Animal diversions: Creature titles we rescued from the canceled VA book fest

Animal-lovers had a lot to look forward to with the Virginia Festival of the Book’s March 2020 lineup—before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Animal-lovers had a lot to look forward to with the Virginia Festival of the Book’s March 2020 lineup—before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do (please say yes), you’re just staying home. For many of us, that means fattening comfort food and boozy evenings binge watching “Tiger King.” Though it’s unquestionably difficult to watch Joe Exotic’s mistreatment of the majestic creatures he’s bred and trapped into an unnatural life, the great cats are a draw for viewers.

Animals fascinate us. Yet those in zoos live their whole lives in a kind of quarantine lockdown and now we’re almost right there with them. Unlike our beastly relatives, we’ve still got options, however small those might seem. In addition to what’s streaming into our homes, we’ve got two other powerful means of escapism: reading books and going for walks outside.

A bevy (rook? business? school?) of animal-themed titles slated to be part of the wisely canceled Virginia Festival of the Book is still available to provide us with a detour from our own thoughts and the onslaught of grim headlines. Through pages ranging from the scientific and ecological to the fictional and symbolic, the authors implore us to recognize how animals of all stripes are constantly striving to overcome difficulties compounded by our recklessness.

Conservationist and Audubon magazine field editor Kenn Kaufman offers Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration. Though we’re all rightfully anxious about how coronavirus may continue to disrupt our lives—let alone all of those lost travel plans—Kaufman’s latest explains how climate change and human development have seriously upended birds’ schedules and flight paths. His timely seasonal tome recounts some of the utterly incredible accomplishments of migrating birds, including those converging along Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio.

Take for example the blackpoll warbler. The migratory songbird about the size of a human thumb isn’t much to look at and weighs, appropriate to this article, about as much as a ballpoint pen. Yet this generally nondescript little chirper is known to fly more than 6,000 miles from the Amazon to the Arctic by way of Florida and Ohio. Then, just to spice things up, he takes an alternate route back south. After a rest stop in Massachusetts, it’s a monumental 80-hour flight for four nights and three days—2,000 miles straight to South America. And you’re complaining about getting your steps in this week.

Looking to submerge instead? Author and retired Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries manager Paul Bugas lends his expertise to the Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia. The reference details the denizens of our nearby waterways, drawing on Bugas’ decades of hands-on experience (he’s also a biologist); he and his fellow contributing authors and artists illuminate the commonwealth’s many natural-born swimmers. Tips explain how to collect, handle, and protect central Virginia’s diverse fish populations, but it’s not just for anglers: You’ll learn where you can best observe these fish locally, which, to be fair, will be much easier after the stay-at-home order is lifted.

If you’re more apt to dive into fiction, three novelists offer up thematic forays into the philosophical and political use of beasts.

Washington, D.C.-based Rick Hodges mixes political intrigue with a nature tale in To Follow Elephants, an eco-minded adventure thriller inspired by his travels in Africa. The story of an 18-year-old American seeking out his missing army captain father wraps its narrative around the education of a young elephant by his herd’s matriarch; the resulting style informs Hodges’ novel with a wisdom that transcends the petty squabbles of man, and elevates the pachyderms as characters in their own right.

Speaking of young ones, Johanna Stoberock has created an allegorical work about four children on an island that receives the entire planet’s trash, which the kids sort and feed to a herd of hungry pigs. Lord of the Flies comparisons are inevitable, but Pigs provides another take as the adults occupy a much different function for the endangered youths, acting as cruel overlords; the elders party like the power hungry porkers of Animal Farm while the children toil. The plot thickens when a boy suddenly washes ashore.

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth tells a less fantastic tale, but one that’s no less loony. It’s a half-love/half-heist story about two egg industry auditors and their plot to steal a farm’s million chickens under cover of darkness. The bizarre, funny, and politically charged tale about love’s ability to fuel odd decisions makes grand and cavalier jumps into the minds of chickens—and maybe more unexpectedly— zips thousands of years forward into a bleak future where the animals navigate a planet destroyed by humans. 

Of course, that dire possibility is what people like Kaufman and Bugas have spent their lives warning everyone about, while doing what they could to prevent that kind of catastrophe. And as we’ve got a very real disaster of our very own to contend with, it’s just better to keep the door closed for now, and hunker down with a good book.

Through pages ranging from the scientific and ecological to the fictional and symbolic, the authors implore us to recognize how animals of all stripes are constantly striving to overcome difficulties compounded by our recklessness.

 

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