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Nature triumphs in novel buzzing with life

By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Collins, 444 pages, $26


In our overwhelmingly urban society we can easily forget that humans are only a small part of the fantastic range of life. With air conditioning and screened windows, we become aware of the insect life around us only when mosquitoes join us on the balcony for a cookout. We seldom give thought to the long-term impact on ourselves and of all the creatures with whom we share our habitat of the poisons we spray on the mosquito on our balcony or the cockroach in the kitchen.

Prodigal Summer has given me an enhanced awareness of the profound interrelatedness of all creatures great and small, of our dependence as humans on the plants and animals of whose existence we city dwellers are only vaguely aware. The forests and small farms of southern Appalachia are alive on every page. Insects buzz incessantly. Twigs snap. Animals scurry. Leaves whisper.

Kingsolver has a clear message for the reader, one for which she is already famous. She is distressed at the destruction we are wreaking on our natural habitat and at our inability to understand we are all in this together.

The book focuses on Deanna, Lula and Garnett, and their story is told in alternating chapters throughout the book. Deanna, a wildlife biologist in her mid-40s, has spent two years alone in the Zebulon National Forest as a wildlife custodian. Emotionally, her primary concern is to protect the coyotes who are reestablishing themselves in the region. Enter Eddie Bondo, a young hunter who had come east to win the Mountain Empire Bounty Hunt, an annual coyote-killing event. Their conflicting views on coyotes fail to obstruct a physical attraction, the progress of which is described in overabundant detail.

Lusa, a professional entomologist, had left the city to marry into a farm in the valley below the mountain. Suddenly widowed, she defies the expectations of her in-laws by staying on the farm and shifting from tobacco growing to raising goats. Goats provide a living, but moths remain her obsession, especially a species in which the males are without mouths so that they can neither produce a sound nor eat. Scent leads them to their mates and to death in the act of procreation.

Garnett Walker, nearly 80 years old and for eight a widower, also lives in the valley. His ambition is to develop a new variety -- the Walker chestnut -- resistant to the blight that had wiped out the original American chestnut. His program of crossing and backcrossing the American with the Japanese chestnut depends heavily on the use of herbicides and insecticides. His neighbor, Nanny Rawley, is equally committed to organic gardening. They provide comic relief as they debate their respective philosophies.

The three storylines run parallel, mutually supporting Kingsolver’s message, and come together in a fairly happy ending. Nature emerges triumphant. The reader has inescapably developed a greater awareness of a world in which “every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning to an end.”

One cannot but empathize with Kingsolver’s paean to the prodigality of nature that summer after summer renews and enriches life at every level. St. Francis would surely join in her delighted surprise at the sounds and smells of the field and forest. I suspect, nevertheless, that St. Francis would be less than comfortable with a worldview that seems to reduce human love and even the purpose of human life to the processes of mating. As our control of our environment has reached a level at which we find ourselves with long years beyond the age of reproduction, are we left without purpose?

Writer Gary MacEoin lives in San Antonio. His email address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001