Climate Change. Global Warming. Whatever title you give “it,” we don’t talk about “it” at dinner parties, not in the same way we discuss things which happen at our child’s school, the latest movie or episode of Mad Men or where we’re going on vacation this year.
Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest book: Flight Behavior, attempts to convey the dangers of climate change through an All American story of a farming family whose lives are turned upside down because of it. As butterflies settle on their land because of weather shifts in Mexico the previous year, a mystery unravels as to why.
A witty, melancholy and pure account of rural life in the American Appalachia belt, it is also a serious play-by-play of what could happen to a species when their normal “flight behavior” gets changed as a result of being forced to winter (and mate) somewhere new.
While the narrative is driven by the not yet true extinction of the Monarch butterfly, she taps into expert sources for guidance in constructing a fictional story within a plausible biological framework.
Flight Behavior is a suitable title since the phrase applies to butterflies as much as it does to humans, as evident through the unraveling of a dysfunctional marriage of main character Dellarobia Turnbow.
Under the footprint of her in-laws since she lives with her husband on their land, she has no say in her confinement, a life which solely exists of tending to her two children and occasional trips to the town next door, which the community of Feathertown mistrusts largely because it has a college and some people actually attend it.
Giving up on further education since she lost her parents and gave birth to a stillborn as a teenager, her life as a restless farm wife suddenly gets transformed as Santa-Fe based and Harvard educated biologist Ovid Byron shows up to study the millions of butterflies which landed on the Turnbow farm as a result of what he deems is nothing short of climate change.
A local TV crew disagrees, attempting to tell their own story about this sudden miraculous phenomena which has covered the Appalachia mountains with a orange flock of Monarchs, which at a distance resemble an astonishing “lake of fire.” This so called phenomena is a miracle according to her church and the media and a disaster according to Ovid Byron.
Dellarobia struggles with her commitment to her family and what God’s hand has to do with the arrival of the butterflies and what science suggests is true. Sarcastic at the best of times, she pokes fun of the misalignment and ambiguity of her God-fearing community, even if only in her mind’s eye.
She refers to her mother-in-law Hester (who grew up in a trailer park) as a 911 Christian: in the event of an emergency, call the Lord. She was unlike all those who called on Jesus daily, rain or shine, to discuss their day and feel the love. Once upon a time, Dellarobia recalls turning to her mother for that.
She reflects in her struggle with religion: Jesus was a more reliable backer evidently, as he was less likely to drink himself unconscious or get liver cancer…no wonder people chose Him as their number one friend. But if the chemistry wasn’t there, what could you do?
While the world around her doesn’t believe climate change is real, she learns through working closely with Byron and his team that new weather patterns affect everything in a species migratory pathway and the impact can be devastating, ranging from fires to floods as they saw in Angangueo Mexico.
The reason he asserts that there are so many non-believers is that people expect a final conclusion of what’s real and not real, but with science, answers are never complete because it’s a process. He notes:“It is not a foot race, with a finish line,” but sadly journalists and impatient crowds are eager to see a race with a finite statement that explains everything. He says, “as long as we won’t commit to knowing everything, the presumption is that we know nothing.”
Kingsolver’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes intentionally raw account is more than just suspenseful because we’re at the edge of our seats wanting to know whether both her marriage and the Monarch butterflies will live or die and somehow, they feel so intertwined in that fight or flight behavior that applies to all species, including humans.
All of us have our own truth of whether global warming is real or not. What Kingsolver’s riveting story does is make it real with a small rural Tennessee community who experience something they cannot explain. In the discovery process, locals, journalists, religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, farmers and politicians argue their own truths.
Amidst the chaos, Ovid Byron embarks upon a path to study a species he loves and is at risk of dying off, knowing that only nature can save them. The problem is of course that nature as we know it and that certain species expect it to behave year after year is dramatically changing, so much so that this shift is confusing migration and mating possibilities, denying what did thrive under those conditions to still thrive.
A sad but engrossing tale, she’ll weave you in and out of scientific anecdotes & facts, American mass commercialism showing its ugliest face to a life of poverty, a flailing farm and husband and everything in between.
A must read for anyone who cares about the environment and animals….and preserving what we know, love and hold dear. Even if you’re a global warming naysayer, there’s no denying that climate patterns are currently wacky and not just on one continent. While scientists continue to get to the bottom of why, this telling novel, fiction aside, will get you to think differently about the environment around us.
Flight Behavior which launched in hardback last year, is due to be released in paperback on June 4, 2013.
Photo credits: hereandnow.wbur.org, Tampa Bay, Worldwildlife.org and the revivalist.info.