Jay Amberg has, without doubt, done some serious research.
In Cycle, his tenth book, specifically written in a naturalist’s tone, Amberg deliberately and thoroughly offers the reader dramatized views of four living creatures: a stand of ancient redwood trees, a monarch, an alpha wolf, and a mammoth whale. Amberg weaves two themes throughout, first, that life is a cycle; second, that man’s negative impact on nature is evident, even life-taking.
Redwood Ring moves through life lived and witnessed by a large grouping of ancient trees. The feeling of this tale is ethereal, almost ghostly and eerily foreboding, as the stand of trees, speaking in one voice, deliver the message that they are rhythmic descendants of time, survivors of prior extinctions, and owners of this earth way before man. At face value, it appears to be a poetic and majestic tale of trees and their colleagues wind, air, light and water; but underlying the canopy of boughs and cones, the message is we have been here since the dawn of time, we have never had any natural enemies, and if you leave us be, we will be here forever. Emphasis on no natural enemies, their only threat forever and always, man.
Each quadrant of the book uses a life cycle to deliver layer upon layer of scientific fact—chlorophyll and chloroplasts, abdomens and chitin, migratory patterns, ice floes, flukes and blowholes. Although I found the detail interesting,--and I applaud Amberg for the enormous time it must have taken to gather and categorize such volumes of data-- I felt as though I had found a piece of plastic in my pudding. As I was falling into the warmth and beauty of his descriptive stories, I was continually jerked awake by a cold, matter-of fact intruder, a scientific term that made me hit pause until I could work through what the term meant. Then, back onto the task of falling back into the story. It was a bit distracting.
I looked forward to reading Flutter the most, the tale about a monarch’s life, but was left with a mild frown. I followed both the descriptive and scientific account closely, and in its detail could find no fault. Yet I once again had that stop and start feeling as the story jerked from butterfly to caterpillar to butterfly again, perhaps an artistic interpretation but rendering me frustrated. Once the adult butterfly cracked out of his chrysalis and took flight along his destined migratory path, at last, I could settle into his story. Man’s impact is less veiled here, as the monarch tells us that he knows he has traveled to the right place, but the forest here has disappeared. Descriptive and exciting until the time when he mates, the ending left me longing for a little more detail into the butterfly’s legacy, or what made such a long and arduous trip really worth the while, to his offspring to come.
Alpha was by far my favorite of the tales, and I indeed would have loved a book on this topic alone. The cycle begins as an Arctic she-wolf delivers a litter of pups, with her mate, older offspring and hapless brother looking on from outside the den. This story is so thoroughly understandable that I forgot it was written about an animal; Her struggles, desires, heart and emotions were easily recognized. In this story, man’s impact is again present, although not direct : His machines, sounds and presence disrupt the wolves’ world. One is left to wonder if it played a part in the disappearance of one of her cubs. Here, the author gets my heartiest applause for delivering a story of life, death, family, tradition, survival and parenting so splendidly. It is fluid, engrossing and kept me engaged to the point that I began to read more slowly—I didn’t want it to end.
In Whale Song, the gloves come off. As a whale begins with the story with his birth, and continues through the cycle of his life in the deep blue sea, his attacks on humankind’s presence in this world are abundant. From whale spearing, sea hunting, whale watching, pollution, plastics, global warming, oil spills and chemically poisoning waterways and water creatures, the whale flatly charges us with irresponsibility, selfishness and murder, saying our human busyness, business hurtles us towards apocalypse. He claims that it’s not too late to change our wicked ways, but gives us no solution, only attacks on prior and current sin.
Although I do not share in all of Amberg’s views, as I believe in a Creator and this book speaks not of one, I would gently remind Amberg that although I sympathize for all living creatures whose lives have befallen the hand of human selfishness, I have never been a whale, nor a butterfly, nor a tree--and nor has he. Mankind’s presence and work allowed this book to take form. Had it not been for the tirelessness observations of men and women scientists, naturalists and students of all creation, Amberg would not have had the knowledge available to write tales from the point of view that he has. Of the fate of these majestic trees, magnificent monarchs, regal wolves and breathtaking whales, the fact that mankind has so despondently affected these life cycles for selfish gain is a given. We have made a horrible mess of the planet. Yet not all man continues on that path. Not the ones who celebrate , honor and respect these life cycles, as Amberg himself does. In that, there is hope.
Alicia C. Accardi
Closed the Cover