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Lives Brought to Life
Adopted at birth, Andrea grew up inhabiting two ecosystems: one was her tangible, adoptive family; the other her birth family, whose mysterious landscape was hidden from her. In her early twenties, while working as a ranger in Grand Canyon National Park, she embarked on a journey to discover where she came from and, ultimately, who she was. After many missteps and dead ends, she uncovered her heartbreaking and inspiring origin story. She began navigating the complicated turns of reuniting with her birth parents and their new families. By way of backcountry travel in the American West, she also came to define her true identity and place in the world not by adopted nor biological parents, but through an expanded concept of family.
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Once a park service ranger and wilderness guide, Andrea Ross now teaches writing at UC Davis. She has been awarded several California Arts Council residencies and a fellowship at the Mesa Refuge. Her work can be found in Ploughshares, Terrain, the Café Review, and the Dirtbag Diaries Podcast. She lives in Davis, California with her husband and son. Find out more at andrearosswriter.com.
Andrea Ross has written a fascinating book, the subtitle of which is “A Memoir of Adoption and Wilderness,” a marvelously told adventure of guiding others into the natural wonders of climbing mountains, descending into canyons, crossing deserts, and forging rivers. At the same time, it is the weaving together of the wilderness of adoption and its traumatic loss of the first mother, living with genetic strangers, the roadblocks in the way of being able to connect with biological relatives, and finally finding her birth parents and her roots. Unnatural Selection is a journey of discovering the meaning of family, our relationship with all humanity, and with Mother Earth. Beautifully written. A must read!
—Nancy Verrier, author of The Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self
With clarity, grace, and humor, Andrea Ross guides us through the terrain of her life. She is not new to guiding newcomers through the wilderness, and she does so expertly with engaging anecdotes of her life in the canyons and mountains of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, as well as along the icy road to Alaska. She intertwines these with the poignant and powerful story of finding her birth parents, one that left me in tears. Read this for the stories of wild places and wild people and, in the end, the moving story of family.
—David Gessner, author of New York Times bestseller All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West and Leave It As It Is: A Journey through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness
I signed the contract before I got sick. As my semester ended, I began to wonder whether I could do the job. But I wanted to ignore my symptoms, fatigue, and aching joints and go out into the coastal mountains and prove myself. I didn’t want to admit that I probably wasn’t physically up to the task.
A few weeks before our lease ended, I began packing my things into storage before showing up at the summer camp for work. Something about living among the chaos of all my belongings scattered in and around boxes all over my room gave me an extra push to try to cultivate some internal organization in my life.
I threaded the telephone cord out my bedroom window and climbed onto the patio in our tiny yard. I grabbed a mildewed patio chair and sat down as the city bus rolled by, shaking the ground beneath me like an earthquake.
Nestled among the calla lilies that grew in the yard, I took a deep breath and dialed the number for Lutheran Social Services in Denver. A social worker named Danielle answered the phone. I explained my health crisis to her and asked her to look through my records for any health history of inflammation, arthritis, or worse. She said she’d send me what she could.
A week later, I received in the mail a short excerpt from the agency’s records, which revealed only that my maternal grandmother had suffered from varicose veins. I called Danielle back. Upon further probing, she explained that there was very little medical information in my file. She also told me about something called non-identifying information.
“There’s a document that we can release to you if you request it. It contains information about the circumstances surrounding your birth, minus any identifying names and details,” she said.
I squirmed. “You have more information about my birth mother?”
“Yes,” Danielle said. “The document would be excerpted from the information she gave us when she placed you for adoption.”
At that moment, I was much more concerned with finding the cause of the pain in my body than the circumstances surrounding my birth. I didn’t think I needed any non-medical information, so I thanked her and ended the phone call.
Instead of pursuing my genes, I attempted to exorcise whatever evil thing had taken residence in my joints by trying to outpace it. I bought a mountain bike and planned to try pedaling up the hilly trails near the summer camp. I figured over time, surrounded by coast redwood trees, I would grow a little stronger.
When I arrived at camp, I didn’t tell anyone I was sick. I didn’t ask for a lighter assignment. I didn’t say anything at all. I just showed up to counselor training with one of those soft, pack cloth suitcases that converts to a backpack, several kinds of anti-inflammatory medications, some cheap hiking boots I’d bought at a sporting goods store, and my secret illness. I felt anxious about my disability, guilty for not disclosing it, and worried about my rookie status as a backpacker.
My eyes widened. “You were there when I was born?”
“Yes, I was.”
My heart beat rapidly. Had she seen me when I was an infant? Had she interviewed my birth mother when she placed me for adoption?
“I’m sorry, I was not the social worker assigned to your case. She retired years ago.”
My heart felt like it was shrinking. Danielle had anticipated my next question and shut it down. Still, I wondered if she had seen me as a days-old baby going into foster care or as a three-week-old baby being adopted by my parents, if she had held me, or had at least cooed at me while I was bundled up asleep in someone’s arms in the agency’s waiting room.
And if she hadn’t, who had held me, fed me, and dressed me when I was a newborn? I felt like I was going to explode. I had no answers to any of my questions, and I had no legal right to those answers. Sitting there in the stupid strip mall restaurant, I wanted to tear the neon beer sign off the wall and smash it.
Palms sweating, I grabbed my fork to cut another chunk of enchilada, but the fork slipped out of my hand, clattering to the tile floor below the table. Danielle looked up at me, startled.
I smiled weakly, took a quick breath. “You may have guessed that I’ve decided to try to search for my birth mother.” I flagged down the waitress to ask for a new fork. “I have a letter signed by my adoptive parents stating their support for my search and asking the agency to help me.” I located the dropped fork with my foot and stepped on it, flattening its tines just to feel them bend.
Danielle dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “Yes, I assumed you were here because you want to search. I’m glad your parents are sympathetic to your wishes.” She gave a too-quick smile.
I kept my foot on the fork. “I also have a letter stating that I give permission for the agency to give my birth parents my contact information if they’re looking for me. Would you put it in my file?”
Danielle agreed to do it.
I took a deep breath and asked, “Has your agency received any word from my birth mother or birth father since my adoption, asking for information about me or providing information about themselves?” I held my breath, as if it would skew the answer in my favor.
Danielle’s eyes crinkled a little at the edges. She spoke in a soft voice. “I checked your file before you arrived, and there was nothing like that. I’m sorry.”
My chest tightened. No one was looking for me. In twenty-nine years, no one had even tried, hadn’t made the small gesture of sending a letter to the agency. It wasn’t a complete surprise: a few years earlier, when I put my name on several adoption registries, the databases and forums that list an adoptee’s or a birth parent’s contact information and details about who they’re searching for, I had found no matches, so I already suspected no one was actively looking for me. Still, hearing it aloud from Danielle made it definitive.
I wondered if my birth parents were dead or in denial of my existence. Maybe they didn’t feel they had the right to search for me. My mouth went dry. “Is there anything you can tell me to help me with my search?” I asked.
We hiked back to the boats along Deer Creek drainage. Sam pointed out a gap in the Redwall Limestone that had filled with crushed rock.
“I think the Colorado River once flowed through there,” he said, panting in the heat. “And carved lower Deer Creek into a narrow slot canyon.” He stopped walking to pull a ragged T-shirt out of a trailside cactus’s spines and jammed the sun-bleached fabric into a side pocket of his backpack. I stared up at the fill, wondering what stories lay buried beneath it.
Farther downstream, we spied reverse-handprint pictographs: outlined in white, ghostly and small. They looked like cherished baby handprints cast in plaster and hung on a living room wall. I took Andy’s hand between both of mine and held on for a minute.
In that desert, every ancient human tool came from the soil: clay, paint, yucca fibers, mortared rock granaries and dwellings. I sought tools for finding my birth parents. My skin prickled every time I thought about the application I’d sent to the confidential intermediary program, imagining what might be happening. Maybe they would find my birth mother while I was away. Maybe she lived somewhere near the Grand Canyon.
Back in our boats, we paddled through Doris and Fishtail Rapids and tied up the rafts for the night at Kanab Creek Canyon, where in 1872 some of the men on John Wesley Powell’s second Grand Canyon river expedition departed, traveling sixty miles in three days from the Colorado River to the town of Kanab, Utah.
Thomas Moran, renowned artist, visited and sketched landscapes of the beach and canyons of Kanab Creek. I sat alone in that storied place on an unusual, humid evening, listening to mice rustle through the willows, feeling the tickle of ants crawling over my feet as I watched the river curl its way downstream.
I knew what was there; I had rafted it before, but I had a feeling it would be different this time, and different again the next time I traveled it.
For the rest of the trip I scanned side canyons, ledges, and alcoves, cottonwood branches and agave leaves, redbuds’ pink pea blossoms, seeking equanimity. Without knowing how it would look or feel, I could only hope I would know it when I found it.
I knew it wouldn’t be something I’d pick from the riverbank, a slick shard of shale or an ancient arrowhead, but a calm I could take home with me, like sitting on sand in shade after a long hot day of hiking. I took solace that despite the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, the river still flowed. Sometimes it even flowed clear.
Pub date – March 2, 2021
Trade paper – 6 X 9″
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