In June I travelled to Canberra to attend the biennial Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) conference, the theme of which was ‘Affective Habitus’ and which revolved around the theme of affect and environment, topics which are part of my writing and research.
I stayed with some good friends whom I rarely see, and they introduced me to the delights of gluten and dairy free cupcakes, and Canberra’s many good caffeinating spots (Canberra does good coffee & cultural institutions, if nothing else). I also did some research in the archives on Rosa Praed and met up with a scholar whose work I admire, and a blogger with whom I do the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
While staying with my friends, I noticed the tree outside their window was already budding, for it had been unseasonably warm in Canberra (does the word ‘unseasonable’ even have traction any more?). When I pointed this out to my friend, her expression was one of quiet alarm.
As part of my tiny ways to save the planet, I’m writing a novel about climate change, and as such I’ve been reading books about climate change and working out how it might be effectively represented. I wrote an essay about Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone which has just been published in Southerly, and in this I discuss how most climate change fiction finds it hard to represent climate change because it’s happening so slowly that most people – or at least those who aren’t attuned to nature – can’t see it changing. Fiction about nuclear war, on the other hand, has been far more prolific because of its apocalyptic overtones.
Barbara Kingsolver, however, has created an effective climate change novel in Flight Behaviour by using the character of a dirt-poor, smart, but uneducated woman named Dellarobia in rural America to convey information about its ramifications. The novel opens with Dellarobia fleeing her dull marriage through a fling with an attractive young man. On flogging her way up a hill for a rendezvous with him, she finds the landscape is not quite right, for ‘something dark loomed from a branch over the trail’ (18). She casts around for alternatives to describe it – a hornet’s nest, a swarm of bees, or an armadillo in a tree, ‘scaly all over and pointed at the lower end, as if it had gone oozy and might drip’ (19) – and sees that they are all over the hills, ‘dangling like giant bunches of grapes from every tree she could see’ (19). When she darts beneath it, she ‘shivered and ran her fingers through her hair afterward’ (19), but when she sees the valley below her, she finds ‘the full stand of that forest was thickly loaded with these bristly things’ (20) with branches that ‘seemed to writhe’ (21). Then the sun comes out and ‘trees turned to fire, a burning bush’, while ‘brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze’ (21).
Later, the reader finds out that these are clumps on Monarch butterflies on their migration, which has been disrupted by a warming world, and they have settled in the wrong place. These opening descriptions seem to me to be a metaphor for what is happening around us now: we know that something isn’t quite right, that buds are forming on Canberra’s trees in July, the wattle blooms twice in one Brisbane winter, and we have had 352 consecutive months of above global average temperatures, but we still don’t have the language or ability to conceive of the enormity of what is happening.
Dellarobia, too, finds herself at a loss for words. Initially she conceives of the hill of flame in religious terms, but finds this doesn’t adequately explain ‘a mighty blaze rising from ordinary forest, she had no name for that. No words to put on a tablet as Moses had when he marched down his mountain.’ (35) However, when scientists get wind of what has happened and set up camp in her backyard, she begins to learn about the changing climate, and realises that it is science, not religion, that holds answers. By explaining the science to Dellarobia, a layperson, Kingsolver also explains it to her readers.
Through interactions between Dellarobia and the lead scientist, Ovid Byron (the names became really offputting after a while), Kingsolver also presents the role of the media in communicating science. Dellarobia asks Byron why the media won’t speak to him, when he can clearly articulate that evidence shows ‘a continental ecosystem [is] breaking down’ (354). A fellow scientist explains that the media would prefer to speak to Dellarobia, because she doesn’t know anything, and a scientist would ‘mess with their story’ (354). In a beautiful display of the workings of contemporary media, however, Byron loses his rag with a reporter who doubts the science of climate change. Their altercation is filmed on a camera phone by Dellarobia’s friend, who uploads it to YouTube, and it goes viral.
This is a multifaceted book, but it wears its research and ideas with impressive lightness, and it’s engaging and enjoyable. Kingsolver also addresses the concerns of climate change with a woman’s eye, or more specifically, a mother’s, when she writes:
Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge (382).
Increasingly, it’s not just scientists, but every person who can be bothered to educate themselves on climate change. The future certainly fills me with apprehension, and I contemplate continuously the ethics of bringing a child into a world of increasingly scarce resources and which doesn’t need another human being.
In the current edition of Griffith Review, ‘The Way We Work’, Ashley Hay writes on the precariousness of living in this unstable world, likening it to the extinction of her occupation, journalism, and the increasing instability of the workforce. She points out that humans are good at adapting, and that this is what will help us negotiate change:
We deal with changing circumstances every day; we deal with people coming and going; we deal with things rearranged, things rescheduled, things ending and beginning. Sometimes we deal with them better than others, but we know how to make a transition (32).
Having adapted to change for millennia, perhaps it’s too soon to be downcast about what we’re doing to ourselves. In addition, writers are ‘useful beasts’ as Ashely continues, for they have the capacity to absorb and convey stories about our world, and to communicate what is happening around us, just as Kingsolver has done in writing of the perils of the Monarchs. And on that note, I really had better get back to my novel.
Book details: Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Behaviour. New York: HaperCollins, 2012.
Borrowed from the Brisbane City Council Library.