Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer as she weaves three stories variously referred to in three alternating chapter titles, Predators, Moth Love and Old Chestnuts.
It may be due to the sound of the cicadas screeching outside while I read, or the richness of Kingsolver’s prose, but this book exudes the heat of summer and its associated sensations. It places you deep in the forest on the mountainside, heightening all the senses and bringing attention to every sound and movement, witness to the presence of all manner of wildlife pulsing just beyond what the eye can see.
Predators – Essentially the story revolves around three female characters, Deanna, the wildlife biologist living in a forest cabin working as her kind of conservationist, destabilised by the presence of a young hunter in her territory and her preoccupation with guarding a young coyote family that have returned to the forest wilderness.
She shares her environment with a snake, another predator and a metaphor for man, the snake is natural to the habitat and will expose Deanna for what she really is – not just a qualified biologist tending nature, keeping man and his hunting instinct out – but a woman with a suppressed but natural maternal instinct, depicted by her attachment to a family of chickadees. When the fledglings fall prematurely out of the nest, she puts them back, justifying her intervention in nature’s way, trying to alter the otherwise harsh survival odds nature has given the little birds, more in their favour. She succeeds in keeping them all alive, only to discover on her return from a walk, four telling bulges in the coil of the sleeping black serpent.
When the snake finally leaves she feels something shift inside her body – relief, it felt like, enormous and settled, like a pile of stones on a steep slope suddenly shifting and tumbling slightly into the angle of repose.
Moth Love - Lusa is a bug scientist, now local farmer’s wife, though still perceived as an outsider with her mixed cultural background and continued use of her foreign sounding maiden name. She is trying to adapt to her new role and changed circumstances while staying true to her beliefs and recognising her not so traditional, but well-founded knowledge and approach to farming.
In the summer after … Lusa discovered lawn-mower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination. It was a blessing to ride over the grass for an hour or two as a speechless thing, floating through a universe of vibratory sensation. By accident, she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect.
Old Chestnuts – The third character(s) are the elderly and persistent Nannie Rawley and her equally aged, cantankerous, fixed in his ideas neighbour, the widower Garnett. They trade insults and unappreciated advice across their boundaries, but can’t seem to keep away from each other despite their polar opposite views.
Not that it detracted from the reading of the book, but I did ponder the similarity in conviction of the three female characters, it is not clear whether or not they know each other for much of the book, but with such similar attitudes in their various fields, in a real community I would have expected them to have discovered each other and had some kind of interaction or at least knowledge of each other from the beginning. Sometimes this is a deliberate tactic by the writer to keep the connections between people vague until the end, to shape some kind of revelation. It just seemed like a bit of a coincidence that three such characters living in a traditional farming community had such little awareness of each other.
As much a study of nature, as a story of that which passes between these characters during this one summer, Prodigal Summer is indulgence of the satisfying, learned kind; it is compelling reading and a lesson in the wonder, beauty and balance of nature and humanity.