One image that contains 15,000 galaxies

Who we are when we encounter a story can have a lot to do with how we engage with that story and what meaning we take from it. Our age, personal experience, cultural context, social morays, and even the political climate — together they act as a complex system of filters, some that allow information and emotion through on amplifiers, others that serve almost as censors, blinding us to some messages and pushing our “unlike” button on others.

If you doubt it, consider the debate that rages over some of the classics: “Huckleberry Finn,” “Gone with the Wind,” even “To Kill a Mockingbird” have taken on different facets as we sharpen the focus on overdue racial reckoning. More simply, talk to a close friend about a book or movie they loved and you definitely did not. Rather than just debate the quality of the craft at work, think about how each of you view life in general and, more specifically, where you each were in your own lives when you read or watched that story.

I thought of that today when I came across a line early in “Bewilderment,” the most recent novel by Pulitzer winner Richard Powers.

In 2018, Powers brought his prodigious intellect and imagination to “The Overstory,” where he used a sweeping human narrative to take us deep into the science and, I would argue, the soul of trees. I haven’t looked at an aspen or birch the same way since. In that case, I was familiar with many of the events he drew on for his story arc. He follows multiple, disparate characters whose lives converge as they try to save an old-growth forest from logging. That was an issue I covered in depth as an environmental reporter in Oregon in the late 1970s. I understood the politics and economics, but not until I read Powers did I understand the ecosystem beneath it all.

In “Bewilderment,” Powers looks just as closely, but his sights are aimed at the far heavens rather than beneath the spongy earth. This book, so far, is as intimately focused as “The Overstory” was vast, at least in terms of primary character development. The protaganist is a widowed astrobiologist (I didn’t even know there was such a thing), who is trying to raise his special-needs and very special son. They are happiest when looking through a spectrometer (another thing I had to look up) to micro-life on planets in other galaxies. Or maybe Dad is making up those lives and planets; my limited vision wasn’t sure and I soon realized I really didn’t care.

But I’m only 53 pages in, so who knows where this will take me?

And yet, just 53 pages in, I had dogeared eight pages, and I was holding myself back. Most mark wondrous moments of writing — metaphor, description, dialog — that took my breath away. Damn, how do people do that?

Then, on page 53, a sentence that I probably would have read through and past if not for these times we find ourselves in, and the news I find myself obsessed with. The father and son have just returned from a calming week in the wilderness, and now are back to the cacophony of civilization:

The first night home was hard on Robin. Our mountain getaway had smashed all routines, and thermodynamics long ago proved that putting things back together is lots harder than taking them apart.

I crashed right back from the mysteries of distant space and to the even more mysterious events on our fractious Earth. My first thoughts flew to Ukraine, a country battling to hold itself together even as Russia tries to take it apart. That led to a mental map of former Soviet bloc, countries, some which now are members of the European Union. And that led to thinking about attempts to dismantle democracy on multiple fronts — from political power to immigration attitudes to social safety nets to open-minded education to a free and independent press.

Tuned-in reading

In both “Bewilderment” and “The Overstory,” it’s impossible to ignore the warnings about environmental degradation and our broken relationship with the planet we call home. Science is also a steady drumbeat. Political divisions are, of course, part of that story. But the current crises?

I’d love to ask Powers if he was thinking of that, also, as he wrote the line about the challenge of putting things back together. I’d love to go back and re-read with new awareness for all the things I probably missed the first time through.

But there are new books to read and events to follow. I will try to do both with expanded awareness.

Further Reading