In “Fighting Time”, BK Loren describes a visit to a Chinese acupuncturist who she hoped would give her a diagnosis for the bizarre, debilitating, frightening symptoms that had suddenly overtaken her body, symptoms like intermittent speech loss, radical sleep disruption, and–strangest of all given that she had not recently given birth–lactation.
“The wind enjoys your body” is the acupuncturist’s laconic reply. It’s not quite what she was hoping for.
In this remarkable essay, part of the remarkable new essay collection Animal, Mineral, Radical, BK examines the give-and-take between the human body and the natural world. Years after BK played in the contaminated fields of her childhood home near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, her body is reeling from endocrine chaos. She believes her extensive training in traditional Asian martial arts should make her immune to such a fate.
But it turns out her practice reinforced a particularly American attitude toward her own health: push your limits, suck it up, and tough it out. As she explains it, “I had turned my relationship with my body into an SUV commercial.” Only when her health began to deteriorate in spectacular fashion did she understand how little she grasped a key concept of martial arts training–balance.
The concept gets ample treatment in many of the essays in Animal, Mineral, Radical. In “Margie’s Discount” BK takes her mother, who is descending steeply into Parkinson’s, to a marsh populated by western tanagers and avocets. Sitting on her jacket on the damp ground, BK’s mother discovers a moment of peace in accepting that what was once so strong and reliable will eventually become weak.
In “The Shifting Light of Shadows,” BK sees a mountain lion cross a tennis court one evening. She contemplates how the “shadow cat,” in all its threatening beauty, stealth, and unpredictability, is the yin to the yang of the eagle in our collective imagination. She worries that park rangers will have to put it down, but when they call she realizes they are just fact-finding, assessing the situation, bringing the shadow into the light.
With so much focus on equilibrium and interconnectedness, I got to thinking about a question that was posed on Facebook about whether the essay collection is about sustainability. My answer is yes, the book is about sustainability, because BK redefines it. We often think about sustainability as durability or at least resilience, and clearly that is part of the meaning, but BK reveals how deeply rooted it is in balance.
In our efforts to make sustainability part of our lives, often we are trying to reel back something that got out of control, bring back some equilibrium. Slow food is a reaction to fast food, the 20-minute neighborhood is a response to suburban sprawl, reuse is a course correction from endless consumption. Yet if sustainability is in large degree a balancing act, that means sustainability is not a goal we can achieve but rather a process we commit to with a healthy surrender of our own sense of control.
We often think about the environment as something separate from ourselves, but as BK points out, the “environment” includes the natural world, us humans, and everything we’ve created in it, from ice cream to suspension bridges. Sustainability requires keeping it all in balance while recognizing that we are not all-powerful. Or maybe BK’s acupuncturist says it best. When she presses him for greater detail, he relents testily: “Out of balance out there, out of balance in here” with a tap on her wrist.