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Last night on a downtown street, someone busted out the front passenger window of my car to dig around inside it. Whoever it was — a passerby who, conveniently, had a brick or a big rock in his hand — found a wallet stuffed with essential identification, credit cards and $40, in the glove compartment. They left behind CDs, books and a freshly filled prescription from Walgreens still in its white paper bag, and ran off with remnants of my identity.
I’m not happy about this circumstance, the auto glass replacement bill and the insurance deductible that won’t cover it, having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a replacement drivers license, dickering with voice mail robots on endless customer service calls to cancel cards, police so overburdened with similar calls they can’t even make it to the scene to take a report.
But in the midst of it all, I’m feeling a strange calm. I think it’s because for the past week I’ve been living part-time inside Barbara Kingsolver’s strange and wonderful new novel, Flight Behavior (HarperCollins, 2012), an artful and complex treatment of the juncture of human longing and the moral and physical consequences of global climate change.
Stop! You say. Please, no more lectures on carbon emissions and superstorms wrapped in deceptively delicate language! No more biology lessons in sheep’s clothing.
You are right to be suspicious. Most novels that dare to be this audacious, to trumpet a social justice or environmental issue (including most of those that have been rewarded with Kingsolver’s $25,000 annual Bellwether Prize) feel like partisan pamphlets poured into a plot.
But let me make a case for Flight Behavior, if not a convoluted link to the window-busting incident.
The story is set in southern Appalachia, near fictional Feathertown, Tennessee, where Dellarobia Turnbow — a smart and sassy 28-year old married mother of two — is fixing to throw away her familiar life one winter afternoon, in an ill-advised tryst, when she comes upon a sight that upends everything she knows. The overly warm, rain-drenched forest on the mountainside behind her house is aflame with writhing, dripping clusters of millions of fiery orange Monarch butterflies.
From that initial vision, a warning sign that sends Dellarobia running home, evolves the story of the Monarch’s migrational dislocation due to floods and landslides in the Mexico forest where they have over-wintered for thousands of years. Scientists converge on the Turnbow’s farm to study the phenomenon and Dellarobia becomes, at once, an unwitting media star, a lab assistant, a disenchanted wife and daughter-in-law, and a woman witnessing the passive resistance of her own life.
In Kingsolver’s capable hands — after all, she is a scientist with a masters degree in evolutionary biology as well as a stellar fiction writer — we are asked not so much to consider the devastating consequences of climate change, but to observe how and why, at a time when scientists’ warnings are clearer and clearer and the evidence is staring us in the face, humans fall into mutually polarizing camps of point of view. In a recent Time magazine interview, Kingsolver put it this way:
“If I had to sum up the heart of this novel in a sentence I would say it’s about why people can look at the same set of facts and come away with absolutely different convictions about what they’ve seen.”
In our town this week, in real time, demonstrators converged on the front lawn of City Hall to protest the City Council’s recent proposal to make fracking legal within city limits. Dads and moms and grandmas and school teachers and long-time and first-time activists declared they would not stand by and watch as giant machines fracture the earth below our feet, potentially stirring up and polluting our pristine water supply. Or worse.
The Dellarobias among us, and I am one of them, find ourselves in the middle of a crash course in the future consequences of turning away from what we don’t want to see or talk about. We find ourselves awakening to the ecology of our daily lives: the costs and consequences of not paying attention.
So, really, in a fractured world, in our not-so-little microcosm of Colorado Springs, on a bitter winter’s night when the poorest among us have recently been told they may not beg for money, lest they be arrested or issued a stiff fine, it’s not so surprising that someone wantonly crashes a rock through a car window in search of a handful of dollars, then runs.
We see it and turn away, our own peculiarly human flight behavior.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.