Books: Horizon, Desert Cabal, and Flight Behavior

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

One of the things I love most about starting the long process of working in a new book (long for me anyway--I'm a ridiculously slow writer) is that it's a license to read widely. Since my new memoir, Bless the Birds, went off to my agent for her read, I've been clearing off my desk to make literal and also metaphorical space for the next project. And reading. 

I have several books going right now, including Barry Lopez' deep and thoughtful new book of memoir/essays, Horizon. Barry's book is hefty at over 550 pages, so I'm taking it slowly, dipping in and reading a bit, and then savoring what I read. I'm not ready to say much about it except, Wow. 

As an example, here's the quote from Horizon that I'm using near the end of Bless the Birds: 

We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light. (p. 42)

I am deeply grateful to Barry for the gift of his thoughts and words over these many years, in whatever form. (He writes amazing fiction too.) His work and the letters we exchange sporadically have stretched and enriched my understanding of the world and of my life's mission. Barry never fails to reaching deep into my core; sometimes when I turn inward, feeling hopeless, he quietly but firmly turns me back toward the rest of life, too.

In contrast to Horizon, Amy Irvine's Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness is a deceptively small volume, coming in at just under 90 pages. The book's size is not, in any way, a reflection of its impact. Irvine's extended conversation-essay-dream is an frank and frankly feminist look at today's West and the part that Ed Abbey and his classic of western nature writing, Desert Solitaire, played in shaping it, an appraisal that is long overdue.  

Irving writes in the form of an extended conversation with Abbey on a visit to his grave in the desolate stretches of the Sonoran Desert somewhere not far from the Arizona-Mexico border. It's fresh and sometimes funny magical realism in service of understanding where we are and what the heck to do about it. Her forthright, fearless, and honest words offer a much-needed breath of female air and thought, in a field of writing that still models itself on men's voices, men's achievements, men's way of telling stories. There's nothing wrong with being male, but as Irvine points out (without saying it directly), women shouldn't be expected to be the same. And our voices and experiences matter. Especially now. 

With Abbey's beloved desert in danger of being loved to death: "Every where you look there are these hyped-up, tricked-out, uber-fit, machine-like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing; it's the buzz." 

With public lands under a different kind of assault, as well, "endangered in ways we never conceived of...." by our current president's push to revive fossil fuels extraction. Including two of the national's newest national monuments in Utah, which "our so-called Commander-in-Chief has filleted..., leaving only the stark bones in custody." 

With the inhumanity of that same president's border policies, the increasing hatefulness of our society, and of course, the catastrophe of global climate change. Irvine's conversation with Abbey is at once fierce rant, affectionate address, and courageous speaking-truth-to-power, airing the flaws and prejudices in one of the canons of western literature: 

You should know up front that I'm admiring, but not starstruck. You got some things right, but you got other things wrong. Like calling the desert "Abbey's country." Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it "Amy's country"? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn't get to call it ours--because it's all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn't snatch from the region's Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another. But that's what the white man does. He comes in after the fact and lifts his leg on someone else's turf. You, sir, were no different.

I ripped through Desert Cabal, nodding appreciation, laughing, or smiling ruefully on each page. Irvine speaks my truth, and I imagine that of a lot of other women, in this slim but mighty--and classic--work. I LOVE Desert Cabal, and am reading the book again, slowly this time. 

Big thanks to the ever-gracious and forgiving Andy Nettel of Back of Beyond Books, who gifted me with a signed copy of Desert Cabal on my quick stop in Moab on the long road home from my Wyoming and Washington State road-trip, and to Torrey House Books for publishing Desert Cabal with Back of Beyond. 

Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behavior, has been on my to-read list for too long. I have no excuse for not reading it sooner, except that it came out a year after Richard's death. I didn't read much for several years, mostly because I was working so hard to keep my head above financial waters, and to make a home for myself. Oh, and to figure out who this solo "me" was and is. (I'm still working on the latter. Like life itself, it's a process, not a destination.)

Flight Behavior was published in 2012, when (incredibly now) most American's hadn't yet grasped that climate change wasn't in some distant future; the catastrophe was an is on us now. Reading it today, Kingsolver's poignant and compelling novel of what happens when the entire population of Monarch butterflies that usually winter in the Oyemel fir forests of central Mexico relocate to a single valley in the Appalachians, is even more gripping and prescient. As always, Kingsolver's writing lifts even the most elementary of stories right off the page to take glorious flight. As in this single sentence describing the winter sky:

Whoever was in charge if the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.

(With experience in construction and renovation, I especially appreciate that metaphor!)

Not that Kingsolver has ever told an elementary story, and Flight Behavior, which traces both the perilous winter the monarch butterflies spend far north of their usual temperate refuge, and the effect of their climate-change-propelled relocation on the local residents, especially the main character, one smart, flame-haired Dellarobia, mother to two young kids, married at 17 years old to Cub, the mild-mannered son of a farming family, and desperate to drag her life out of the rut it is in. Those butterflies, which Dellarobia first sees without her glasses on and takes to be some kind of fire flickering over the steep hillsides above their farm, do the trick, but not easily or kindly or without heartbreak. 

This is a cautionary tale of what happens to each of us, to whole communities, to ecosystems, to the earth itself, when pushed beyond what we can bear. And Kingsolver lets it unfold at the personal and planetary levels simultaneously and beautifully believably, showing us, not telling us, what happens when we lose our way, lose our ability to care, lose our trust and love for even ourselves. (The thread on science and how badly scientists communicate and how cynically journalists sometimes exploit that absolutely nails both of my fields.) 

Flight Behavior is a gorgeous and compelling novel told by a master storyteller who can and does find the redemptive possibilities in even the most tragic of times. Dellarobia and her world--as well as those glorious monarchs, some of whom survive that calamitous winter in the wrong place--will stick with you long after you finish this soaring and searing story. 

**** 

On to more books in my ever-growing reading pile.... What books hold you in thrall right now?