I’ve been listening to Barbara Kingsolver read her new novel, Flight Behavior, on my car CD player, and I have to wonder what the other drivers must think of me as I shake my head and talk to myself. Of course there are lots of people with those little earpieces talking to themselves nowadays, so they probably assume I’m up to speed technologically.
My head shaking isn’t negative. Quite the contrary. I can’t help exclaiming, “Damn, she’s good.” Or just “Wow.” The woman is master of the metaphor and sneaks them in so slyly that they flit on by like the butterflies in the story.
Kingsolver tells stories about the universal lessons of life forms, human and otherwise. Some take flight out of necessity and others because they can’t necessarily adapt to their physical and emotional surroundings. In this story, a young mother in the mountains of eastern Tennessee has an epiphany of sorts because she forgot to bring her glasses with her on a walk up a hill. When she sees millions of Monarch butterflies on an adjacent hill doing what butterflies do during roosting season, she thinks it’s a message from either god or her mother-in-law. The vision is so powerful that she changes her mind about committing adultery in an old cabin hidden among the trees and goes back home.
The story wraps itself around the question about why millions of Monarch butterflies chose to roost in eastern Tennessee, rather than their natural habitat in Mexico. The reader learns just about everything there is to know about Monarch butterflies, without being force fed a whole semester of entomology. Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for 30 years knows the moral of the story is going to be about climate change.
On one of my errand runs recently, I passed a little church on a country road and read on its message board: “Judgment Day is Coming.” Yes it is. But we’re not going to line up before St. Peter. We’re going to face each other down over the dwindling supply of natural resources and see who is fit to survive. When wheat won’t grow in the breadbaskets of the planet anymore, how will we adapt? When superstorms aren’t “super” any more, can we afford to rebuild over and over?
Climate scientists tell us the average temperature on Earth has already risen two degrees. The National Geographic Society offers a DVD called “Six Degrees Could Change the World” where the viewer sees, by way of some very clever photographic tricks, what parts of the world will look like when the temperature has risen by four degrees, five degrees and then six degrees. Lower Manhattan will flood just like it did recently during Superstorm Sandy. Only this time, the water won’t recede. Islands in the South Pacific are already disappearing. Well, not really disappearing, just not visible above water. California and Florida have already lost expanses of beaches, as the ocean laps up against the pitiful piles of rocks meant to keep it away. Meanwhile, the lack of rain and snow in the Mississippi River watershed has closed the once “mighty” river to commercial traffic.
The butterflies found a resting place in eastern Tennessee despite the distinct possibility that their little bodies will freeze and die. But they couldn’t go home to Mexico because they would not survive there either.
When I finish listening to Kingsolver’s story sermon, I’ll let you know how it ends. Or maybe the story isn’t really over.
Susan Cunningham is a retired teacher of American history. She lives near St. Louis, Missouri.