Mari HowardMarch 6, 2020

Flight Behaviour

by Barbara Kingsolver

‘Living systems are sensitive to very small changes…’ so says Dr Ovid Byron, lead scientist of a group investigating the strange appearance of pretty much the whole population of Monarch butterflies to a farming area of the Appalachians in Tennessee, when they should have flown, as usual, to overwinter in Mexico.

I wrote this review last month (February 2020) but not much has changed - the world is in a mess... we are still having too much rain here in the UK, the epidemic Corona Virus h as hit across the world adding pestilence to flood (and don't forget fire in Australia), war rages in many places, and the Climate Crisis is largely ignored or sidelined by governments, while causing anxiety to many ordinary people... so what's new, and what has been anticipated? Read on - it is a superb novel, in my opinion...

It’s fiction, but its premise is true, and its biological facts base is real. As I write, Storm Ciara rages outside, 28 mph winds which have been blowing all night and into today continue, with gusts well beyond here in Oxford and way more, to 70 mph on the Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. The rain beats down from a deeply grey clouded sky. And in the area of Featherstone, Tennessee, rain has fallen for months of unseasonably warm wet weather through November, December, and January. Featherstone is already a town of poverty — most of the surrounding area is farm land, and the vicissitudes of weather dominate life, along with the traditional marriages, sport, and poor schooling. Along with a fundamentalist and resigned belief in God.

When a young mother tells her church congregation how she’s seen thousands of Monarch butterflies roosting up on their farm on the mountain, most people take this as a vision, or at least a blessing, from God. A sign and a wonder. As she shows her family the Monarchs, ‘Butterflies rested and crawled even on the forest floor…’ (p.73)

The woman (named Dellarobia, a word her mother happened to find and feel drawn to) was an unlikely choice for God. Pregnant in high school, she’d abandoned dreams of being the one in her year to make it to a college education, and married Cub, her boyfriend and father of her child. That baby died — but now Dellarobia and Cub have two kids, and farm a share of Cub’s parents’ farm. Like all their neighbours, they struggle to make ends meet.

Kingsolver weaves a wonderful story of what could be called ‘redemption’, as Dellarobia grows in confidence and understanding under the tutelage of Dr Byron, who is studying the butterflies, and why they turned up in the southern Appalachians. Historically their amazing migration rhythm takes the whole community back and forth between Canada and North America, and Mexico, year by year. As she becomes increasingly involved as a lab helper, we readers are taken on the same journey. Kingsolver’s study of human behaviour captures both the community of this backwoods Appalachian area, and the contrasting beliefs and behaviours of the research team. Dellarobia is taken aback that they can both appreciate and venerate the natural world while also adopting a cool and objective attitude — counting, weighing, recording, including the destruction of the bodies of thousands of butterflies (‘butterfly soup’ in the centrifuge), in order to obtain the facts. A conversation between Dellarobia and Dr Byron reveals to us — as to him and to herself — this woman’s innate intelligence, and her value as a human being. The discussion? The difference between ‘cause and correlation’ (see p.334-7).

And so, the book works both as a story — of fulfilment in intellectual and personal terms — and as a source of information — about attitudes. About the slow and meticulous work of the researchers — ‘Measuring and counting are the tasks of science’ (p. 482)

And about how work in many areas builds up to give a picture of not only ‘climate change’ but the inevitable and disastrous effects, and of the interdependence of all living organisms. Against this is contrasted what the public is given as information, and how they receive it. Of how the need for short term gain (logging both brings in cash, and reduces the environment to mud while also reducing the work of trees in dealing with carbon emissions). We see both the use and misuse of many contemporary inventions and the uselessness of many suggestions. We have lessons in what ‘community’ might really mean for all of us. 

An animal is the sum of its behaviours,’ he said… ‘Its community dynamics. Not just a physical body!’ (p. 437)

I found this sentence interesting and paused to consider it in relation to Paul’s definition of ‘Christ’s body, the Church’. How much is the Church — both as a whole and as each parish and congregation — a healthy ‘animal’ or ‘body’?

And along with the environmental message we have closely observed scenes of the quite precarious lives of the local farmers, where poverty due to failed crops or livestock is always a threat, and church supplies a kind of desperate hopeful traditionalism. Though for Dellarobia, who thinks more deeply, in conversation with Dr Byron and enjoying being part of the research, ‘Even now, dread still struck her down sometimes if she found herself counting on things being fine.’ (p.320)  

There are scenes at the pound shop, buying Christmas gifts for the children: we learn how differently she and Cub view their lives, Cub content to remain as he is, a poor farmer without much drive towards anything greater. The time she takes her children on an expedition with her best friend from school, still a single woman, and her six year old, who’s fallen in love with science via the butterfly phenomenon, insists on buying a secondhand encyclopaedia, to learn more about animals.  A wonderful scene where Dellarobia and her mother in law, Hester, work as a team to vaccinate in-lamb ewes: these two women do not like each other, but they share the work, working in tandem along with the sheep dog, each at their allotted task (p.455ff). Later, there are in-depth revelations from her mother-in-law, as Dellarobia takes her along to help find any winter-flowering plants, (p. 464ff). This scene recalled for me Kingsolver's later book (Unsheltered, 2019) which features botanist Mary Treat and fictional character Thatcher Greenwood out identifying and, even back then in the 19th century, noticing those which were rare and occupied only certain habitats.

Back to the Appalacians and the 21st century: there follow hopes for a better future being set in motion. With the sense that all is too slow, and too late.

I would recommend this book to all of us who care about our planet and its interconnected systems, and all who maybe aren’t yet engaged. It’s an easy, captivating read, entertaining as much as informative, and very well written. You find yourself in there with the characters. You are rooting for Dellarobia to fulfil her potential.