“She needed to listen to this: prodigal summer, the season of extravagant procreation. It could wear everything out with its passionate excesses, but nothing alive with wings or a heart or a seed curled inside itself could resist welcoming it back when it came.”
On the eve of a week-long trip that my husband and I were taking to the West Virginia mountains to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary, I wandered through the library stacks searching for a book about summer, mountains, wilderness, and love. As if by magic, I glanced down and found this sixteen year-old gem of a novel, Prodigal Summer, by the wonderful Barbara Kingsolver. More magic was at play when it turned out that the wilderness that my husband and I traveled to greatly resembled the woods, mountains, and waters that take center stage in Prodigal Summer. As I read the stories of main characters Deanna, Lusa and Garnett, the places they visited and sights that they gazed upon with love were so similar to those my husband and I hiked among and marveled at that it seemed like pure kismet that I plucked this book from the shelf.
Oh, how I hope that this blog can capture the gentle, restrained brilliance of Kingsolver’s book! Her themes are so huge, but her examples so specific that it seems as if she is distilling one thousand environmental and emotional arguments into just three inter-twining stories. The novel centers around the theme of human relationships to nature: both the wonderful ones we experience, as well as those vexing and exhausting ones that we all must endure as part of life on earth. Using each of her three main characters Kingsolver sets forth a unique point of view about living among (and and in some cases living off) the plants and animals and insects — not to mention the topography and weather — that make up their collective home, Zebulon Mountain.
Deanna is a reclusive forest service ranger who calls the wild, wooded upper reaches of Zebulon Mountain her home. Rather than feel confined by her more than two years of solitary living on the mountain, Deanna is revitalized by her deep, deep connection to the plants and animals she calls her neighbors. Up there, “her body was free to follow its own rules. Two years alone had given her a blind persons indifference to her own face” which she found to be a freedom. Before “she was the only kind of woman she had ever known how to be. Up here, in the woods, she could finally be the only kind of woman there was.”
Happy to remove herself completely the the complications and heartbreaks of living among other people. She looks upon the entanglements of humans as needlessly complex and unnecessary. “How pointless life could be; what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.” Her mountain, she is sure, can provide her all she needs, living among the predicable, if at times terrifying, rhythms of the woods she feels confident that “nothing more wonderful that happiness you could be sure of.”
Deanna finds her peace distrusted by an unlikely romance with a traveling hunter, who provides her long-forgotten companionship and who awakens her sexually. Just like the plants, insects and animals around her, she feels the pull of “extravagant procreation” and “passionate excess.” She is drawn to her new lover with an intensity that shocks her, desire like a “wool intoxication made her think once again of thirst” making love wildly “in their pursuit of eternity.” Deanna is also forced to defend her beloved woodlands and its residents while having her worldview challenged by her younger lover.
In the valley below Deanna’s cabin, we meet Lusa, a doctor of entomology and the new bride in an old-school rural farming family. Where she sees insects to protect and study, her family sees pests and infestations that must be removed; where she sees the beauty of the wild, her family sees an uphill battle to keep claim to their farms from the creeping woods surrounding it. Despite her philosophical differences with her husband and her family, she feels deeply connected to the valley and it wilderness; almost more than her family who have long forgotten to enjoy its offerings. “People in Appalachia insisted that the mountains breathed and it was true: the steep hollow behind the farm house took up one long, slow inhalation every morning and let it back down again throughout evening. She had come to think of Zebulon as another man in her life.”
Suddenly widowed and now the sole proprietress of the entire farm, including the parts of it which she must share with eight other family members, Lusa finds herself tested to the limit. She must manage her grief, her house, her gardens and orchards, as well as the acres and acres of farm she must keep afloat: all while not abandoning her principles of ecological stewardship and farming. Every day, every decision she must wrangle with the ghosts of the farms’ past, praying she is making decisions that will keep their long fought for home thriving. “How strange that you could share the objects of your life with whole communities of the dead, never to give them any thought until one of your own past over.”
Our final narrator is Garnett Walker, a lonely, grieving widower in his eighties, who loves the valley that has been home to his family for more than five generations but which is slowing becoming something he no longer recognizes.
“He had been a widower for eight years; he kept company only with his God. His body was no longer to be looked upon. If the thought caused him sadness — that he would never again know the comfort of human touch — he sensed that it was merely a tributary to the lake of grief through which an old man must swim at the end of his days.”
Not only are the plants and animals of his childhood rapidly disappearing; but the tried and true views of the people around him were changing as well. Garnett sees a new generation of children with no knowledge of or connection to the hills and meadows that make up their home, living indoor lives with no dreams of farming whatsoever. But he also sees challenges from his neighbors of his own way of farming his land, those moving toward restoring balance with organic farming and calling for return of native plants. He fights, as an old man feels he must, against both sets of changes, longing to “breath in the air of another time — a clearer time, when color and sound were more distinct and things remained where they belonged.”
As he faces the end of his life and no family to inherit the legacy — both good and bad — of his family’s more than two hundred years on the mountain, Garnett must look closely at his deeply held beliefs and decide if his pride can take the blow of admitting he was wrong.
“Lusa sat still and marveled. This is how moths speak to each other. They tell their love across fields by scent. There are no mouths, the wrong words are impossible, either a mate is there or he is not, and if so the pair will find each other in the dark. She considered a language that could carry nothing but love and simple truth.”
View of Blackwater River on its way to the falls…