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Tag Archives: Edward Abbey

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

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

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is part of a larger project that mixes haiku and haibun to create an ongoing travel narrative over multiple volumes. It comes out of a tradition from writers like Basho, Snyder, and Kerouac, but it has its own environmentalist edge prompted by what we have learned about the destruction of the natural environment and how the American West, which is the focus of this collection, is being transformed by forces like drought, climate change, and the pine bark beetle. However, it is not only a look at the destruction of the west; it is much more a celebration of how life can be lived with a kind of joy on the road. Marshall Deerfield edited the volume, and it is filled with his work and the work of his friends as they engage is these road trips.

            What struck me immediately is how this feels like the volume that might have been written by a side character in Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. It has that kind of enthusiasm for life and travel. Some of my favorite haiku in this vein are:

            Clouds billow outward

            sifting rain from vapor’d chaff

            cliffs left unexposed (136).

            Volcanic bellies

            water so cold that it stings

            an anomaly (80).

            A lake so blue that

            jumping in feels like falling

            down into the sky (78).

There is a joy here for nature that is infectious. With the haibun, these haiku create a narrative of young people going into the new American West to find what remains to take pleasure in. Much of what we have read in older works that have the same kind of approach is gone. Times have changed and we have lost that world. Deerfield is trying to find what is there now and how to lose himself in these places.

            Deerfield also makes the point of discussing the environmental destruction that continues to plague the American West. As they drive through Texas, he writes, “This is the Gulf of Mexico. To get here, I had to ride through a literal ring of fire made up of oil refineries with their smoke stacks spewing blue, green, and red flames up into the heavens” (18). He also discusses the rise of the pine bark beetle. The beetle is a creature that lives in all pines and has for a very long time. By itself, it is not a problem, but drought, climate change and the overproduction of trees because of bad fire policy has caused the beetle to turn forests into places of tree death. In most western forests currently millions of trees stand dead and brown sprinkled among living trees. Deerfield writes,

As an ecoactivist, I never thought a forest’s demise would come from inside of it. These pine bark beetles are unlike any bulldozer or logging caravan. Chaining yourself to a tree to protect it has no use if the tree is being eaten alive from within (102).

In this, Deerfield expresses the frustration of the environmentalist raised on Edward Abbey but facing the reality that it is not just one person or company harming the natural world. It is a way of life that cannot be easily amended.

            Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is a balm for me now in this time when I cannot travel because of the quarantine. It helps me to live through his journeys and it brings me back to my own.

John Brantingham 4th April 2021

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