Teeming with the imagery of natural fertility, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2000 Prodigal Summer presents the intertwined stories of three unlikely romances: Deanna Wolfe, a ranger dedicated to protecting the ecosystems of Zebulon Mountain, and Eddie Bondo, a bounty hunter in pursuit of pack of coyotes; Nannie Rawley, the liberal owner of an organic orchard, and Garnett Walker, a stodgy old-timer determined to repopulate the Zebulon forests with an ancient breed of chestnut trees; and Lusa Maluf Landowski, a scientist-turned-farmer, and Cole Widener, Lusa’s husband who is killed early in the narrative but whom she comes to know better after his death than she had during their very brief marriage. Within each of these pairs, the woman comes to represent “mother nature,” pitted—to varying degrees—against the forces of “man,” enacted and symbolized by her partner.
The storyline closely associates these women with nature—especially its nurturance and fertility. The two who are still menstruating, Deanna and Lusa, note that they naturally cycle with the moon, for instance. Deanna also cares for the wild animals that live near her mountain cabin in a way that Eddie declares can only be classified as “maternal” (190). And after a couple of months of passionate—even animalistic—intercourse with Eddie, a man nearly 20 years her junior, she realizes that she will have a child of her own (387). Despite being recently widowed, Lusa, too, becomes a figure of maternal abundance, deciding to adopt a troubled niece and nephew as her sister-in-law loses her battle with cancer (380). Finally, both Lusa and Nannie use flower pollination as a way of talking about sex with their young charges, Lusa with her niece Crystal (351) and Nannie with Deanna when she was a girl (200). In this way, they present sexuality as a natural part of life—and, indeed, as necessary to the continuance of life.
The three women also seem to understand the interdependence of living things more clearly than their male counterparts. Several times, Deanna explains to Eddie that a predator—though villanized in American culture—is a critical link in the food chain, finally managing to convince him to read her Master’s thesis on the importance of the coyote to the health of the mountain ecosystem (179, 362). Nannie values predators as well. When Garnett refuses to stop spraying near Nannie’s farm, she invites him to sit down and delivers a lesson on the different insects that live on her orchard, detailing how the bigger insects naturally take care of the “pests.” This natural form of pest control is disrupted, though, when these predators are killed off by the drift of herbicide that Garnett uses to keep his lawn looking tidy. The pest population recovers more quickly than the predator population, Nannie explains, and causes great damage to her crops until the bigger insects can once again handle the pests (274). Lastly, after Cole’s death, Lusa decides to try an alternative to tobacco, previously the Widener cash crop, and raise goats for meat instead. Quite intentionally, she integrates the goats into the landscape of the farm, using them to keep the briars and thistles from taking over her hayfields and, in turn, allowing the animals to harvest some of the hay in order to round out their nutritional profiles (also turning them into more quality products for market) (157).
In the end, each of the men seems to acquiesce to the women’s greater wisdom of the natural world, at least temporarily. Eddie departs Zebulon Mountain (without knowing about Deanna’s pregnancy), leaving behind a note that simply states, “It’s hard for a man to admit he had met his match” (432). Deanna takes this one line as an indication that Eddie is “offering his leaving as a gift,” that he is leaving both Deanna and her beloved coyotes alone: “No harm would come to anything on this mountain because of him” (433). On the Widener farm, Lusa’s goat-raising scheme is successful, bringing more of a profit than Cole’s tobacco ever had. More importantly, Lusa comes to realize that Cole had disliked the conventional agricultural methods that he felt that he had had to use; she begins to think that Cole probably would have enjoyed seeing the farm reformulated into a hormone- and pesticide-free operation, although he was not willing to implement these kinds of changes himself. For his part, Garnett accepts Nannie’s offer to use the genetics of the old chestnut trees on her orchard to strengthen the strains that he is developing and, in doing so, starts to accept the idea that she already takes for granted—that relationships are more important than property lines.
What is interesting about these cases, taken together, is that the men seem to submit to the women as much because they are each irresistibly attracted to their female counterparts on a carnal level as because they are persuaded on an intellectual level to see the women’s points of view. Both Lusa and Deanna speak with their mates, Cole when he was living and Eddie during his time atop Zebulon Mountain, of the power of women’s pheromones to attract men (37, 92). After Cole’s death, Lusa is finally able to accept Cole’s sense of attachment to her, and, then, that he would have wanted her to make the farm her own after his death. Just as Lusa’s pheromones most certainly played a part in the development of Cole’s love for her, it is likely that Deanna’s womanly scents played a part in Eddie’s development of affection for her and his subsequent decision to leave instead of to hunt Zebulon’s coyotes. For his part, Garnett finally gives in to Nannie’s kindness toward him when he can no longer resist the image of her picking fruit in her “short pants” (427). Although each situation is different, in each of all three relationships, the man finally succumbs to the power of a distinctly female sexuality.
Tom Conoboy has pointed out that the ending of this novel is a little too neat, happy, ultimately “bloodless.” This is true in lots of ways; one of these is that the men seem to lose very little of themselves in submitting to their female mates. I would argue, though, that Eddie, Cole, and Garnett may be willing to shift in their worldviews, if only temporarily, because they benefit as much as the women in seeing the interconnectedness of the natural world. If Deanna, Lusa, and Nannie represent “mother nature” in this text and their male counterparts represent “man,” then the novel seems to suggest that we must allow ourselves to be seduced by the sensuous beauty of the Earth—as Eddie, Cole, and Garnett allow themselves to be by the women in the story. We must submit to the power of nature’s fertility and abundance in order to reap the benefits of these.