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Book Review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior does all that a great work of eco-fiction should, addressing the issues (climate change) without sacrificing the story (a woman whose small-town world is broken wide open by a mysterious act of nature).

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Dellarobia Turnbow, married at seventeen due to a pregnancy in which she lost the baby, is a decade later still married, tied to her two young children and husband’s family farm. She escapes emotionally through wild crushes on various men—and one day, planning to go through with an affair, she heads into the mountains for the rendezvous, only to find a “lake of fire” awaiting her. The sight of it, blurred because she’d left her glasses behind, brings her back to reality and she returns home, determined to accept her life as it is. Then, when she learns of her in-laws’ plans to log the forest from which she’s just returned, she tells her husband, “They can’t log that mountain.” When pressed for a reason, she can say only, “The world can surprise you…It could be something special up there.”

That “something special” turns out to be a vast population of monarch butterflies, whose arrival, to the locals, signifies a miracle of God; to the scientific community, it’s a sign of ecological disaster.

Soon Dellarobia’s Southern Appalachian town is filled with visitors—scientists and activists, the media and the curious. Dellarobia, who has been living restlessly in a home built by her in-laws while she raises her kids and her husband works the farm, becomes drawn into the wider world of the monarchs and the global implications for their sudden and unexplained arrival in her town.

While Dellarobia, smart and intellectually curious despite a limited education, is disturbed by the fate of the butterflies and what their detour means for the ecosystem, for most of the people in her town, “weather is the Lord’s business,” and denial reigns, as does the need for survival—like the promise of logging money “‘when there’s trees standing that could be trees laying down,’” as Dellarobia’s father-in-law says.

Dellarobia is the first among them to realize that what is happening is bigger than all of them. “Man against Nature. Of all the possible conflicts, that was the one that was hopeless. Even a slim education had taught her this much: Man loses.”

Yet paying attention to climate change is a luxury for the local population, as Dellarobia herself sees when an environmental activist reads from a pledge to lower one’s carbon footprint. Among the items on the list are bringing Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers (“I’ve not eaten in a restaurant in over two years,” Dellarobia says), carrying a bottle of tap water instead of buying bottled water (“Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.”), eating less red meat (Dellarobia’s family practically lives on mac and cheese), and shopping at secondhand stores (the only stories at which Dellarobia can afford to shop).

Dellabrobia feels keenly the differences between her own life and that of the researchers, students about her own age who have no children, who “had ridden airplanes, moved among foreigners, walked on the ground of other countries. Dellarobia had been nowhere…she couldn’t even muster the strength for jealousy, given the size it would have to take.” While she recognizes that their presence is environmentally tragic, she also knows that what’s happening is presenting her with an opportunity, not only for herself but for her bright young son and her baby daughter.

As winter looms and the study of butterflies on the mountain continues, Dellarobia becomes more involved in the research, harboring feelings for the lead scientist while seeing her own family and her own future through new eyes. Using both page-turning tension and great empathy, Kingsolver portrays not only the implications of a changing planet but the reverberations of personal change upon an entire family, creating an unforgettable story.

 

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Book Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang

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Whenever I speak to people about the eco-fiction, this book is the most commonly mentioned.

And it should be.

It’s the first book to put a name and face to the movement to protect the planet — or at least “throw a monkey wrench” in developments.

Published in 1975, many aspects of the book are remarkably timely, which is quite sad, of course. As the book is about four people who join forces to throw a monkey wrench into developments that are destroying local environments. This ranges from burning billboards to torching a clear cutting operation, destroying bridges, and, ultimately, trying to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam. The spirit of Ned Ludd looms large over this book.

The spirit of the book is infectious: four revolutionaries traveling across the Southwest desert destroying signs of commercialism and extraction along the way. It’s easy to see how this book has inspired a generation of activism. The firebrand of the group, Hayduke, sums it up nicely when he says:

“My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.”

What I like most about this book is how Abbey captures the “tilting at windmills” mentally of the characters. I empathize with their need to strike out, to say no in whatever fashion they can. But the more they destroy, the closer they get to being caught.

Near-misses multiply. People get sloppy. And the authorities get more persistent.

Abbey portrays a vivid, exciting world of living on the edge of society. And for these people, once they go to the edge and beyond, it’s clear they’re not coming back. Which is how I feel at times, though for different reasons.

There is a major flaw to this book, which is quite obvious to me. A number of characters are upset with developments that kill trees or damage native wildlife, and yet they all eat meat without any remorse. It’s a shame there is a disconnect among the characters regarding the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment. But, then again, it’s the early 1970s. If this book were updated for today, that’s the only thing I would change. The rest of it, sadly, is as timely as it was when it was published.

One final point: I like how two of the characters are older — one is in his sixties. I look around today and sometimes wonder what happened to all that activism that sprouted in the 1970s only to go fallow in the ’80s and ’90s.

The Monkey Wrench Gang (P.S.)

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The Earth Goddess and Fiction

 

Goddess by Baraka Berger
Goddess by Baraka Berger

With the Summer Solistice upon us, it’s a good time to revisit the Earth Goddess and her literary legacy. In sync with the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was an impressionable 14 year-old, women were throwing off the shackles of patriarchy in the streets and in their homes, even in churches, chucking out any male god who lived on a cloud. Many turned to the Old Religion, governed by the Goddess, who once reigned over a peaceful, matrilineal world in harmony with Nature. Then, according to legend, the priests came, driving her and her followers underground where they were called witches, and thus began civilization’s slide into constant war and ecological devastation.

 

Women writers of the 70’s and early 80’s incorporated this mythopoeic vision into their novels, and I read them all. Marge Piercy, in Woman on the Edge of Time, wrote about an ideal society based on the assumed female principles of peace and love of the earth, set against a cautionary tale of continued male domination and its attendant disregard for the planet. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood created a dystopia of sexism and violence after men become infertile by a toxic event of their own making. Other writers contemplated the past instead of the future. Marion Zimmer Bradley retold the King Arthur myth from Morgan le Fay’s point of view in The Mists of Avalon, making the goddess worshipper the heroine and not the villain. Jean Auel, in Clan of the Cave Bear, placed the goddess plunk in the center of the Stone Age.

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By the mid-80’s, as women put on their shoulder pads and floppy ties and went to the office, feminism began to pull away from the Earth Goddess. Flouting one’s fertility and innate peaceful nature at the office was not going to break any glass ceilings. The focus had turned to job equality and pay equity, so academic and political interests set out to prove there were no differences between the genders. And rightly so. It’s a small step from archetype to stereotype. Continue reading The Earth Goddess and Fiction