Reviewed by Emily Webber
Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wilderness (CavanKerry Press, 2021) intertwines Andrea Ross’s time spent in the outdoors with her journey to find her biological family. Ross describes her connection to the natural world through being a wilderness guide and details her travels in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Alaska. Ross struggles to find her own identity and tries to find a way to move past feelings of loss and abandonment. As she explores canyons and mountains and gathers more information about her birth family, Ross gains new insight into herself and her idea of family. She brings a curious and compassionate eye to the topics of adoption, family, and the living world in Unnatural Selection.
Ross knows from an early age that she is adopted and accepts this for some time without much questioning. However, after living through an earthquake and battling chronic illness, Ross searches for her birth family. At first, she doesn’t want to contact them and only seeks information that will give her a complete picture of her medical history. But Ross realizes, despite being adopted by a loving family, that she feels a deep sense of loneliness and disconnect that impacts her overall well-being and relationships.
Much of the memoir focuses on Ross’s time spent outdoors and how exploring the wilderness helped shape her identity. She doesn’t simply wish to conquer nature but learn how to live better from being outdoors and translate what she sees in nature into an opportunity for self-growth. She sees parallels to her situation. Lessons learned after a challenging rafting trip in the Grand Canyon help Ross approach her own search for identifying information about her mother. After finding a skull in a cave, Ross wonder about the family that person belonged to and how they are separated. There are recurring images of dams:
“And the reservoir behind the dam, Lake Powell, drowned canyons, intimidating countless archaeological sites, whose villages gone forever. The dam had stolen huge chunks of history, obviously a sensitive spot for me.”
After a decade of attempting to find information on her own about her birth parents in a closed adoption situation, Ross hires an independent researcher who will contact her birth mother. If her birth mother agrees, the court will unseal the records. There are no dramatic revelations or drama once Ross reunites with her biological family. But what Ross captures so well is the complicated expectations when meeting biological family for the first time as an adult, including the need to try to find instant connection and make up for decades of lost time. The course of her relationship with her half-sister is a guide for all relationships: They don’t immediately get along but continue to work to find common ground, respect, and genuine care for each other.
In the end, Ross returns to what she has learned from the wilderness. She once again captures what comes across so well throughout the memoir: the specific trauma of an adoptee not knowing all facets of their identity. As she considers how adoptees live on the edge of two families, Ross compares this experience to the edge of life zones found in nature. Instead of thinking of this as a place of increased conflict, she comes to see it as one of more opportunity. At the close of this part of Ross’s journey, connections and love outweigh the loss and abandonment she felt earlier in her life.
Ross provides a complete portrait of being an adoptee and shows the reader how to navigate through the uncharted map of life—how, along the way, we learn, grow, discover, and reform our identity. Ross proves that working to grow as an individual and create and maintain connections with others pays off. Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wilderness will challenge you to think about what you can learn from the natural world and encourage you to expand your idea of family.