Andrea Ross’s Ploughshare’s article “A Feminist Look at Edward Abbey’s Conservationist Writings” details the way that Abbey sexualizes the landscape in his many writings of the American Southwest, taking a racist and misogynist approach to the wild world. Ross has a complex relationship with the natural world of the west as a former ranger and current English professor. She often works with writers of this area, people like Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and Kenneth Rexroth, so I was excited to see her take on the landscape, how she would use it in this memoir about finding her birth family while trying to find a home within the natural world. What she finds in her relationship to the land is exceptional. Ross, unlike these other writers, is able to see the natural world as a place of rest; in her long journey to find her birth parents and herself, she finds home in nature.
While Unnatural Selection is in large part about her journey through the bureaucracy caused by laws that seal the records of adoptees and their birth parents even when everyone involved wants to connect, the center of it is Ross’s search for a place where she belongs, a home. She tries to find this through other people, and through various careers outdoors, but underneath the surface of all of this is an awareness that she is learning where she belongs in this wild world. An early boyfriend asks her to find it through adventures in the backcountry, most notably in mountain and rock climbing. She feels as though she should because the people she admires seem excited about it. Unfortunately, the danger of it just doesn’t thrill her, and she abandons this sport and with it, the boyfriend. She tries to share it with people in her life. When she is a ranger at the Grand Canyon, she tries to show her adopted mother the beauty of the canyon floor and the two of them explore the domestic ruins of the Native Americans who lived there. What she is doing as she proceeds in this journey is finding not only where she belongs but how she belongs in the wild, what her role is. She is not someone who seeks adventure or domination of it in the way that Abbey describes. She wants to be a part of it.
Her journey toward a complete family that includes her adoptive parents and siblings and her birth parents and siblings is no less compelling than her discovery of nature. It is, however, a much more difficult journey and contrasts with her treks to the wild world because it is so unnatural. She has to deal with artificial laws that separate one of the most important relationships of a person’s life. While her mother certainly wants privacy in the beginning when she is an unwed teenage mother, that desire turns on itself, and she begins to feel a need for closeness to her missing child. Ross too benefits from the adoption, gaining a family that loves her, but that doesn’t mean that the rift between parents and child needs to be permanent. The search is long and unnecessarily difficult even though she has a genetic disease that she wants to understand more fully.
Ross’s journey and her pain are shared by many people who have gone through the adoptive process. Unnatural Selection is the kind of book that lets people who have been dismissed and not listened to about an emotion they are living with that they are not alone. Her book gives us a way forward in a world that often feels hostile.
John Brantingham 16th May 2021