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Thoughts on “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

When I was a college student, I took a course on Environmental Literature, where we read such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Mary Oliver, and others. It was an inspiring course and spoke to my environmentalist sensibilities. The Overstory by Richard Powers would be a worthy addition to a course on Environmental Literature.

This book is exquisitely written and full of insightful and thought-provoking passages about humanity’s connection to trees and the natural world. In fact, as I was reading this book, I took copious notes regarding sections that were of interest and worthy of writing about in this post, but there is one passage that stands out for me above all others in this book:

“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

(p. 336)

As a person who takes environmental issues seriously and who feels that climate change is the greatest existential threat facing humanity, I am often baffled at the apathy and denial that I see around me. I could not understand why people would refuse to heed the recommendations of scientific experts. But Powers identifies the problem and the solution. Facts and data do not inspire. Stories do. Oscar Wilde famously wrote: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” You can beat people over the head with statistics and argue until you are out of breath, but that will never change another person’s mind. But art, or a powerful story, these can speak directly to a person’s soul.

I had an English professor in college who told me that the books and poems we read matter. The Overstory validates what my professor told me all those years ago. This book matters, and I suspect that anyone reading this book will be a different person by the time they finish.

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