Dellarobia stands on a hillside behind her family’s farm, seeing, incredibly, not dark wintry firs, but a glory of gold, flaming but not burning. She cannot understand what she is seeing in front of her.
I too, once stood looking out at colors and shapes I could not understand. The golds and ambers and browns finally came together in my brain as the ages-old scene of the Grand Canyon, a picture of change so slow and spaces so great I could hardly grasp it.
Barbara Kingsolver, in Flight Behavior, weaves together small human sized lives and planet-wide realities in a way no other writer matches. Every detail in this beautifully constructed novel is a meditation on the title. Dellarobia is the voice of the small town farmer and of the scientist she had wanted to be, flying from or to, a different life.
One part of the plot involves her father-in-law’s intention to clear cut a hillside above the farm, even knowing the devastation it will cause and the near certainty of erosion and landslides, but feeling compelled by financial pressures, and convinced also that the land is his to do with as he wants. The family’s pastor talks to them about creation care. My years in Eureka showed me the pressure for jobs and income in a community dependent on timber, many of whom could not believe the logging would ever end. So vulnerable. So ready to weigh “jobs” against “spotted owls.” Kingsolver shows us people on all sides, makes them real, makes us care, but doesn’t hesitate to name the reality of the effect on the environment and the planet.
The character I loved most though was Dellarobia’s son, Preston. Talking to a friend who is leading my Abingdon Book Group through this book, she said Preston reminded her of my little grandson, even though she doesn’t know him well. A curious, thoughtful little five year old guy, on his way in a world different already from my world. Preston is given a calendar for Christmas, with pictures of endangered species, and, even though he is a still bit rocky on the months of the year, he memorizes every single animal that very day. Grandson’s bucket of dinosaurs still puzzles me but he has known every one since he was three. Just today, this popped up on Facebook from his mother: “I’m used to being the one with a good memory, but it’s not me anymore. Ben wanted to rename his chicken so I suggested a name based on Jurassic Park since chickens evolved from dinosaurs (ish). He didn’t want to use “Velociraptor” because the chickens are herbivores. I said “There was a herbivore biped dinosaur with huge claws, wasn’t there? What was it called?” (as I headed for Google). “Therazinosaurus” said Ben.”
I don’t think we can talk of the future without talking about the generations after us. I look at the hominid skulls at daughter’s here (they are literally in front of my eyes when I wake up!) and muse of the depths of pre-history, and I read Teilhard de Chardin or modern science and see how vast the unknown future is. And yet we carry on as though everything will continue pretty much the same as now, and what we do makes no difference. Dellarobia knows that is not true. She knows how precious and fragile is her discovery.
Back in the 80s, we brought home caterpillars of the Anise Swallowtail butterfly, fed them (on anise) and watched as they pupated and emerged from their cocoons. Miracle! Son in New Zealand has been doing the same over there, to my surprise. But I never thought of them as part of anything larger, the way migrating monarchs are.
At the beginning of the book she looks back down the hill to her farm, noticing how shabby, vulnerable and tenuous it seems. Again at the end she stands on the same slope, watching.
Yes, our whole life, our whole civilization is vulnerable and tenuous. My parents and grandparents lived through more change than they could cope with, and I, like them, quake when looking forward. For my grandmother, change was cars: crossing the road, without looking, she would say, “They daren’t hit me!” My father was a radar pioneer but couldn’t cope with email in his last years. My generation, some of us, really worried about having children in a world threatened by nuclear warfare (which it still is, though no-one, scarily, seems to take much notice.)
Maybe, as Connie Willis claims, “Every century is a ten.” I cannot imagine a world of climate change. As I write this there are massive floods in England, extreme low temperatures in the US northeast, and forest fires in northern California, where humidity is 6% and rain and snow has been half what it is in a normal year.
Dellarobia has “felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge.” Yet she also sees him as “already…set apart by a devotion to his own pursuits that was brave and unconforming.”
I think I can only cope with this in a story. I know Dellarobia, and Preston, will find their “flight behavior” leads to a place of possibility. I hold to the last message of a priest I knew, dead in a violent attack this last week. “Don’t give up on hope.”
This book will be on my Best Books list for 2014, probably as one of the most important books of the year, and I shall miss the discussions it will lead in my book group while I am far away . Do read it.