New York: HarperCollins Publishers ©2002
In this current age, when cynicism passes for chic, it is definitely not cool to be enthralled by an intensity of feeling or involvement with such everyday items as caterpillars, chickens, and flowering plants. But Barbara Kingsolver, better known as a novelist (The Bean Trees; The Poisonwood Bible), does just that — and more. More, because several of the essays in Small Wonder started as an attempt to deal with the stunning events in the United States on September 11, 2001. Everyone grieves such horrific occurrences in their own way; the best writers are able to help the rest of us put words to the inconsolable pain we feel. And that's the gift Kingsolver offers in this non-fiction collection. The book is a blessing.
In an interesting comment on the writerly profession, Kingsolver notes early in her Foreword that "when you ask a novelist for a response, especially to something so immensely horrible, you had better sit down and wait awhile for the finish." Not only did she write one essay, "within a month I had published five different responses to different facets of a huge event in our nation's psychology — little pieces that helped me see the thing whole and try to bear it." Kingsolver's writing became her "one alternative to weeping without cease.... This is a collection of essays about who we seem to be, what remains for us to live for, and what I believe we could make of ourselves. It began in a moment but ended with all of time."
Paying attention to the world seems to come easily for Kingsolver. It may, in fact, be a learned response to her interest in science. Educated as a biologist, she brings the observer's trained eye for detail and description to these essays about the state of the natural world and the impact of humans upon it. In this volume, Kingsolver follows the dappled, forested, labyrinthine trails blazed by such elegantly descriptive writers such as Lewis Thomas (Medusa and the Snail), Wendell Berry (What Are People For?), and Annie Dillard (the enchanting Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). From the improbable but true story of a small Iranian child being found alive in the cave of a bear — who had suckled the infant and kept it safe — to a trek into the wilds of Costa Rican rainforest jungle to view the spectacularly beautiful — and rapidly vanishing — red macaw (those brilliant blue long-tailed parrot-like birds with gloriously rainbow-striped shoulders) and home again to the backyard chickens cared for by her then-five-year-old daughter, Kingsolver connects each tale to the rest and to the larger world with often subtle yet profound statements about what the human race is doing to the planet.
Splitting her yearly living arrangements between Tucson, Arizona and the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, Kingsolver describes both the arid and the verdant. Of her spot in the woodland, she says, "This stoic little log house leans noticeably uphill, just as half the tobacco barns do in this rural part of southern Appalachia, where even gravity seems to have fled for better work in the city." By contrast, her home in Arizona, "which my predecessors constructed not from trees (which are scarce in the desert Southwest) but of sun-baked mud (which is not), we nestle into what's called in this region a bosque — that is, a narrow riparian woodland stitched like a green ribbon through the pink and tan quilt of the Arizona desert." Kingsolver recognizes the value — and the tenuousness — of these places: "It's a privilege to live any part of one's life in proximity to nature. It is a privilege, apparently, even to know that nature is out there at all. In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in cities. The natural habitat of our species, then officially, is steel, pavement, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise — the hominid agenda."
While Kingsolver can certainly cite the scientific details behind dire predictions for the future of the planet and its inhabitants, Small Wonder is ultimately an uplifting, optimistic, inspiring, and eminently readable essay collection. Whether she's providing the context to appreciate "why a breeding population of a certain size, in a healthy habitat, is necessary for the continuation of a species," the surprise that "responsible eating is not so impossible as it seems," the actual four items Charles Darwin noted about animate life (rather than the mistaken ones commonly associated with his theories), the fragile yet robust viability of "land race" seed banks, or the reasons her family doesn't subscribe to cable television ("Anyone inclined toward chemical sedatives might first consider, seriously, turning off the TV."), there is a wealth of beauty, encouragement, clear thinking, straight talking, and hopefulness within these pages. All we need to do is open and enjoy.