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Global warming writ small

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Rebecca Nesbit 22 October 2013

Chilling effect: detail from the paperback cover

Plenty of species are already changing their migration patterns in response to climate change

For many people, lab lit novels offer a glimpse into the world of the scientist – their thought processes, their motivations, their laboratories. One of the many things I enjoyed about Flight Behaviour (Harper, 2012) is the insight it offers into how the scientific world appears to an outsider.

Dellarobia is a young housewife from Tennessee, intelligent but uneducated. One day she discovers trees covered in thousands of monarch butterflies which are spending the winter further north than their normal Mexican wintering grounds.

Dellarobia’s mother-in-law believes the butterflies to be a message from God, and her father-in-law sees them as an inconvenience in his plan to sell the land to loggers, but entomologist Ovid Byron explains to Dellarobia that the real cause is climate change. He sets up a make-shift lab in a caravan outside Dellarobia’s house, brings his group to help, and hires Dellarobia as an assistant.

The butterflies attract many others to the farm, including journalists, ecotourists and an eccentric group of knitters. They all help to transform Dellorobia’s mundane existence.
Working with Ovid causes Dellarobia to reassess her marriage to Cub, which came about when pregnancy ended her ideas of going to college. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion as Dellarobia takes charge of her own future.

Overall, Flight Behaviour is readable, believable and beautifully written. The tensions with her in-laws and her feeling of being stifled in a community which judges you based on your attendance at church are well depicted.

Climate change is a major theme of the book, not just in its effects on the butterflies but also how Dellarobia’s relative poverty gives her a smaller carbon footprint than most environmentalists. The scientists’ work is fraught with the fear that a frost could wipe out all their over-wintering monarchs in one go because they haven’t made it to their normal roosting grounds further south.

When we think about climate change, or hear about it in the media, it’s usually on a more apocalyptic scale. In real life, however, there are already smaller dramas playing out; as in the novel, plenty of species are already changing their migration patterns in response to climate change, causing problems such as predators and their prey getting out of sync. Butterflies appearing as a 'valley of fire' was a dramatic way for the author to demonstrate the effects of climate change on individual species, but this is exactly the same problem that we may witness on a smaller scale when plants flower early only to be damaged by frost.

Scientifically, the book had been extremely well researched. This helped Kingsolver to capture life an ecologist, and to share just how amazing the trans-continental migrant butterflies are.

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