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  • Knowledge Work and the Commons in Barbara Kingsolver’s and Ann Pancake’s Appalachia

Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been revive the commons as place, as concept, and as narrative motivation. The losses that damaging resource extraction produces give rise to new models for sustaining the commons through work. Specifically, the novels’ women protagonists escape restrictive domesticity to become organic intellectuals who shore up the commons through activist and scientific labors that integrate locals’ experiential knowledge into environmentalist and research agendas. The novels veer from traditional commons thinking and historical scholarship on the interplay between labor and environment to propose how knowledge work curbs privatization and resource capture.

Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior reconstitute the commons from the ground up. The novels’ women protagonists work on rural Appalachian land in response to the threats that privatization and extractive industry pose to ecosystems, cultural traditions, family, and finances. In these twenty-first-century narratives, working on the land encompasses agricultural labors such as gardening and foraging as well as intellectual labors of activism and scientific research. The forests of Tennessee and West Virginia were ‘everybody’s places before,’ one of Pancake’s aged characters explains (185); under the forms of enclosure that industry now practices, they are owned and controlled by the powerful few. New uses of the commons arise under these restrictive conditions, uses emerging from loss and destruction. Shared land is just one of the relations progressively lost when subsistence living on the commons, strong in nineteenth-century Appalachia, gives way to intensive extraction of timber and coal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.1 Unemployment, bodily injury, ecological destruction and estrangement, and the emasculation of the male work force are just some of the other losses these fictions record. [End Page 95]

In Strange’s and Flight Behavior’s chronicles, however, loss and alienation are paradoxically productive; they give rise to configurations of work that sustain the commons. The knowledge work of advocacy and scientific inquiry and subsistence agricultural labor bolster each other. Crucially, women are the prime agents of this work formation, under which the commons’ purposes are remade. Pancake’s and Kingsolver’s novels revolve around women whose relations to the land are threatened by domesticity and the injustices of capitalist extraction. Dissatisfied with motherhood and service labor, the protagonists reclaim space by separating from their husbands and becoming versions of Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual: an individual who speaks from below for the interests of her class and, in these books, of her region and gender. That organic relationship is not naive, however; both novels accept that a precapitalist commons is irretrievable in the twenty-first century. What they offer instead are avenues for recovering common space out of alienation. In short, instead of production leading to loss, as under extraction, loss generates shared space and experiential knowledge that serve environmentalist goals.

Flight Behavior and Strange outline three phases of the commons: a longstanding history of working to gain sustenance from the woods and accruing knowledge about ecological processes that depended on open access to the land, a moment in the near past when residues of these practices endured even under increasing enclosure, and a twenty-first-century moment when enclosed land became common through activism and research as a response to its threat and extinction.2 As women challenge domesticity and resist privatization and surplus extraction, they make the land ripe for knowledge work that melds scientific and experiential epistemologies. In reimagining the commons as a space for knowledge work and against resource capture, the novels veer at once from lineages of thought about the commons—represented by Garrett Hardin, on the one hand, and Marxist feminists, on the other—and from historical scholarship on labor environmentalism. Research on the work-environment relation within the environmental humanities typically centers on activism driven by organized work collectives.3 The decentralized, grassroots commoning that takes place in Kingsolver’s and Pancake’s ecofictions recognizes that the need to mold and mobilize publics is newly urgent as union jobs and influence in Appalachia are scarce to nonexistent. Keeping their protagonists on their natal lands but expanding women’s range of engagement from the home into the public sphere, Strange and Flight Behavior revive the commons as place, as concept, and as narrative impetus. They establish shared space as a key rallying cry for an environmentalism that emerges from loss and engenders [End Page 96] interdependencies between region and planet, economy and ecology, and experiential and scientific epistemologies.

Extraction, Emasculation, and Loss

Environmental and economic erosion afflict Feathertown, Tennessee and Yellowroot Hollow, West Virginia, the respective settings of Flight Behavior and Strange. These Appalachian towns are so job poor that ‘job blackmail’ (qtd. in Bullard 10) is a lost luxury: employers cannot threaten activist employees with layoffs when there is no waged work to be found. Domestic relationships fray when jobs in logging and mining disappear as environmental disruption continues apace. Flight Behavior covers five months in 2010 and features Dellarobia Turnbow, a discontented stay-at-home mother who, at twenty-eight, is stuck in an economically stagnant town and an emotionally stale marriage. The book opens with Dellarobia off to a tryst in the forest. She swerves from this destination when she encounters an inscrutable curtain of orange that seems sentient. The curtain turns out to be a colony of North American monarch butterflies that has mistakenly migrated to Tennessee rather than its customary overwintering grounds in central Mexico. After scientists arrive to research the phenomenon and Dellarobia’s father-in-law announces his intentions to sell the trees sheltering the butterflies for timber, she undergoes a process of intellectual development that changes the trajectory of her previously stifling life: she becomes a protector of the forest and a student of biology.

Strange shares Flight Behavior’s arc toward environmental engagement; here, though, the community faces utter dispossession. Three generations of a family live in a West Virginia hollow where logging and coal mining were once the primary waged occupations. Beginning in the 1980s, longtime male residents enter a permanent state of joblessness, and food service and mothering are the only work available to women. Chapters alternate between Lace See’s first-person narration of her path to anti-mining advocacy; her daughter Bant’s narration of her coming of age in a place ravaged by extraction; and third-person narration focalizing Lace’s other children, neighbors, and relatives. Strange chronicles the transition from timber logging to the most destructive of coal mining techniques, mountaintop removal (MTR). Leaving the land ‘naked and scalped,’ MTR produces a ‘confused new shape of the land’ (16). Rather than bringing prosperity to the hollows it ecologically destroys, MTR ushers in unemployment, sickness, and environmental alienation. The latter does not only occur geographically; it also occurs psychically. Lace’s [End Page 97] and Bant’s environmental awakenings unfold against this alienation and other characters’ debates over whether to sever regional ties once and for all and escape financial and environmental ruin.

The tales of young motherhood and environmental disturbance that Kingsolver and Pancake relate intertwine with histories of agricultural subsistence and extractive industry in Appalachia. Dellarobia’s and Lace’s transformations from housewives to organic intellectuals are thus narratively correlated to the phases of the commons—from dominant, to residual, to nearly extinct and emergent—that resource capture forces.

If, in historian Brian Black’s account, the first ‘chapter in Appalachia’s energy story’ had petroleum as its theme, coal quickly defined the next chapter (43).4 By the mid-nineteenth century, mining had joined logging as an economic juggernaut in the region. Enclosing the land is a necessary concomitant to outsized extraction. Strange most explicitly sketches Appalachia’s shift from a stronghold for small-scale subsistence agriculture to the land’s privatization and the disintegration of communities that cohered around the commons. Lace See’s generation is the last to experience residues of the commons under extraction, and memories of working the land cement connections to family, neighbors, and Yellowroot Hollow. She recalls the summer of 1984 when, at eighteen, she was pregnant with her soon-to-be daughter Bant and how she marked time with her labors: ‘By then it was garden time, we laid rows and rows. Got Mack Kile with his tractor to plow and disk, then we furrowed by push plow, sowed and weeded by hoe and by hand. . . . [W]ith Bant moving inside, it seemed like she already struggled right along with us’ (96). Native flora also punctuate time: ‘poke, ramps, molly moochers in spring, blackberries in summer. . . . Sumac and sassafras in November, come Christmas, holly and greenery’ (35). Familiarity with these plants and with the topography define Appalachians environmentally just as use of parataxis, elided subject pronouns, and run-on sentences define them linguistically. Multigenerational affective and epistemological bonds to the land are particularly strong among the women. Years later Bant suggests as much when she remarks, ‘I’d been running this [game] path since before I was born’ (34).

Fifteen years old in 1999, Bant stands on the precipice of the extinction of the commons, her community, and ecological knowledge as MTR extraction encloses and heaves the land. Her elders describe the access restrictions mining companies have imposed since MTR came to the region: ‘If they don’t got a gate across the road, . . . they’ll hoove up dirt in it so you can’t get over. . . . These are roads and paths into places I been going all my life’ (185). Strange elaborates on the liminal moment in the history of work and the commons [End Page 98] that Bant inhabits. The ‘extractive reserve’ environmental approach once reigned in Appalachia (Barca 19). According to historian Stefania Barca, this model of extraction involves protecting lands for ‘different noncapitalist forms of the work-nature relationship: collective use rights; . . . land-based cultural identity and livelihoods; . . . and wild-fruit gathering and biodiversity conservation’ (19–20). Before absentee speculators fully enclose the land, the labors of capitalist mining and logging coexist with Bant’s ‘running the woods’ (16). West Virginians living in coal country were farmers and only joined the extraction labor pool in the late nineteenth century on a temporary or seasonal basis and ‘not with a mind to suddenly and permanently make a separation from their preferred way of life’ (Montrie, Making 74). For a time, mining companies saw opportunity in Appalachians’ coupling of waged mining with the maintenance of agrarian lifeways; it ‘enabled [companies] to keep wage rates down and yet still make a claim to benevolence’ (78). In Strange’s depiction of early 1980s West Virginia, environmental know-how can still hedge against financial ruin: ‘You can live off these mountains, Grandma’d say. And in bad times, she’d say, meaning layoffs, strikes, but also, I knew, the year I was born, we did‘ (35). Pancake’s novel, like Kingsolver’s, substantiates a point pervasive in scholarship on the commons: common land entails human involvement and is thus distinct from the wilderness ideal that absents humans so that nature can be figured as a pristine alternative to so-called civilization.5

When bad times turn worse, the extractive reserve idea crumbles along with the soil removed from mountaintops. Black relates that ‘[a]n interest in efficiency and the cost of mining drove far-flung companies to adopt new technologies and thereby adjust the ethic of extraction to accept more intensive impacts’ (44).6 Strange records this shift in which local waged labor becomes increasingly obsolete and companies abandon any environmental or labor ethics recognizable as such. From underground mining, operators adopt strip mining, which accesses coal by removing a layer of soil and rock from either a flat plot or the outcroppings of hills. MTR first came to the coal-rich lands of West Virginia in the 1970s. It is a more technologically dependent process that uses enormous machines and millions of pounds of explosives to reengineer the land based on geological readings from electronic sensors and computer models. MTR displaces what the industry terms overburden and what we might call the landscape—forest, vegetation, topsoil, and rock—a process that leaves the land effectively ‘naked and scalped’ (Pancake 16). Companies typically dump the overburden from the decapitated mountain into valleys below, burying riverine and forest ecosystems. At every turn, this form of extraction creates cascading risks. Slurry ponds [End Page 99] hold thousands of gallons of toxin- and heavy metal-laced water that MTR generates. The dams containing the ponds are prone to breaking when floods caused by the erosive action of mining speed down the mountain. Through the haunting memories of older characters, Strange relates one such infamous disaster: the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood that killed over a hundred people, injured a thousand more, and took the homes of approximately 4,000.7 A former resident who was swept up in this flood as a child vividly describes MTR’s multi-pronged ‘slow violence’ (Nixon, Slow): ‘This disaster is cumulative, is governed by a different scale of time. Chronic, pressing, insistent, insidious. Kill the ground and trees by blasting out the coal, kill all the trees you don’t kill the first time through acid rain, kill the water with the waste you have to dump, and then, by burning the coal . . . heat up the climate and kill everything left’ (Pancake 239–40). Pancake’s novel spans the mid-1980s to 2000, the period in which the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection permitted extensive MTR operations, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of acres of woods to removal. But it exceeds this timescale and its dominant geography by correlating chronic damage to acute disasters and local ravages to planetary destruction.

Each successive change to extraction processes and technologies diminishes the commons and the traditions of work that emotionally and intellectually bonded Appalachians to their environment. Locals might accept some ecological and social losses in exchange for steady employment, but MTR mining also diminishes job opportunities through technological efficiency and labor pool imports. Already in the mid-1980s, ‘people [are] leaving the coalfields in droves, unemployment in the double digits across most of the state and over twenty around here’ (94). With no work even for experienced men, much less novice women, foraging for ramps, morels, ginseng, and other plants sustains Lace’s family.

Over time, however, industrialized mining erodes this subsistence work in several ways. First, mining converts what was once shared space into enclosed, private property. The companies cut off access to the land with guards, gates, and even felled trees. As Grandma See laments, the industry is ‘[g]etting everything posted. . . so even if you’re on foot, you got to worry the whole time are they coming after you’ (185). Appalachian heirs to the mountain’s bounty assume criminal status. Second, surplus extraction inflicts bodily damage that makes trekking into the woods and spending long hours bent with a trowel impossible. Sicknesses abound: Pap See’s black lung; Jimmy Mack’s chronic back pain; Uncle Mogey’s work-related brain injury. These men’s bodies encode mining work to the exclusion of other labors. Strange shows how the burdens [End Page 100] of resource capture fall on those who benefit least while absentee speculators glean profits by exhausting land and body. Finally, what’s lost to industrial resource capture is also destroyed, further eroding the viability of subsistence on the commons. Pancake’s Appalachia is an ‘energy sacrifice zone,’ a ‘place where human lives are valued less than the natural resources that can be extracted from the region’ (Buckley and Allen 171). The idea that plants, animals, and earth are simply ‘resources’ for consumption also extracts value and liveliness from more-than-human nature. Underground and strip mining, the forms of work that defined the region in the early to mid-twentieth century, have ravaged environment, body, and spirit alike.

These losses and damages revive commoning by inspiring women to become organic intellectuals who fuse epistemologies in order to protect the environment and Appalachian lifeways. The process by which Flight Behavior’s plot carries Dellarobia to this status differs from Strange’s. In contrast to the See women who access a genetic memory of working and feeling for the land, ‘drawing it down out of blood. . . . From those who looked on it, ate off it, gathered, hunted, dug, planted, loved, and bled on it’ (Pancake 199), Dellarobia wouldn’t ‘know nature if it bit her’ (Kingsolver 4). Once it does bite her, however—once the errant butterfly migration sparks environmental curiosity and concern—she seeks out the local and expert forms of knowledge that remake the commons.

Dellarobia’s home is surrounded by forest owned by the family of her husband, Cub. Though private property, it and surrounding lands have long functioned as commons open to foraging and hunting. Kingsolver’s novel begins with the woods serving another role: terrain for marital transgression. ‘A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture’ (3), the narrator announces with a nod to the sweeping opening lines of nineteenth-century novels. En route to her affair at a hunting shack, Dellarobia stumbles on a beguiling mass of monarch butterflies that climate change has displaced from central Mexico to southern Appalachia. She soon learns that she is witnessing a rare event: a mis-migration that violates habits engrained in the insects’ brains for centuries. With this encounter, the ‘rapture’ of the opening line mutates into the discomfort of ‘feeling powerful and bereft’ (23). Just as the ‘confused new shape of the land’ twists the women of Strange into environmental protection (Pancake 16), the confused feelings of the monarch anomaly shape the novel’s plot and the housewife’s belated coming of age. Dellarobia’s emotions are as unbidden as the call ‘to witness’ the colony (Kingsolver 22), and they spur her development into a research assistant and a teacher of environmental wonders and threats. The butterflies are figures for the destruction of the land and [End Page 101] for a loss that is predicated on dreadful splendor but are productive of new futures. In a scene narrating procedures of data collection, the protagonist considers, ‘if these butterflies were refugees of a horrible misfortune, there could be no beauty in them’ (143). The narrative refutes this binary thinking and shows the compatibility of dismaying data and aesthetic pleasure. Loss laced with beauty inspires in Dellarobia the questions that open the woods to locally attuned scientific learning.

Prior to joining the team of lepidopterists, Dellarobia’s work prospects include maternity and animal husbandry. The pregnancy that led to her marrying Cub ended in a devastating miscarriage, but now with two young children she has decidedly mixed feelings about mothering. She compares herself to ‘a woman stoned for the sin of motherhood’ when performing domestic work such as dressing her fussy daughter (127). From moral sin to environmental sin, the metaphors Dellarobia uses to describe motherhood shed light on her aversion to parenting. During the semiannual shearing of the sheep herd, she conflates herself with nursing ewes to build a comparison between her body and wrecked land: ‘The worst hangers-on were the little rams, insatiable boys. Preston [her son] had been the same, still begging to nurse when his sister was born. . . . She felt permanently caved in from those years she’d spent with one child keening to draw milk out of her and another one fully monopolizing her surface. Effectively deep-mined and strip-mined simultaneously’ (26). Dellarobia’s thought that maternity is environmental destruction subtly introduces the conditions of mining in Appalachia that Strange fully elaborates. Though logging is the form of damaging extraction that directly drives Flight Behavior’s extraction plot, the mining metaphor reminds readers that the region, like Dellarobia’s breasts, has ‘permanently caved in’ due to human demands. This metaphor and the narrative structure correlate maternal work and the protagonist’s environmental estrangement, suggesting that Dellarobia wouldn’t ‘know nature if it bit her’ because motherhood has confined her to the home and limited her sights to the view from her kitchen window (4). The novel reverses a powerful, pervasive trope that equates maternity with care for and closeness to the earth. Instead, the butterfly encounter that revises her labor position and reverses environmental estrangement occurs because she seeks escape from wifedom and motherhood.

Animal husbandry likewise alienates Dellarobia from community and more-than-human nature. Her experience poses an exception to historian Richard White’s argument that work provides ‘a fundamental way of knowing nature and perhaps our deepest connection with the natural world’ (174). Agricultural work does not connect Dellarobia to the natures of southern Appalachia; rather, the shearing episode [End Page 102] emphasizes her marginalized position and her alienation from the region. In the same passage that likens her maternal body to mining-ravaged land, the narrator details the labors of husbandry: ‘She was holding up the pace here. It was her job to leave the skirting table every few minutes to fetch a new fleece from the other side of the barn. . . . At one door of the brightly lit shearing stall her husband had a grip on both horns of a big white ewe, waiting to deliver it into the hands of the shearer, while their skinny neighbor Peanut Norwood stood . . . ready to escort out the newly shorn’ (24). Over several pages, the narrator closely details such shearing activities and positions Dellarobia and her children as hindrances or outsiders to them. The scene ends with her mother-in-law, Hester’s, frustration and with Dellarobia and her kids ‘banished to the house’ (30). With this act, the narrative positions the domestic sphere outside of communal labors and at a distance from environmental work.

In time the narrative reveals that Dellarobia’s environmental alienation is not unique to her but is endemic to early 2000s Feathertown. Hester’s generation shares with the Sees in Strange a matrilineal tradition of supplementing wage labors with subsistence labors on the commons. By 2010 this environmental relation has dissipated and knowledge of flora and fauna faded into ancestral memory. In a key plot turn, however, the butterfly migration resuscitates both. In the months after Dellarobia first spies the forest-bound monarchs, word spreads to lepidopterist Dr. Ovid Byron. He arrives from the University of New Mexico to study why the insects mis-migrated and how they might survive. The monarch migration and Ovid’s research reactivate the desire for commons-based knowledge that went dormant as mining and logging took over and then destabilized the region. When Dellarobia becomes an assistant to the research team, Hester antagonizes her and resists the new occupation. Eventually, she lends her latent expertise to the team and teaches Dellarobia how to locate a food source for the monarchs as winter warms. The narrative, then, causally links the butterflies’ emergence from hibernation and the awakening of Hester’s subsistence know-how. Having lived on and off of the land, she has inherited and nourished expertise in ‘woodsy stuff’ (338), but this local knowledge, which ‘must be taught, and renewed, continuously’ (Linebaugh 14), ceases with her generation. Its renewal only comes from direct experience of the far-ranging ecological losses the butterflies figure.

The monarchs’ errant migration introduces environmental change to the Turnbows from the outside; extractive industry introduces change from the inside. References to mining sprinkle Flight Behavior’s metaphors while logging carries a heavy diegetic burden. The narrative traces the end to the commons labors, which Hester’s [End Page 103] generation had performed alongside logging. When extraction returns and tempts the Turnbows, it galvanizes Feathertowners’ conservationism. California-based Money Tree Industries capitalizes on rampant unemployment and financial strain in recession-era Feathertown and offers to purchase and log the Turnbow forest in the most damaging way possible, through clear-cutting. The patriarch, Bear, makes a deal with Money Tree as an alternative to foreclosing on the homestead he used as collateral on a loan. Money Tree intends to ‘clear-cut the whole deal at once’ in an efficient but injurious transaction that will destroy the life the forest harbors, including the visiting monarch population (39). This promised damage, however, rescues the woods from logging as Dellarobia, Feathertowners, and those who learn about the butterflies through viral media protest force Bear’s hand to abandon the sale. With this plot, Flight Behavior shares Strange’s attention to how resource capture at once threatens Appalachians’ heritage of nonsurplus work on the commons and inspires locals to mobilize and protect the commons for all beings.

The mobilization of women in forms of knowledge work on the commons is predicated on men’s declining position as workers in twenty-first-century Appalachia. As the earth shifts due to mining and logging, so too do gender roles, and as fossil fuels come out of the earth, masculinity drains from these men. Cub Turnbow of Flight Behavior and Jimmy Make of Strange are of a piece: their manhood fades when job opportunities disappear. Mining and logging jobs diminish with technologization, the depletion of resources, and the hiring of out-of-state ‘scabs’ (Pancake 51). In Strange MTR is the final nail in the coffin for employment and also for another instantiation of the commons: unions. The companies pass over men with union experience and earn the name ‘great dividers’ for blocking workers’ organizing drives (307). With neither jobs nor a community of fellow workers, men in these novels become inert and incompetent. Cub’s name immediately announces the man’s diminutive status, a hit that description reinforces: ‘the combined weight of the Turnbow men senior and junior was about sixty pounds less than the present day. Back when they used their feet for something other than framing the view of the television set’ (Kingsolver 4). Following the sheep shearing, ‘Cub remained mute and supine on his bed of hay. Cub’s only off-farm income was what he made driving a truck that delivered gravel, intermittently, as that company was not seeing a lot of action these days’ (38–39). Lace’s narration similarly correlates weight gain to declining productivity and masculinity. Working ‘in the pulpwood and underground’ debilitates Jimmy Make’s body and his position in the family (Pancake 188). His wife laments that ‘what had first pulled me to him, what had kept me coming back— . . . the [End Page 104] liveness in him—that hot wetness had been dripping away for some years, but with the injury, it drained clear gone.’ Though Lace says that her attraction is not ‘exactly for the sex,’ we read the desiccation of Jimmy’s ‘liveness’ as loss of virility. Arguably Flight Behavior and Strange come down too hard on men who have fallen out of the waged workforce. In effect they use these men as devices for condemning intensified extraction and the physical and social suffering that comes with it.8

Rendering Appalachian men obsolete and ‘babified’ (Pancake 148), while a crude move, clears space in the novels for women qua workers to assume responsibility for the region’s environmental and economic futures. These futures do not rest on female-dominant ‘caring labor’ as an alternative to formerly male-dominated extraction and its injuries in Strange and Flight Behavior (Hardt 99). As discussed earlier, mothering stifles Lace and Dellarobia when it is their sole occupation. The novels reject the regressive view that women are more proximate—or even equivalent—to nature and therefore nurture the land as a mother does a child. Motherhood and ‘extensions of housework,’ like food service, do not extricate them from the extractive economy (Federici 44). Marxist theorists Silvia Federici and Michael Hardt offer reasons why domestic labor is an inadequate counter to capitalism. Federici cites ‘housework as the crucial factor in the definition of the exploitation of women in capitalism’ because (6), among other reasons, ‘capitalism requires unwaged reproductive labor in order to contain the cost of labor power’ (8). From a different vantage, Hardt cautions against equating maternal work with resistance to capitalist domination. ‘Even in . . . feminist analyses of maternal labor,’ he explains, ‘it is clear how difficult it can be at times to dislodge the potential of affective labor from both the patriarchal constructions of reproduction and the subjective black hole of the family’ (99).9 That is, affective labor—maternal and house work—supplies the labor pool, buttresses the male-dominated household, and closes women off to the labor expressions Lace and Dellarobia ultimately find as organic intellectuals.

In Flight Behavior and Strange, twenty-first-century capitalist extraction and enclosure neutralize even the personal benefits of maternal work for two reasons: mothering reproduces a workforce without a viable workplace and the loss of the commons destroys the grounds for nonsurplus work in nature. In response to the present labor crisis in which men are emasculated and inert and women are discontent mothers isolated from the land, the novels propose remaking a threatened commons through women’s intellectual labors. In these Appalachian stories, labor, gender, and environmental histories converge; across these histories, destruction precipitates ecopolitical [End Page 105] and biographical developments that, as the ensuing analysis demonstrates, engender a new commons.

Making Knowledge Work for the Commons

Flight Behavior and Strange present dominant, residual, and emergent forms of the commons as they chronicle the incessant privatization and enclosure of the Appalachian woods. In what follows I argue that the commons emergent in the twenty-first century is a threatened space that is productive for knowledge work precisely because it is vulnerable to destruction. This work is as cooperative as the subsistence labors once practiced and integrates both local and expert intelligences. To put Pancake’s and Kingsolver’s literary imaginings of the commons in relief, we must first understand two other conceptions of the commons: commons as tragedy in a neoliberal tradition and commons as desideratum for Marxist feminism.10

Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s classic 1968 essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ has made the ‘commons’ and ‘tragedy’ rhetorical synonyms. His premise is that a technological fix for the ‘population problem’ is unattainable (1243). If populations grow ‘geometrically’ on a planet with finite resources, as Thomas Malthus claimed, then scarcity ensues and threatens human survival (1243). To this premise, Hardin adds others: that ‘decisions reached individually’ will not ‘be the best decisions for an entire society,’ Adam Smith’s claims notwithstanding; that reason dictates that a person ‘seeks to maximize his gains’; and that benefits accrue to individuals, not communities (1244). The parable Hardin spins instructs that when a pastoralist adds one more animal to the herd, there is a net benefit to the individual but a deficit to the community because the collective of herders bears the burdens of the animal’s grazing but not its rewards.11 The outcome is tragedy: ‘Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons’ (1244). In this neo-Malthusian view, informed by geneticism and economic rationality, the idea of the common good is evacuated. Unless strategies of ‘mutual coercion’ are in place to check the commons and ‘the freedom to breed’ (1246), environmental and social systems careen toward collapse. Privatization might very well be an ‘[i]njustice,’ Hardin admits, but it is ‘preferable to total ruin’ (1247).

In another intellectual tradition, the commons produces contrasting results: it fosters justice, especially for women and workers. Feminist and Marxist accounts converge on this point. Federici contends that women have historically taken the firmest stand against [End Page 106] the privatization of public space; they ‘are in the forefront of the struggle for a noncapitalist use of natural resources’ (126). Women perform subsistence work on the commons in greater numbers than men and therefore are disproportionately affected by the takeover of lands under industrialization, colonization, and resource capture.12 For this reason it often falls to women to defend public space and establish relations to the land outside extractive paradigms. In line with Federici, feminist theorists Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen argue there are two reasons women support a subsistence perspective that preserves environmental, cultural, and social heritages in the face of rapacious enclosure. First, they more often work public land because they are excluded from other labor markets, and, second, ‘[i]n a way, women are treated like commons and commons are treated like women, and the link is the modern notion of nature’ (159). Women thus resist enclosure most vociferously in the Marxist feminist conception of the commons, and they do so because of lived experience of the divisions of labor that surplus capitalism creates.13

Diverging sharply from Hardin’s conception of the commons, Flight Behavior and Strange share with these Marxist feminist analyses a conviction that women bear the torch in fights against resource capture and resultant environmental degradation. However, the novels depart from the feminists’ analyses in proposing that the twenty-first-century commons fosters intellectual labors as conduit to women’s self-actualization. Rather than sentimentalizing commons work as caregiving, Kingsolver and Pancake acknowledge the tensions between mothering and running the woods and posit ways that women qua workers can turn their labors to environmentalist purposes in the realms of activism and research.

Through these activities, the women protagonists of these Appalachian novels share contours with Gramsci’s organic intellectual. Gramsci contends that everyone is an intellectual, but social conditions determine whether that potential manifests. This premise warrants the claim that ‘[e]very social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields’ (5). Lace and Dellarobia fit this characterization insofar as they emerge from a repressed working class to bring notice to their own diminished social and environmental conditions and envision how those conditions might be otherwise. In Gramsci’s words, they aim to ‘sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought’ (9). While they do not exemplify a pure idea of the organic intellectual because they eschew organized [End Page 107] politics, Lace and Dellarobia find they can realize social functions that extend beyond the home. These characters bring to their social group of working-class rural Appalachians ‘new modes of thought’ concerning the commons’ role in knowledge sharing and production. They do so not only to aid basic survival but also to understand how local places are imbricated in far-reaching environmental processes and extractive economies as a way to preserve those legacies of subsistence work. Once dominant, now diminishing labors on the commons can again sustain social life when reconceived in the face of loss and extinction.

In Strange the alternative to Lace’s demoralizing service job and constricting marriage is grassroots environmental activism. Though the novel concludes before fruits of the campaign against MTR are harvested, the fight frees Lace from her domestic confines; reactivates her sense of belonging; and shows the commons as essential to material, intellectual, and emotional sustenance. The novel conceives of activism as a process of making visible rather than an escalating set of protests, direct actions, and confrontations with government and corporations. Absentee mining companies have successfully occluded their damages by hiding behind the scale of their operations and by importing out-of-state workers. For activists like Loretta Hughes and Charlie Blizzard, who inspire Lace, activism first requires obtaining documentary evidence of mining’s environmental and socioeconomic harms. When Bant overhears her mother discussing the anti-MTR campaign with Loretta, what impresses the girl is not their words, which consist of ‘letters that . . . stood for government agencies’ (57), but the ‘dirty pictures’ of mining operations (58). Despite being ‘smeary and dotty,’ the black-and-white photographs Bant briefly glimpses fill in the environmental picture whose ‘edges’ she had only glimpsed from the roadside (57). The clandestine images cement knowledge. Bant explains her revelation: ‘although I’d never really seen [an MTR mine], and these pictures weren’t color and weren’t clear, and although I only looked for seconds, I knew’ (58). Words with the roots ‘know’ and ‘understand’ appear no fewer than ten times in these few pages. In Strange’s model of environmental awakening, seeing, even if it only comes in grainy glimpses, produces understanding and activates knowledge. The somatic sicknesses, the hollow’s death, financial and domestic strain, and pressures to relocate are now ‘known.’

Lace shares Jimmy’s opinion that ‘you won’t never beat coal. It’s who has the money’ and maintains distance from the environmentalist movement in fear of retaliation (276), but her hesitations do not amount to defeatism. In her role as organic intellectual, she makes visible the ecological and social fragmentation the industry [End Page 108] creates by writing letters and talking to her community about MTR’s effects. Her daughter joins the quest for visibility as a precursor to environmental engagement but relies on her own sight rather than the mediation of photographs and written reports. An episode that concludes Pancake’s narrative has Bant trespassing on now-enclosed land in order to witness the scene of the industry’s environmental crimes. She becomes a vehicle for sight, purging herself of thought, feeling, and pain as she ‘spider[s] up’ into the fill where a mountain had once been (351). Over and over, Bant’s narration reports on her ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’ until she gains vantage on a ‘tree slaughter’ that ‘put a hurt on me’ (353): a sediment pond filled with the bodies of recently-killed and long-dead trees. She feels the hurt of a loss as bottomless as the pond that threatens to heave up and set off an avalanche of trees, mud, rocks, and poisonous water in the next hard rain. ‘Our house would be the first to go,’ Bant recognizes (354); as she stands on the precipice of the pond’s rim, she stands on the precipice of another anticipated loss.

Despite their vulnerability, Lace and Bant decide to endure in Yellowroot and face potential destruction. When Jimmy relocates with the two boys (the other boy, Corey, has died in an accident) and the women do not, they signal that, to revive the commons, they must do more than work on the land. They must witness the industry’s exploitation, share knowledge about the land’s destruction, and live through the myriad devastations extraction delivers. Strange’s last scene outlines what inhabiting, witnessing, and living-through entail. ‘Was it worse to lose the mountain or the feelings that you had for it?’ Bant wonders (356). ‘Now that I’d lost this much, I realized that to not care wasn’t to save yourself at all. It was only another loss.’ While the novel does not endorse the utopian prospect that Appalachian coal country could revert to its pre-enclosed state, it considers how an enclosed commons can still support intellectual and activist labors spurred by destruction. Bant concludes the novel her mother’s ally in activism and takes up the challenge ‘to grow big enough inside to hold both the loss and the hope’ (357). Her remark encapsulates phases of the commons this essay has outlined: a historical conception now experienced as loss and an emergent manifestation as a site of activism and knowledge production opening onto hope. For Strange, then, the twenty-first-century commons depends on environmental engagement keyed to the damages of resource capture. It emerges from the understanding that completely eradicating mining is impossible, as is reverting back to the commons that predated capitalist extraction.

In Flight Behavior, as in Strange, environmentalism grows in the endangered woods, with the errant monarchs epitomizing an [End Page 109] ecological devastation that turns to gain for Dellarobia and returns private land to public purposes. She becomes attuned to the more-than-human world through a spectacular event and a dilated process of inquiry rather than from living off the woods. Environmental destruction and the loss it engenders convert the forest into a knowledge commons. After encountering the butterfly colony, Dellarobia approaches plant and animal life with curiosity that extends beyond the home, out to the ‘continental ecosystem’ (215) and the ‘circumference of the Earth’ itself (180). Focalizing Dellarobia, the narrator remarks that wide-ranging scientific questions—such as why the air is drier when temperatures are cooler (43)—had often nagged her, but she only pursues them after the butterflies come to Tennessee. Her scientific curiosity and environmental concern gel as her work profile shifts. The lepidopterists first casually invite Dellarobia to accompany them to the field site. An informal arrangement turns into waged work as Ovid’s research assistant, and Dellarobia adds apprentice scientist to a résumé that until then had included only mother and former diner waitress.

The attachments toward the place that frayed in Feathertown due to enclosure and economic pressures return because of the monarch anomaly. These attachments surface not only in residents but also in faraway environmentalists. Whereas environmental communication occurs through print and word of mouth in Strange, news of the monarchs travels through television and viral online media in Flight Behavior. After seeing Dellarobia on a news program, an anonymous viewer creates a mash-up of the interview and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and posts it on YouTube, declaring Dellarobia ‘The Butterfly Venus’ (214). This is just one way in which Kingsolver depicts twenty-first-century activism. In addition to depending on digital technologies, it also has a consumer focus that highlights class tensions between Tennessee residents and concerned outsiders. Initially activists arrive to prevent the timber sale to Money Tree, but with that fight won, they stay to raise awareness about the local effects of climate change. A group knits butterflies from repurposed orange sweaters and publicizes its campaign through Facebook. Though social media fuels the craftwork campaign, it can only endure because the Turnbows open their land to activist purposes unimagined in the past. Members of ‘Knit the Earth’ survive on firewood and other forest resources and the woods become a geographical base for globalized activism (300).

Leighton Akins also treats the forest as a common space for environmentalism, but, in contrast to the knitters, whose crafting skills ally them with Hester and other Feathertowners, his approach draws out disparities of class and region. A retiree in ‘snappy L.L. [End Page 110] Beans’ (315), Leighton is on a mission to change consumer habits by committing people to a ‘Sustainability Pledge’ (327). Rather than find commonalities with like-minded locals, he displays his ignorance of the financial crunch Dellarobia and her neighbors face. They do not eat out at restaurants so the pledge to ‘[b]ring your own Tupperware. . . for leftovers’ is irrelevant. ‘Turn[ing] your monitor off when not in use’ is a meaningless goal for those who cannot afford computers (328). Though Flight Behavior at times portrays the knitters’ and Leighton’s ‘hipster’ environmentalism’ (Heise) as precious, ignorant, and elitist, it upholds the woods as a commons for contemporary forms of activism against the enclosure and destruction that resource extraction brings to the region.

Just as opening the land to activism invites encounters between Feathertowners and far-flung environmentalists, opening it to research invites exchanges between scientific and experiential epistemologies, between the learned and the lived. As Flight Behavior painstakingly describes the team’s research methods, many of which they improvise in response to conditions on the ground, it also relays scientific information. Through Dellarobia and Ovid’s dialogues, the novel closes the distance between locals’ experience and researchers’ learning. Dellarobia discovers the monarchs’ precarious, nearly hopeless, plight and humans’ part in it as drivers of climate change. Out of this and other lessons on extinction and climate, she becomes attuned to the planetary ‘pulse’ that moves all creatures (146). She ‘slowly submit[s] to [Ovid’s] sense of weather as everything. . . . Real, in a way that the window and house were not’ (319). Geophysical processes become more tangible than the home that has circumscribed her life until then. Dellarobia at times can ‘scarcely bear’ her new learning because environmental consciousness is forming around environmental destruction. Nevertheless, she responds not with despair but with a course of inquiry in which learning of loss travels with beauty and wonder.

If subsistence work on the commons yields organic knowledge—about the seasonality of plants and animals, about the nutritional and medicinal uses of flora, about topography and weather—scientific work yields another kind of knowledge: of climate processes and planet-wide environmental threats, whose importance Dellarobia translates to locals in her role as organic intellectual. Expert research fuses with experiential epistemologies that have faded along with the commons and its lifeways. Scientific knowledge cannot form in isolation; making the land common and reviving commons-based learning enables the collective production of environmental understanding. When the lepidopterists fail to locate a food source to sustain the monarchs through an erratic winter, Dellarobia taps Hester’s dormant botanical [End Page 111] expertise. A lifelong resident of Feathertown, Hester follows a hidden path into the forest where she and Cub foraged for wild mushrooms decades ago. There she spots the late winter flowers necessary for the insects’ survival. ‘Mommy called them harbingers,’ Hester instructs. ‘Some of them says salt-and-pepper flower’ (347). In her Appalachian dialect, she teaches Dellarobia demotic species names and gives her hope for the monarchs’ prospects. Hester’s native know-how rekindles ‘a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up’‘ in the service of the lepidopterists’ expertise (Jacoby 3). The exchange of intelligence only flourishes when land is open for intellectual and subsistence labors rather than enclosed for surplus extraction. Relays of knowledge then radiate out as Kingsolver’s narrative proceeds. Knowledge travels across scales in this scene of foraging as a lived, commons-based understanding of plants becomes planetary, feeding research into an environmental anomaly correlated to climate change. This happens at the level of the word. Dellarobia mingles local and specialized names as she watches a butterfly feeding on the winter flowers: ‘Nectaring, that was the verb. King Billy nectaring on the harbinger’ (348).14 Dellarobia fuses these idioms to share facts about climate change she has learned from Ovid with other Feathertowners who have long denied the phenomenon or its relevance. Her use of experiential knowledge makes her an organic intellectual who can build communities of concern that expert outsiders fail to forge.

Both Dellarobia and Lace See remake the commons as knowledge producers and activists rather than as mothers or through gendered work that expresses women’s supposedly natural connection to the land. While Flight Behavior’s and Strange’s caricature of men is excessive, it stresses the emasculation of the male workforce under surplus extraction and clears the way for women to pursue labors that contest resource capture. Pancake’s and Kingsolver’s novels do not answer the question of ‘how commons can become the foundation of a noncapitalist economy,’ an ‘unanswered question’ in Federici’s analysis as well (141), but they propose that intensifying extraction at once destroys the commons and creates conditions of loss that revive it for the twenty-first century. As the commons becomes terrain for intellectual work, intellectual work in turn reinforces the importance of residual or repressed subsistence labors.

If Strange as This Weather Has Been ends with the mingling of loss and hope, with campaigns defending public space and ecological and economic vitality ongoing, Flight Behavior ends by shuttling between apocalypticism and hope predicated on a pragmatic conception of the commons.15 Pancake’s and Kingsolver’s novels do not, then, depict the triumph of environmentalist campaigns or roadmap utopian futures. Instead they suggest that environmental [End Page 112] hope coalesces around collectivities that come into being on a remade commons. Imagining open space as a site for intellectual and activist work as well as subsistence agriculture and cottage industry, both novels demonstrate that twenty-first-century commoning becomes possible through women’s development into organic intellectuals who integrate regional experiential and global expert epistemologies. In their capacity as knowledge workers outside the home, Dellarobia and Lace look to redraw the horizons that are simply ‘gone’ for those of older generations (Pancake 309). To counter the precariousness of Appalachia’s environmental and economic futures on which both books conclude, Strange and Flight Behavior revive the commons as sites for intellectual and political formation predicated on losses that encircle home, region, and a world becoming strange.

Heather Houser

HEATHER HOUSER <> teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research areas include the contemporary novel, environmental humanities, and science and technology studies. She is the author of Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (2014) and of essays appearing in American Literary History, Public Culture, American Literature, and Contemporary Literature, among other venues. Her current project, “Environmental Culture of the Infowhelm,” examines the aesthetics of information management in recent environmental media.


1. The boundaries of Appalachia are not fixed, but they are typically said to fall between Pennsylvania and Ohio to the north and North Carolina and Tennessee to the south. Montrie notes that the term ‘Appalachian’ emerged with the surge of ‘local color writing’ in the 1870s, ‘which focused on the supposed peculiarities of non-urban people and places’ (To Save 13) and served as a ‘repository [for] an increasingly threatened republican inheritance’ (14).

2. My thanks to Joel Burges for assisting me with these and other ideas for this essay.

3. Dewey; Hurley (chapter 4); Montrie, Making; and Peck examine how particular occupations, class positions, and union affiliations in the US variously shaped environmental attitudes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For more on women and labor environmentalism, see Hall and Taylor.

4. Black relates the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania in the 1850s and the explosion of boomtowns in the following two decades.

5. On this point, see especially Linebaugh 13.

6. For more details on these processes, see Montrie, To Save 16–24.

7. See ‘Buffalo.’ This flood predates the dominance of the even more damaging MTR in the area.

8. Ovid Byron, the visiting lepidopterist in Flight Behavior, does not fit the profile of diminished men because he is an outsider whose presence is as ephemeral as the monarch colony’s. Therefore, his portrayal does not play into my argument about the novels’ correlating surplus extraction and emasculation. [End Page 113]

9. There is more to Federici’s and Hardt’s accounts of reproductive and affective labors than I have space to address. I invoke their studies because they, like the novels I examine, redefine so-called women’s labor.

10. For more on the neoliberalism of this conception of the commons, see Nixon, ‘Neoliberalism.’

11. See Nixon, ‘Neoliberalism’ on Hardin’s rhetorical genres.

12. Federici 126–38 adduces several cases from around the world to support this claim.

13. Related to this lineage of thought is one coming out of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. See Klein.

14. Hester’s ‘old mommy’ teaches her the name ‘King Billy’ for the monarchs (75). It evokes the arrival of the English in this region of Appalachia with its allusion to the Dutch prince William of Orange, who took over the crown of England, Ireland, and Scotland in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

15. In the novel’s last scene, Dellarobia witnesses either an actual or imagined flood—there is evidence for both readings—that will engulf the house she once shared with Cub and her children. The destruction has hopeful tones because the fragmenting house symbolizes her release from domesticity. It is apocalyptic in that it is a metonym for ‘strange accounts’ of environmental disaster: ‘[f]lood and . . . disasters. Something beyond terrible in Japan’ (429). The devastating tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima model the devastation of extreme weather at home.

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