tour includes regular stops to rub leaves and scratch bark. A yellow birch gives off woozy waves of muscle relaxant (“wintergreen!”); rare sourwood avoided the settlers’ axe, because it made great honey. Sassafras has him particularly excited. “Delightful isn’t it, and somewhat familiar? Put it in a glass with bubbles and a couple of ice cubes ... root beer!”

Powers hadn’t particularly considered trees until his first encounter with a giant redwood a few years ago, while he was in California teaching on Stanford’s creative writing fellowship course. “When they’re as wide as a house and as tall as a football pitch you don’t have to be particularly sensitive to be wowed by it,” he says. “But once I started looking, I realised it’s not about the size and scale ... it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.”

The result was, in his own words, a “religious conversion”: not in the theistic sense, but in the sense of “being bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans”. He had addressed environmental issues before in The Echo Maker, but this time was different. “Environmentalism is still under the umbrella of a kind of humanism: we say we should manage our resources better. What I was taking seriously for the first time in this book was: they’re not our resources; and we won’t be well until we realise that.”

With scientific precision, Powers’s new novel portrays the interconnected lives trees lead. Their behaviour — the ways they help and provide for each other, and other living things too numerous to count — is a direct rebuke to the way we live today. It would be easy, watching him identify the plants, fungi and mosses around him, to think he had been a botanist all his life, as opposed to a man who spent a frustrating 12 months learning to tell oak from ash.

But then Powers’s ability to absorb and comprehend a subject is one of the cornerstones of his writing. He has been a dedicated “generalist” since he was a child, one of five siblings born to a school principal and his wife in Illinois. “I was curious about everything and every year was another passion,” he recalls. “When I reached 16 and it came time to start specialising, I felt a constant panic. I remember freshman year in college I had a pit in my stomach the whole year. I ended up actually checking into the clinic — I thought I had ulcers or something.”

Powers studied physics, believing it would allow him to explore the big picture of life. It didn’t, nor did a master’s in literature, where specialisations became increasingly esoteric: “That’s when I pulled the ripcord and got out of academia.” There followed an identity crisis where he worked as a computer operator and programmer. “It wasn’t me, but it at least prevented me from having to commit to who me was.”

Once he had his idea for his first novel — Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, published in 1985 — a career in which he could pursue his myriad interests became possible. “I thought here it is: if I can get away with this then the possibilities for the self-reinvention are endless.”

Professorial in manner, Powers may quote Mikhail Bakhtin and Bruno Latour, and be unable to stop himself comparing a page in his hiking guide to a phase diagram of crystallisation, but he engages with the world with patience and modesty. His intellect has, however, sometimes been offputting to critics who have claimed to find a lack of warmth in his writing. “Some say my characters are always geniuses,” he says. “They’re not, they just happen to have a passion, a way of organising the world, that may or may not be familiar to the readers. If someone’s walking through the woods and says, ‘I need a whiff of that sassafras,’ it tells you something about them.”

His use of personal occupation as a form of characterisation is one of the aspects of his writing he is most proud of. “It’s not hot-blooded like jealousy, rage, envy, love, but for me it’s a more genuine, robust picture of who we are because for most of us our vocations shape us deeply.” He explains that he has “tried to do this slightly different thing of dramatising philosophical issues knowing that the novel of ideas [has] had its day, and that day is not now. So there’s always this compromise: how do you tell a story of intellectual passion while making it warm enough to be accessible?” In the case of The Overstory, a documentary about environmental activists from the Redwood Summer of 1990 — when guerrilla groups mobilised against the logging of California’s giant sequoias — inspired its core drama.

Those who get too caught up in the human narrative, however, are in danger of missing the larger fabulist elements. Powers cites a recent review that categorised his work as part of the “grand realist tradition”. “I thought, what book have you read? I’m flattered that someone could read any of my books like that — but they’re myths.” He stops and laughs at himself. “And they’re allegories, which is even worse ...”

Still, he has poured plenty of himself into the nine main human characters in The Overstory. The most obvious proxy is Nick Hoel: “The introspective midwestern creator and outsider, trying to solve the tensions between that intense introspection of his temperament with the outward ambition of his vocation — that’s me.” But there’s also Mimi Ma, the engineer who represents the pragmatic path Powers might have taken; Neelay, a programmer who loses himself in alternative worlds, and Douglas, the war veteran to whom the author gave his “relentless goofy humour”. “It was like a five-year-long therapy session where I let all my multiple personalities off the leash and that was so satisfying.”

You get the sense that this book changed him. For a start, it brought him to the Smokies. On a research trip three and half years ago, he realised he felt “better than I had ever felt before” and within six months, he had left Palo Alto and his well-paid teaching post at Stanford for a secluded house deep in the mountains.

His wife, Jane, a French translator, works in Chicago at the University of Illinois and he has the place largely to himself. The couple have no children — he has never wanted any. “And it has been an issue with me in my life, relationships have broken off because of that.” At the same time, it strikes him as the best thing he’s done for the world: “a terrible thing to say,” he laughs, “but I don’t mean it misanthropically — just pragmatically.”

When Powers isn’t hiking, he can sit on the porch listening to the whippoorwill (a nightjar), or work on his recipe for grits (his secret: toast them first). His next project will take The Overstory’s themes into science fiction, a genre still considered suspect by some in the literary world. “But when you’re asking what would it take to effect the transformation in consciousness that humans need, the only people who ask these questions are the sci-fi writers.”

Powers recently read an Arthur C Clarke story in which the protagonists discover life on Venus, in the form of plants that look like rocks. “They say, ‘Finally, proof that mankind is not alone in the universe’.” He looks at the trees around him. “And I’m thinking — wait a minute, you didn’t actually have to leave earth to find that out.”

Two hours of steady ascent from the trail head, and Albright Grove reveals itself. After the dense, uniform trunks of the second-growth forest that dominates the southern Appalachians — almost every acre of these mountains was logged once the white man arrived — the old growth looks alien. Giant tulip poplars, centuries old, plug the sky; their trunks barely taper on their vertical journey. Around them, a mess of vegetation, living, dead and rotten, creates unearthly shapes. “Some people don’t enjoy the old-growth forests,” says Powers. “They find them too creepy.”

But the biodiversity to be found in these all-but-eradicated spaces is the secret at the heart of his novel. “No human being has ever seen an old-growth forest that’s been clear-cut come back to the richness and vitality of what it was. Ever.” It’s one of the reasons why US President Donald Trump’s move to open up national monuments such as Bears Ears in Utah to extraction and felling is so catastrophic.

“One hundred per cent of all forests would be removed if there was no consensual agreement to protect them,” says Powers. “It’s not about economics, it’s about ideology: we were told that the proper destination for mankind was domination. ‘Stop putting handcuffs on us. Let’s drain the swamp! ‘ That political metaphor is what they want to do to the landscape.”

The modern human assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are “just property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species problem. “Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.

“Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.” To that end, Powers hopes his book will be part of the restoration of a tradition that has all but ceased to exist in modern literature. “We are incredibly good at psychological and political dramas, but there’s another kind of drama — between the humans and the non-humans — that disappeared in the late 19th century, once we thought we had dominion over the earth . Because we won that battle.

“But now we know we didn’t, actually. And until you resolve that question, how do we live coherently at home on this planet, the other two kinds of stories are luxuries.”

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

Richard Powers will be at the Edinburgh international book festival on August 21.