Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World by Leigh Ann Henion

PhenomenalLadies and gentleman, parents and parents-to-be, be forewarned. The review you are about to read is for a book authored by a mother who left her young child for weeks at a time in order to travel and, yes, rediscover her sense of wonder.

If you’re grumbling under your breath, don’t fret; it’s an understandable reaction given the profusion of “find myself” memoirs out there. Do we really need another epic confessional about some lost soul’s quest to uncover life’s meaning? Become one with nature (by way of a book contract)? Isn’t there just a twinge too much self-interest inherent in that process? And dare I mention … privilege?

Of course, not all personal odyssey memoirs are created equal — and many do, in fact, celebrate putting the ego aside in favor of exploring far-flung cultures and learning unfamiliar traditions. But Leigh Ann Henion — the subject and author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World — spends so much time complaining about her frustration with and lack of control over her new role as mother before she gets to that part that, at times, it’s hard not to believe there’s some underlying reason for it.

Take her musings on parenting:

“Drudgery, after all, has nothing to do with growing up if we do it right and — beyond tending to the acute physical needs of a child — little to do with what it means to be a good parent. Right?

Or: “Motherhood affects everything; but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?”

These types of quotes, intermingled with descriptions of her son’s “bloody” “suckling,” her lack of sleep and “near psychotic state,” and the annoying fact that he always wants to be held (well, he is a baby after all), makes one wonder what she imagined parenting might be like in the first place.

Then there’s the matter of her obsessive self-analysis. Like here: “I have come to believe that I am a lesser authority in my own life. I have learned to distrust less-than-rational, nontechnical experiences, my own phenomenal knowledge. Because, to trust the sense — the mortal body — is to risk sounding crazy, especially, it seems, if you’re a woman. She’s so sensitive. Read: She’s irrational. And this I have internalized… Who am I to know how to raise my child without consulting parenting books and up-to-date rearing studies?… Who am I to think I can pursue impractical dreams? Who am I to be taken seriously? … Who am I?”

Yes, it’s a worthy and necessary cause to put such questions to one’s self. Who cares what anyone else thinks! But if such questioning spirals into a repetitive cycle, let alone one in a book proposing to illuminate the magic nestled inside in the world’s most exquisite natural gifts? Isn’t that undermining the purpose?

What’s frustrating about Phenomenal is that the bulk of Henion’s writing is actually quite interesting if taken without all the excess navel-gazing. Everywhere she travels over the course of two years — from a bioluminescent lake on the unspoiled island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, to Lake Maracaibo in the lightning-infested Catatumbo region of Venezuela, and the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, to the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania — she meets truly extraordinary thinkers and doers with years of wisdom to impart. Astrophysicists and reindeer herders witnessing the northern lights. Geophysicists studying the infrasonic sounds emitted by lava tubes. Wildlife biologists recording the largest terrestrial migration of mammals in the world. By giving them a voice, Henion’s message is clear: There are people out there on inspiring journeys witnessing remarkable things! She — a self-described “voyageur in the inconceivable grandeur of the cosmos” — wants permission to be one of them.

When all is said and done, there will surely be readers who will devour Phenomenal for what it aims to be — one woman’s journey to follow her bliss in far-off corners of he world. (You go girl!) There will also be parents who might condemn Henion for foisting her newborn son on her parents while she travels. But me? I just wanted way more of her intricately detailed, impeccably researched, eloquently described stories about the world’s most phenomenal places. Because that was initially the project’s purpose. Wasn’t it?



Originally ran in The Oregonian (April 1, 2015)

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