"Where will they go from here? ... Into a whole new earth. Different from the one that has always supported them. In the manner to which we have all grown accustomed."
It's an elegy to the beauty of the familiar world, the world that is soon to be a thing of the past. Kingsolver invites us to begin the process of grieving, embodying that lost beauty in the form of the monarch butterfly, whose migration traverses the length of North America in waves, each generation taking one turn more in a timeless dance from Canada to Mexico and back again.
Except that now, their winter grounds are growing uninhabitable, and Kingsolver sets the entirety of the monarch's overwintering colonies in the Appalachian woods behind the house of her main character, Dellarobia Turnbow, a 28-year-old mother of two young children. The butterflies can move higher up the mountain as their habitat shrinks, but they can't move beyond the mountain's peak to resume their annual migration pattern. "They can't levitate," says Ovid Byron, an entomologist studying the situation in Dellarobia's backyard, in one of many painful scenes.
Though the story is fictional - and no monarchs have yet wintered in Appalachia - the biological framework is devastatingly true. Mudslide in Mexico, check. Habitat loss, check. Massive die-off of species, check.
Terrifying trajectory, check.
Dellarobia likens our earth home to a febrile child: She is burning up with fever, and no amount of washcloths applied to her forehead is going to help that now.
Reading the opening chapters, you're smacked in the face with weather wackiness mirroring real life. Kingsolver makes you feel the defeated sogginess of an Appalachian town that's been socked in by an abnormal amount of rainfall for months. It's the kind of rain that makes ancient trees pull out of the ground and fall over, giving up the ghost for too much of a good thing. Rain that rots peach orchards and turns fields into mush.
And that's just the beginning. Read on to absorb the visceral impact of the planet's heating - moisture pulled into the air and dumped down in torrents and "freak" snowstorms, in intensified weather events taking place all over the globe. Absorb the fact that this is not really weather at all, but climate change made manifest.
If you're like me, dread might settle into your belly as you think of the powerlessness you felt watching your garden shrivel two summers running under extreme heat. The futility of praying for rain on the second bone dry month, the third. Remembering the dawning of a truth: This isn't about inconvenience anymore. It's about the food we eat, the biosystems we depend on, breaking down. It's about the planet as a whole, some parts parched and some parts sodden, all of it destabilizing.
When Dellarobia is first confronted with the fact that, carbonwise, we are now well over the limit of atmospheric parts per million that scientists say allow it to maintain thermal stability, she asks, "Why hasn't everything blown up?" Ovid responds, in essence, look around. Wildfires. Superstorms. Drought.
The canary is dead, he later informs a clueless CNN reporter.
Can we survive without a certain species of butterfly, or the other 30 percent of the world's animals and plants estimated to be on a path to extinction in this century? Perhaps. Theoretically. But as Ovid says, what is the use of saving a planet that has no soul left in it? And, as Ovid also notes, a few degrees will be enough to take our kind out of the running.
I recommend keeping another book at your fingertips to follow Flight Behavior. Take the good medicine of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone's Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy. It's the antidote to defeatism. It embraces full expression of the pain and fear and outrage we feel at the destruction of our beloved home. And then says, let's get to work.