Madwoman in Love with the Universe: A Review of Phenomenal
In her new book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for the Natural World Leigh Ann Henion asks us to connect with the infinite.
Washington Post journalist, three-time contributor to The Best American Travel Writing, and the winner of a Lowell Thomas Award, Henion received a $10,000 North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship to support the work on this volume—her first book. Henion sees the world with fresh eyes as she goes, whether she is trekking through the Serengeti with the migrating wildebeest, swimming “in a celestial sea” of bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, or clocking the vibrations in a Hawaiian volcanic eruption. She writes of her travels, “Maybe geography really is destiny.”
Henion’s journey begins when she gives birth to her son, Archer, and enters a phase of arduous disruption, lack of sleep and the parenting blasé that follows, complete with no-cry sleep solutions and a culture of judgment that she wasn’t prepared for. She decides that there are two options before her: she must go to the planet’s most bioenergetic, phenomenal places in an attempt to rekindle her sense of wonder, or fail completely.
She begins her travel memoir in what becomes her initial burst of monumental freedom: the migration corridor of the monarch butterfly from the Appalachian Mountains to Mexico. This becomes the first of seven trips that Henion takes, leaving her husband and young son at home alone—although never for more than two weeks—while she travels to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Hawaii, Sweden, Tanzania, and Australia in one woman’s search for wonder in the natural world. How did she do it? Her acknowledgment section is heavy with “yarn-spinning grandparents” and trusted friends, editors, and believers.
A story of courage and strength, Henion’s words conjure up the stardust of the ages, relating to all readers why we must adventure, leave our comfort zones, and discover the world anew. Motherhood brings with it complexities, questions, and vulnerabilities. But so does being a human: a reverberating, spirited, body. Henion pursues her quest with great integrity, and in turn, the reader does too, as we begin to see the mysticism and the true inherent wonder in her world—and in ours.
I liked that there is an honest completeness in the narrative that is passionate, respectable, and brave, and which begins with the fact that we cannot be warriors for our children if we do not first invest in ourselves. Loved and supported by Archer and husband, Matt, Henion gave herself the gift of time and released her energy to the universe in the name of serendipity, to see where it would go. What she discovers in return is a perspective that is wholly universal and yet very much grounded in the wisdom of two-year-olds everywhere: in trees, cardinal directions, and laughter.
A sense of wonder is, I think, what Einstein meant by a cosmic religious feeling. And that is really what I’m seeking on this journey. It’s an admission of human frailty and the perfect magnificence of earth, the universe, time, in a way that removes the masks of humankind’s many religions to reveal their connectivity, the fact that we are—in the end—one.
Henion’s Phenomenal has the distinction and focus of literary nonfiction, narrative arc and all, but her observational tone widens her audience from literary matriarchs to cultural anthropologists, phenomenologists, historians, scientists, spiritualists, astrophysicists, and wild eclipse lovers.
Henion’s text brings with it new questions and understandings, an alternative way of learning and being in the world. It is not just a telling, it is an un-telling. It is as much a great leap forward in awareness, as it is a gentle unfolding of the way things have always been. In Hawai’i, she lets the much-revered intellect go and begins to follow her intuition. And something else happens—it follows her home. Here, from a Lutheran church:
Archer, not yet two, was railing against sleep when we arrived. I rocked him as hymns were sung. He crumpled bulletins. He wanted to get down. He could not be contained. Matt suggested that I take him outside, so I did.
We picked up speed as we neared the exit. It felt like we were making a getaway, dramatic as any runaway-bride romantic comedy. Archer started to giggle when sunlight hit his face. I started giggling, too. . . . But the moment wasn’t about commitment. It was about freedom. And the two aren’t necessarily at odds, something I’m only beginning to understand.
Phenomenal is written in first person and in present tense, giving us the grand experience of the scenes as they evolve, moment to moment. This places the reader squarely among the Swedish reindeer herders and the Venezuelan lightning guides, and face to face with the author’s curiosity. It also gives us an intimate portrayal of the traveling memoirist’s concerns, loneliness, and preoccupations, scribbling away in her journal under a mosquito net.
The real takeaway from this book is that each one of us should ourselves consider how we braid motherhood and the natural world into our consciousness. Henion discovers her own path to parenting through an awakening to the world’s phenomena, but readers are invited to explore their worlds more fully, too, and embrace the discoveries they can make along the way, and to “Let the phenomena speak.”