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.”
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.
I’ve been pretty busy lately with work and the Olympics, so I thought I would read something short and fun. “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde was the perfect choice: quick, entertaining, well written, and thought-provoking. Basically, it’s a story about an obnoxious American family that moves into an English country house that is haunted. The ghost finds the family so insufferable that it becomes depressed.
One of the things I found the most humorous was the Americans’ obsession with brand-name products, suggesting that the ghost use “Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator” to oil his chains so as not to make too much noise at night. It seems that little has changed. American’s still appear swayed by marketing and advertisement. I can’t turn on the TV without being bombarded by commercials telling me which brand is preferred by 4 out of 5 ______ and how this car will make all the women look at me. Whether you want to admit it or not, we are a consumer society.
For me, the most intriguing line of the story was the very last one: “Virginia blushed.” This was in response to her husband asking if she would tell their children about what happened when she was with the ghost. It is not clear why she blushed. It would appear that the idea of them conceiving children was the reason, but I suspect there is something else going on, that there was some form of intimate relationship between Virginia and the ghost. There are two clues that make me think this. First is the ruby necklace that the ghost gave to Virginia, the crimson color of the rubies symbolizing the blood associated with the loss of virginity (Virgin/Virginia). The second was that after Virginia returns from her time with the ghost, the twins point out the blossoms that appear on the almond tree, blossoms representing the blossoming of a virgin into womanhood.
There is a lot to contemplate in this short story, so it is definitely worth a read. If you want, you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!!