monarch butterfly migration 14
The Middle Distance 12/14/12

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

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.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 12/14/12: In A Fractured World

  1. rose enyeart says:

    Nicely, done. I’m sorry for your inconvenience and yet very satisfied with your conclusion…

  2. Joyce cheney says:

    Goosebumps.

  3. Thank you for taking an opportunity to turn a moment of being a victim of theft into a moment of knowledge and insight about the author Barbara Kingsolver.

  4. Ken Brickman says:

    excellence in brevity, description, and conclusion. Thank you.

News

AP
April 19, 2014 | NPR · The military’s training center at Fort Irwin in California is complete with mock Middle Eastern villages. But as the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down, how will this facility change?
 

AP
April 19, 2014 | NPR · General Motors delayed a safety recall of more than 330,000 cars, newly released federal documents show. The Saturn Ions were found to have defective power steering systems.
 

AFP/Getty Images
April 19, 2014 | NPR · Search teams are digging through ice and snow on Mount Everest in hopes of finding Sherpa guides who are still missing. Survivors say the avalanche was like being trapped in a cloud.
 

Arts & Life

Courtesy of Penguin
April 19, 2014 | NPR · Raymond Gunt is profane, rude, heartless and truly the Worst. Person. Ever. Author Douglas Coupland says he’s not exactly sure how the character, with no redeeming qualities, came into his mind.
 

Ricardo Solis
April 19, 2014 | NPR · The pink on a flamingo? Stripes on a zebra? Spots on a giraffe? All explained. Simply. Elegantly. Oddly.
 

Courtesy of Riverhead Books
April 19, 2014 | NPR · Lisa Robinson knows how to talk — and how to make others, especially musicians, want to talk. The veteran rock journalist speaks with NPR’s Wade Goodwyn about her four decades behind the scenes.
 

Music

April 19, 2014 | NPR · Canadian jazz saxophonist Christine Jensen has begun using a full “jazz orchestra” of up to 18 players, opening new horizons for her. NPR’s Arun Rath speaks with Jensen about her new album, Habitat.
 

Various for NPR
April 19, 2014 | NPR · The songs, videos and musical moments that stopped the All Songs host in his tracks. This week: A cat video, a live double rainbow and all the soles you can shake a camera at.
 

NPR
April 19, 2014 | NPR · A young Pakistani musician treats the guitar as a percussion instrument — with surprisingly shimmering results. He also performs a piano piece he wrote at just 16.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab