I’ve spent all month blogging – and thinking – about butterflies. A good way to conclude for now is to review Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Flight Behavior, a novel that mixes science and song and explores the intimate story of an individual and the universal experience of living through a time of enormous change on Earth.
Dellarobia, a young mother in Appalachia, discovers a colony of migrating Monarchs diverted from their normal flight behavior by the erratic weather of a warming Earth. To her, it appears to be a miracle and she’s awed by the beauty of the butterflies weighing down the limbs of trees. But Tennessee is not the place for wintering butterflies, especially during a year of torrential rains and mudslides.
When Ovid Byron and his team of scientists arrive to study the Monarchs, Dellarobia’s world opens. She’s poorly educated but smart and curious, hungry for a wider understanding. She becomes his assistant and he becomes her first real teacher. In the book’s apocalyptic ending, we see her determined to learn more – even how to protect our endangered world.
Favorite quotations and ideas from Flight Behavior
Dellarobia’s first realization that what she was seeing was millions of butterflies:
“The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Out across the valley, the air itself glowed golden. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies…. The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-colored insects.”
I love the way this description evokes color: “bright fishes,” “golden,” “flame,” “fire,” and “flame-colored.” Orange, orange, orange!
“… 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.”
“Once while she and Ovid were working … he had asked her what was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reefs, he meant. What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?”
Dellarobia meets a mother and daughter who have been making knitted butterflies and hanging them in trees to help make people aware of the plight of the Monarchs.
“The impulse to keep the hands moving, feeding tiny answers to vast demands. Like spooning peas into a child who would still be hungry for decades. It wasn’t wrong.”
What if “tiny answers” – like tiny butterflies – when combined, can create a great cloud of answers? Surely, it’s worthwhile for each of us to do what we can.
Dellarobia is shocked when Dr Byron tells her that the events of the winter are destroying the Monarchs. He speaks as a scientist: “We are seeing a bizarre alteration of a previously stable pattern. A continental ecosystem breaking down…. Climate change has disrupted this system.”
She responds in the heart-deep language of the Bible, “One of God’s creatures of this world, meeting its End of Days.… Not words of science, she knew that, but it was a truth she could feel.”
The language of literature can be powerfully evocative, like music or art. It engages us in an entirely different way from factual scientific material. I’m so glad this book was written.
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”
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Mechanicsburg, PA 17055