by Kim Bartenfelder
Fifty years, before the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, before we had anything remotely reminiscent of modern media, we had books. Literature was the most direct way to inform the public and draw attention to the environmental concerns of our time. But as modern media has continued to grow and morph into a behemoth of instant gratification, it’s really contemporary writers like Barbara Kingsolver, who have worked to shift the focus back to the details.
Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time. Kingsolver’s writing recalls one of the pivotal moments for the environment and literature: the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, which helped launch an environmental movement around pesticide use and allowed the public a deeper glimpse at the environmental stakes associated with the use of DDT, setting the tone for literature to function as an informed advocate for the public.
Like Carson, Kingsolver’s admiration for the natural world is ever-present in her writing, from the imagery of Appalachia’s bountiful forests to the unforgiving mountainous terrain, to utilizing details about animal and plant diversity to create balance between poetic justice and scientific fact.
Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time.
To do this, she draws inspiration from her predecessors, namely David Thoreau. “[His] gifts as a writer, [have] transcended his contributions to natural science. [He] dismissed the notion that poetry and science are incompatible, and captured for his readers the simple wonder we hastily leave behind in the age of reason,” she notes in her 1995 collection of short essays, “Hide Tide in Tucson” (HarperCollins, 1995).
Kingsolver channels this same energy in her fiction, from her earlier works like “Prodigal Summer," released in 2000, to her more contemporary “Flight Behavior” (Harper, 2012). To inspire readers who are passionate, who have a desire to become passionate, or are native to Appalachia, Kingsolver uses fictional stories to emphasize the true nature of how the environment functions in a world of human influence (and sometimes destruction).
In her “Prodigal Summer,” a novel told in three short narratives, the focus is on the environment as a safe haven. In the first story, her character Deanna initially finds peace in the solitude nature of the forest, which enables her to conduct research for the government while allowing her to reflect. The three stories intertwine through their connection of the characters’ love for the environment and their love for others. And yet, despite nature’s natural comfort, its isolation also serves as a realistic fear for her characters. In the second story, the narrator Lusa struggles with her identity in the context of her new environment: “Now she felt like a frontier mail-order bride, hardly past her wedding and already wondering how she could have left her city and beloved career for the narrow place a rural county holds open for a farmer’s wife.”
Kingsolver’s novel, “Flight Behavior,” examines a more critical side to the environment. After carrying on an affair with a younger man, the main character Dellarobia, wanders into a field behind her house and notices it is covered with monarch butterflies, too many to count. The culprit for this phenomenon is global warming and climate change, which has disrupted the monarch’s traditional migration patterns, leaving them in grave danger of dying off come winter in Appalachia — a stark, dually-faceted warning about the nature of human behavior.
Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action.
But while Kingsolver often utilizes the power of fiction as a platform to call out the injustices humans have enacted on the planet, the consequences of the events in her books are hardly fictional. Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action. She has reinvigorated the function of literature in our modern context, pushing readers to look past their electronic screens and uncover the real news, the real talk, the real beauty, and the real power they have to change and control the human influences on the environment. In this way, she not only serves as the catalyst for environmental change in literature, but she is enlightening readers and future writers to continue to champion nature.