Melanie Dylan Fox Reviews Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food by BK Loren
Last year I received an e-reader as a gift, and while the choices for what books to purchase were vast, I knew my first e-book would be Theft, by BK Loren. This powerful, placed-based novel, 2012 winner of the Reading the West book award and the 2013 WILLA Award, uses multiple characters’ interwoven points of view to tell an intricate and expertly paced story of family, loss, and loyalty. It was one of those rare novels that haunted me long after I finished it, so when Loren’s essay collection Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food was released, I immediately purchased it. And in this collection I found the same strengths of language and narrative that are the hallmarks of all BK Loren’s work.
In a recent craft lecture, Loren said, “The process of writing is home and is entwined with the natural world because, like writing, nature is always in process.” This book illustrates, in essay after essay, how the natural world and writing are related through those processes. Loren is very clear that hers is a holistic view of nature. In the introduction she says, “I don’t mean wilderness. I mean the small patches of nature available to almost everyone, no matter how mannered and procured the sky may be.” This broad understanding of nature contextualizes the essays that follow and introduces the possibility that all writing is, in a sense, “nature writing.”
The 13-essay collection is divided into three sections as the title suggests: Animal, Mineral, Radical. All are firmly grounded in place, because as Loren says, “Without place, all stories become weightless, their characters dangling from dog-eared pages, hoping for a world to give them marrow, bone, body.” Although the focus of the essays in each section connects loosely to that section’s larger theme, each stands individually as an example of a writer who lives fully in each present moment. Taken together, the pieces paint a lush, grounded, and transformative portrait of the narrator’s purposeful, interconnected life. But this is not a myopic collection. As in her novel, Loren weaves together themes of language, nature, wildlife, family, loss, grief, and community, all of which readers are able to relate to on a personal level. In the essay “The Shifting Light of Shadows,” Loren mentions Jung’s idea of synchronicity, “two events connected by something stronger than chance,” when thinking of her own encounter with a cougar. Loren leaves nothing to chance and the threads between essays are the collection’s greatest strength, giving it an unshakeable foundation. At its core, the book highlights the necessity of connection to the natural world—and to each other—and reinforces that humans are never separate from the natural world, but are an inextricable and essential part of it.
The real sustenance in this collection is Loren’s lean, lyrical language; another of her strengths is brevity. That’s not to say that her essays are under-developed, but that she employs an enviable economy of language. Her precise and image-driven prose lingers just long enough to allow the full weight and significance of her words to settle, but Loren trusts readers enough to make many of their own larger connections. This attention to language gives the pieces constant forward motion, and the pacing of the collection is exact. It’s impressive how Loren achieves this movement without losing her lyrical voice. Several pieces, notably “Back Words,” “Fighting Time,” and “Word Hoard,” portray the lyric essay at its finest. This lyricism is especially seen in Loren’s essay endings. In the final paragraph of “The Evolution of Hunger,” Loren writes,
But the sunrise is still saffron, melting above solid mountains, and the beauty drips from the sky onto the human mess of us all. And after centuries, millennia, eons of eating—of stuffing my privileged self to the gills that I no longer have—I wake hungry, achingly starved to become more human: the beautiful animal in the core of me craving the evolution of it all.
I couldn’t help but read aloud this passage, and countless others in the book, for their rhythm and imagery.
Like the faith that Loren has in readers for making their own larger connections, she also allows us to completely trust her unflinchingly honest narrator and believe in the other characters that inhabit her stories. She has said that “We are all after something completely elusive and we all seek to touch upon the thing we believe to be beyond words. All good writing is about that which cannot be said.” The themes of many of Loren’s essays reveal a narrator who hungers for an understanding of those things that cannot be said and a connection to the world around her.
In the essay “Margie’s Discount,” Loren both tenderly and honestly portrays her mother’s long battle with Parkinson’s and their conflicted relationship. The essay “Fighting Time” meditates on the physical realities of growing older. In “Learning Fear,” one of the most powerful essays in the collection because of its scenic qualities and reflective voice, Loren considers her high school best friend’s incestuous relationship and the ways in which young women develop a consciousness of fear. In another moving essay, “The Evolution of Hunger,” Loren tells the story of sharing a meal with a local homeless man, a vivid scene that demonstrates how “Our souls hunger for communication. Our bodies hunger for food.”
Loren pushes toward uncovering truths in difficult material that many writers may shy away from. She does this not for shock value, but to provide balance to the larger narrative and to illustrate a human life ever in process. In “Plate Tectonics,” a brilliantly segmented essay that revisits the consequences of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and openly reflects on her struggle with depression, Loren writes, “It was not a trauma that caused my deepening sorrow. It was the recognition of beauty, and of my increasing distance from it.” In another essay she writes,
I want the imperfect grace of it all to pour over me. I want to swoon when I see beauty, to cower when I feel fear, to remain strong enough to allow every emotion to weaken me. I want to wrap myself around these moments, squeeze them for their beauty, their grace, their ugliness, their sorrow.
In every essay, the narrator simultaneously sees the beauty and the pain in her experiences—often within the same sentence—and acknowledges the complexities and tensions inherent to these experiences.
This is a collection of essays to savor, but when I came to the end of the collection I admit that I found myself wishing it were longer, particularly the first section, “Animal.” It’s the shortest in the collection, with just three pieces, but the one I was most drawn to for how vividly and unsentimentally Loren examines the human/animal relationship. Reading this collection felt like having a long and thoughtful conversation with a wise and empathetic friend, one I hoped would last just a while longer.
Loren once said that “[w]ords are energy created by vibration. When a sentence vibrates at exactly the right frequency, that is the only thing I know to be true.” Loren’s collection certainly vibrates with every word, with every essay, richly and resonantly. She counsels that “[w]e all need to listen to that vibration,” and in the case of this stunning debut essay collection, Loren offers us all truths that are urgently worth listening to.
Photo credit: Andrew C. Gottlieb