Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family & Food

By BK Loren

Reviewed By Jennifer Wisner Kelly

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BK Loren is a thinking person. She observes the universe with a keen eye and returns it to us improved for her efforts. She strikes a winning balance between the particular details of her own life’s travails, her interpretations of these events, and her macro-level observations about the natural world. In her third book, an essay collection titled Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family & Food, the personal echoes and expands in the metaphysical, moving beyond the self-reflection of memoir and into meditation.

BK Loren has not had a boring life, nor an easy one. She grew up in the shadow of a nuclear weapons factory in Colorado that spewed radioactive dust into the air with alarming regularity. Not shockingly, she, and others from her community, later suffered from strange and debilitating autoimmune disorders. She also has struggled with acute depression and even more troubling perhaps for a writer: aphasia—a disorder in which the victim loses language abilities, including recall of words and, for some, an inability to speak or write. For a decade, words literally escaped her. And her troubles have run beyond her own health as well, to include the death of her mother to Parkinson’s and her father to diabetes, the loss of her home to the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, and the complicated experience of watching a teenage friend being sexually abused by her father. In these thirteen essays, Loren links her powerful personal stories with keen observations on the natural world, on science, and on psychology, contextualizing and giving resonance to both. The effect is mesmerizing.

In “The Shifting Light of Shadows,” Loren tells us of a time in her life when she unsuccessfully tracked mountain lions for six months in a Colorado state park only to later come across one on a tennis court in a small town to which she came to write. The sighting then sparked recurring dreams of the lions. In the essay, Loren moves beyond the particulars of her own preoccupation with this intimidating big cat to consider Jungian dream analysis as applied to the American collective consciousness. She explains Jung’s Shadow archetype, a dream representation of our internal, repressed fears—both negative (our fear of becoming what we loathe in others: lying, thieving, murdering) and, intriguingly, positive (our fear of success or love). In lesser hands, this discussion might have seemed overly scholarly, but Loren knows how to keep the narrative both informative and alive. She ties together the two ideas—her mountain lion sighting and Jungian dream analysis—seamlessly and then expands them into an observation on the need for environmental concern:

If the lion, in all its dark, nocturnal otherness, in all its light, internal sameness, does not exist for future generations, if we destroy its habitat, or call open season on it, what could we possibly find to replace it? It is precisely because we fear large predators that we need them. They hold within them so many things we have lost, or are on the verge of losing, personally and collectively, permanently and forever. If we sacrifice the fear, we also sacrifice the strength, the wildness, the beauty, the awe.

Loren has a political message, no doubt about it: a clear plea to save our world from ourselves. She’s pro-vegetarianism; she’s anti-development; she’s worried about toxins; she’s deeply protective of the natural world. And yet she doesn’t preach. Instead, she observes and draws connections and tells us a few gripping tales from her life that make her opinions utterly sensible.

That being said, the most poignant essays in the collection are the ones in which Loren touches on her most personal experiences. In “Margie’s Discount,” for instance, Loren tells us of her mother’s decline from Parkinson’s disease, which ravaged not only her body, but also her mind. Loren characterizes her mother with perfect clarity:

She’s built a little like a tree if the tree could be a redwood and a willow simultaneously, with a strength and rootedness accumulated over time, with a pliability and grace that bend with care for those around her…. She is my mother, the woman with the eyebrows unevenly arched, the eyes that suspect everything and are simultaneously innocent in every moment.

 With her deft use of dialogue, characterization and exposition, it’s no surprise that Loren’s first book was a novel. We see her mother with her many contradictions and feel our hearts break all the more for her inevitable decline.

What I want to do is pull to the side of the road or get back on the plane and sit in a room with her by the ocean and listen, for hours on end, to her real stories, to the stories she would tell if both her eyebrows could talk, not only the innocent brow, but the one that is arched sharply and does not understand the world, the one that sees something unjust but cannot name it.

Loren’s prose—lyrical, metaphorical, languid, and evocative—converts her analysis of the personal and the scientific into literature, at times crossing into the poetic. She has the ability to write in this exalted way without sinking into excess. I found it difficult to isolate short illustrative examples for this review—because Loren writes in such generous, backtracking and expanding phrases that meander and gather in meaning. The opening of “Fighting Time,” for example, is a gorgeous, page-long listing of the ‘way I love this life’ that includes items like:

…the strands of day that glisten in my memory, the winglike appendages of seasons (leaf, rain, snow) that catch light and then fall to loss, the voice of my mother, my memory of the age she once was arcing desperately to somehow comprehend the age she is now, the age she has become in the meantime, and the impending absence that awaits me…

So it is throughout this collection that we are swept along on Loren’s beautiful language, so lush that it is utterly incomprehensible to me that she ever experienced even a moment of aphasia. Yet there is also the power of persuasion here, an education about the dangers of environmental degradation and a smart, informed analysis of the world. Animal, Mineral, Radical is a quiet and gentle book, written with evident tenderness and care, flying lower on the literary radar than it should. Loren can articulate—elegantly, insightfully, entertainingly—what many of us think about the modern world with its hell-bent pace and disregard for humanity’s roots in the environment. She most decidedly has found her words.

Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s stories, essays and reviews have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, the Greensboro Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Colorado Review. Most recently, she attended residencies at the Jentel Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Ms. Kelly is the Book Review Editor for fiction and nonfiction titles at Colorado Review.