Friday, October 26, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver: Being Part of Nature's Fabric

Guest Post by Ernest Marshall

        I recently contributed book reviews for the authors Ernest Thompson Seton and Henry David Thoreau, “classic” nature writers in the tradition of William Bartram, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, who explore and extol the value of wildness or nature “in the raw."  But what about a viewpoint of 21st century America, where we mostly abide in cities and subdivisions in a world of 7 billion-and-growing people and nature has to jostle for its bit of residual space?

         Barbara Kingsolver comes first to mind, especially her novel,  Prodigal Summer (2001).  The narrative interweaves the lives of three romantically involved couples with their relationship to nature, family, and community.  Nature is viewed in terms of how it interacts with our lives and relationships, and we with it, through the lens of Kingsolver’s considerable gifts as a writer.  
      Deanna is a park ranger living alone in the wilds of Kentucky, who falls for Eddie, who is poaching game on public lands.  The conflict between the preservationist and the hunter complicates their wooing, although both have their connections with the forest and its creatures.
Lusa is a city gal who marries Cole, a farmer.  She is an entomologist, and they meet when he takes a seminar she gives on pest management.  Cole dies, and Lusa is left to run the small farm and contend with in-laws on her own.  Lusa is a formally educated, urban environmentalist having to learn new ways of understanding our relationship to the land and the elements. 
Garnett is a retired high school ag teacher who aspires to bring back the American chestnut tree, affectionately but quarrelsomely coupled with Nannie, whose approach to her orchard is all organic -- eschewing pesticides.
Kingsolver, an award-winning poet, essayist, and novelist, is also a trained biologist, so ecological concepts and biological facts are artfully strewn through Prodigal Summer and many other of her writings.  But more importantly, she knows how to interlace these with details of the human domain.   

In her volume of essays High Tide in Tucson, the title essay looks at the instinct of a pet hermit crab named Buster to go up and down the family aquarium in time with the tides of the Caribbean. This is a metaphor for all those habits of the heart that reveal themselves as we adjust to a new home, get homesick, try to make new friends and miss old ones. She experienced this after a two thousand mile move to Arizona.  In Making Peace, javelinas, a pesky desert variety of wild pig, keep tearing up the garden, at best a chancy thing in the Sonoran Desert.  This calls forth an insightful meditation on life and nature and “the best laid plans of mice and men."
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands takes a look at our nation’s diversity of remaining prairies, forests, deserts, marshes, and other islands of nature in a dwindling landscape. 

Kingsolver's other nature writings include Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a loving and humorous account of trying to grow your own, beg and borrow, or do without, on a farm in southwestern Virginia with her ornithologist husband and teenage daughter.
I believe Kingsolver’s main strength as a nature writer, in addition to her talents for turning a phrase and spinning a tale, is her way with exploring environmental issues.  Nature in the 21st century has largely been transformed from that place of bucolic beauty of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to a mire of political contention.  The term “environmentalist," once referring merely to one who treasures nature, has become a beast of burden for a heavy load of principles and presumptions, and so-called environmentalists are expected to dogmatically proclaim and grind their ax at every opportunity.  (And likewise for their opponents.)
But rather than being a manifesto, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
recounts an experiment in sustainable living, much as our grandparents or great grandparents lived.  Some have dubbed this project the “hundred mile club," eating only what can come from yards and farms within a hundred miles radius.  (As the book points out, goodbye to our cherished coffee and olive oil.)  Kingsolver tells this story without being doctrinaire or glossing over the difficulties and downsides as well as its joyful surprises.  (Who would have thought that making cheese was so much fun?)
         Fiction, over the essay, sermon, or lecture, gives the writer the opportunity to present and examine ideas and alternatives through the characters and what they do.  Deanna and Eddie in Prodigal Summer “act out” the ethical issues pertaining to hunting.  Lusa and her in-laws draw out environmental issues through disagreements over managing the family farm. For example, should they raise goats rather than tobacco, as Lusa urges?  Garrett and Nannie take a close look at pesticide use, and a variety of uses of the land.
         Environmental issues will surely continue be part of the mix of topics of political debate in this country for some time to come.  Energy sources and usage, air and water pollution, parks and refuges, the health of wildlife populations, endangered species, climate change, recycling and waste disposal, are the beginning of a lengthy list. A writer such as Barbara Kingsolver helps us see how these complex, controversial, and often seemingly abstract and remote issues can be concrete and personal.


  1. Make sure you also read "Animal Dreams" by Kingsolver. Another great book the explores so many interesting topics, environment being one.
    I loved this post!
    "Prodigal Summer" is one of my favorite books EVER...and, between you and me, that is saying something!

    1. Hi Karen, I've liked all Kingsolver's novels so far, though I haven't read the new ones. Her upcoming release, Flight Behavior, is being reviewed by other book bloggers as we speak. :-) I love Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees. Have you read The Poisonwood Bible? An interesting (though not subtle) exploration of religious evangelism and imperialism and a wonderful character study of the protagonists.

      I haven't read the non-fiction books or essays that Dad reviewed above. It sounds like they're well worth a look.

  2. I've read The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Tress, but I haven't read the book discussed in this post. I will have to look into it!

  3. Prodigal Summer is one of my favorites.


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