"The river won't flow for you no, no, no" wrote Jason Robert Brown in his album, "Songs For A New World." I wonder if Brown knew the significance of his lyrics as he wrote these words. The rivers present in Kingsolver’s mind definitely won’t flow for us, but rather of their own accord….
In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver uses a pretty straightforward idea of the pollution of our rivers and rainforests to assert a much more unusual claim. How could she create a deep metaphor using an idea that the everyday person thinks about? She’s Barbara Kingsolver, that’s how.
Before twisting our thinking, Kingsolver uses rivers with their everyday metaphor meaning: an obstacle. Homero has his own “river [that] he can’t cross,” and on the other side of it is his children” (Animal 4). This isn’t meant literally; it’s metaphor, so of course the idea should have more depth than the idea of crossing a road! Something about Homero’s personality distances him from connecting with others, even his own flesh and blood. Whether these are feelings of angst because of his wife’s death, narrowed and aimed toward his daughters, or whether he’s going through hard times since his daughters left him, we’ll never know. But nonetheless, his attitude toward them created a mental river that neither party wanted to attempt to cross, because they were both simply safer on their separate sides of the river.
The next image Kingsolver creates is that of Codi leaving her baby out along the creek bank, in a dream, during a time when the “creek is flooded, just roaring” (Animal 51). The creek of Grace increases in intimidation as Codi fears it has the power to lure her baby into its dark, wet depths. But a dream is just a dream. Using Codi’s dream as a piece of evidence for this metaphor would ruin the data, right?
But Codi says herself that “there would be nothing new or surprising about a baby being born in secret and put into a creek,” which is true for all of the most depressing reasons (Animal 51). Even if Codi’s baby wasn’t left in a creek to die, I’ve heard horror stories or seen images of babies floating down a stream. The most popular, of course, being the story of Moses.
I think it can be agreed that a river is scariest when it is described as “a fierce river of mud and uprooted trees that won’t crest until dawn” (Animal 19). In fact, flooding has hit America hard in the past decade, with hurricanes manifesting more and more often. Yet, as we see when Kingsolver preaches her “go-green” message of this novel, a river can become “poison” the minute “sulfuric” is “put in the river” (Animal 63).
When a society, culture, or village is built around trees to the point that “when you have a family, you need trees,” they should be sacred (Animal 217). Any precious resource needs to be used sparingly, especially since the land can’t provide for humans forever. This is Kingsolver’s message with this metaphor. Our handy dandy work putting sulfuric acid into a river to leach it kills the land, and “the land has a memory. The lakes and the rivers are still hanging on to the DDT and every other insult we ever gave them. Lake Superior is a superior cesspool. The fish have cancer. The ocean is getting used up. The damn air is getting used up” (Animal 255). And we think that we can just waltz on by and water the trees from the river, but that would be “just like acid rain falling on them” (Animal 176).
Raymo, an oddball character in Hallie’s class brave enough to stand up to her, claims, “trees grow back” (Animal 254). This leads to Hallie’s, rather Kingsolver’s, sarcastic voice that I just love: “Sure. Trees grow back. Even a whole rainforest could grow back, in a couple hundred years maybe” (Animal 255). Nobody is here that “will clean up the mess” if everyone’s “attitude stinks,” for the “world was put here for [us] to use” (Animal 254). The usage of the rivers of the world isn’t the problem; leaving our influence on them by first polluting the earth, then “damming the [rivers]” because they are “so polluted with acid” is the real problem (Animal 266). Who gave us the right to stroll across the universe with the mindset that it’s okay to harm whatever we touch? God? Adam and Eve? Buddha? The President?
“In a desert place” such as Grace, Arizona, “only the river ran continuously” (Animal 270). The land remembers, and “the river was Grace’s memory of water” (Animal 270). Rivers are larger than us. Sometimes things we think nothing more of than obstacles are things that were there before we were. We’re walking on the earth. We came second. We are all obstacles that this world needs to overcome. And, of course, we’re here to help the earth do exactly that.
~Father Nature, Editor