The Animals Among Us: A Nonfiction Exploration
Any event is infinitely prismatic. I guess that’s what I could say: whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s infinitely prismatic, and what you need to do is turn the prism and find one of those infinite facets that reflects in a way that makes sense to you. That’s what a writer’s job is, and the fact that its infinitely prismatic makes it sort of -- … -- an absolutely overwhelming task.
Other essays in this issue also explore the meaning of animals for the human experience and explore the metaphorical depth they lend to it. My absolute favorite in this issue, the sparkling gem, is Jennifer Lunden’s "The Butterfly Effect." This essay truly is creative, particularly in the way she weaves together the butterfly’s metamorphosis with her own metamorphosis in the course of her trip from freezing cold Maine to Pacific Grove, which is also known as Butterfly Town, and the metamorphosis she encounters in the life and work of Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady.
Is there a connection between the author’s plight with allergies, the invasive, ubiquitous, toxic chemicals and the threat of extinction of the Monarch butterfly? This award-winning author doesn’t spell it all out for her readers. Her work is broken into sections and the graphic layout leaves a lot of empty page around those sections. The blank space invites me to connect Ro Vaccaro’s discovery of the Monarch’s plight to her diagnosis with lupus, to connect the spraying of over 18 million pounds of glyphosate on U.S. crops and sidewalks and yards by Monsanto with global warming and deforestation. The miracle of her writing is that she encourages me to relate those seemingly unconnected facts, scenes and scenarios, that she offers a way to become an activist for Monarchs myself, and that she gives me a sense of arriving home with her on our planet, a planet worthy of our care and preservation – a “journey home, really, though I had never been there.”
This is narrative nonfiction at its best.
In Kelly Herbinson’s "Natural Selection" the narrator encounters her teenage flame at a friend’s wedding and is surprised to find that he is the man she wants to marry. They walk the beach together in search of the rare spectacle of the grunion running - a thousand small, silvery fish beaching themselves in order to reproduce. As she watches one female grunion waiting as her chances of fertilization dwindle, her teenage flame reveals that he has a girlfriend waiting in New York. My heart sank as I expected a dreadfully sad course of events. Not so. What a wonderful ending, one I won’t give away.
In an effort to win his campaign for Mayor of New Orleans, Randy Fertel’s father donated two gorilla babies to the zoo. The story of their growing up in captivity is the bitter and comical "Triumph of Preservation", which serves to artfully illuminate the author’s more than ambivalent relationship with his father. Fertel’s writing is so rich and complex. I learned a lot from him about the craft and as much about the human condition.
In "Dog at Midlife," Jeff Oaks explores the manifold meanings of the presence of a dog in his life. “Alone and in the woods, a man is a threat. Give him a dog, though, and he becomes the symbol of American individualism. … A man gets a dog to convince himself that he can still be loved, that he’s still needed.” His meta-comments made me smile, his narration I deemed closer to journal writing than a true essay.
Susan Cheever wonders why we love our pets but are terrified by a few ounces of fur and a tail scurrying through her kitchen. In "Of Mice and Woman" she asks: Do we experience true love only when the wildness is tamed “or is that when it ends?” A great question to pose. I found myself wishing she had taken more time to explore possible answers.
Kateri Kosek’s "Killing Starlings" is a daring account of her actual killing of starlings, a killing academic publications usually disguise in terms such as “overpopulation”, “competition” or “invasive species".