Book Review: On Migration

Kathy Freise
3 min read
Coming and Going
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Ruth Padel’s meditative book about migration comes down to one line: “We’re all from somewhere else.” Where we belong and where we call home drives us—and by us, Padel means cells, trees, birds, animals and human beings. The pull from one place to another is a phenomenon that most of us have observed, at least casually—in Albuquerque, we can look overhead these days to watch Sandhill cranes moving along the flyways. On Migration: Dangerous Journeys and the Living World presents a beautiful fusion of Padel’s prose and her poetry.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, migration is a perilous undertaking. Padel reminds us, “Thousands of migrations are smooth and happy, but this book is about the crossing, the journey.” She portrays the journey—the annual trek of African wildebeests across a river filled with crocodiles, the harrowing autumnal flights of blackpoll warblers, humans crossing oceans on frail rafts—in lyrical, unflinching writing. The book’s format is unusual: Essays provide the context for linked sets of poems that follow. Padel writes masterfully in both forms, and both should be read to grasp the book’s dexterity.

Padel, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has pondered the push-pull of migration for years, and the breadth of the resulting book has the power to fascinate. Padel threads together familiar migratory facts—the flight of monarch butterflies, for instance—with less expected examples: how certain trees came to populate Britain, the myth of mass suicide by lemmings, border fences. But she doesn’t simply throw together lists of all things migration. She explores the ways in which all beings are affected by leaving and returning, whether it’s cellular, selected or forced, and she comes back to the implications of such movement.

Her knowledge is sweeping. One of the book’s earliest references is to sixth-century philosopher Boethius, while one of the last is to the show tune “Over the Rainbow.” But she’s careful not to lose readers and instead connects with them by sharing personal details of selling her home or bird watching in her yard. The poems underscore that she’s technically nimble enough to write as successfully in the voice of a ship’s barnacle as in the voice of an Ellis Island immigrant.

Ultimately Padel’s take is one of compassion, as she places migration within a frame of empathy. Migration, she suggests, "moves you into a disorientated world. … You have to start putting things together in a new way.” It is precisely what her book asks of readers.
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