Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Hounding the yonder with Amy Leach

In Things That Are: Essays, Amy Leach issues an irresistible invitation: "Come and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games. We'll read aloud the illegible green script of the northern lights; we'll speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova." Those who accept this invitation will find wonders both great and small described with playful energy and sparkling insight.

The beautifully designed book (published by Milkweed in 2012 and accompanied by delightful illustrations by Nate Christopherson) takes its title from John Donne, who wrote, "All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing." While Leach does not attempt to discuss all things that are, she covers wide territory, from the reproductive habits of penguins to the migrations of tiny warblers to the human tendency to impose patterns on the stars. While these brief essays demonstrate great depth of research into the workings of the natural world, they often read like fables or wonder-tales in which simple, elegant language conveys ineffable truth.

Take, for instance, the humble goat. Leach's charming essay "Goats and Bygone Goats" considers the advantages of being a gustatory generalist. "When the grass withers away in Morocco," she writes, "sheep will stumble dully along, thinking horizontal thoughts. No grass...no grass. But goats look up, start climbing trees....Put them in a barn with frocks and cigars and political pamphlets and toy blocks and banjos and yo-yos and frog leather--they will try everything, even the barn studs. They investigate by chewing and chew more than they swallow, in contrast to sharks who investigate by swallowing and swallow more than they chew."

Pandas, on the other hand, are strict Bambooists who “show a remarkable resistance to temptation: a stream runs by, serving up fresh fish, and what does the panda do? Wades across, to get to a stiff thicket of bamboo on the opposite side.” This extreme specialization makes pandas less able to adapt to changes in environment that would leave goats unperturbed.

Can anything perturb a placid hippopotamus? Leach describes the hippo's affinity for lotuses:
Lotus leaves hover up to six feet above the pond, like magnificoes. That is why lotuses are highly flood-tolerant, and why more hippopotamuses doze in lotus lagoons than in celery bogs. Under the ruffly round green canopies the hippopotamuses can lie low, feigning absence, or they can trundle around like gigantic inklings. They can protect their pink tender ears from the sun that fireball. The only trouble is that in a windstorm the gently swaying parasols turn thwack, like when the hula girls around you start slam-dancing. After the squall the hippos are bestrewn, like passionately celebrated sopranos, with petals stuck to their foreheads and greenery embellishing their rumps.
But enough with the charismatic megafauna; Leach is capable of infusing drama into the life cycle of the lowly pea. In "Pea Madness," she describes the pea plant growing "madly wending tendrils, to sweep the air for lattices" strong enough to support the weight of the leggy plant, but "Since there is no way for them to apprehend a lattice, the only direction to grow is yonder....the teetery-pea kind send out aerial filaments to hound the yonder, tending every which way, guessing themselves into arabesques, for they are fixed on the imperceptible."

Like peas, people also teeter and seek support: "When you cast your small, questioning arms into the opaque universe, you may find a trellis to tether yourself to; or you may find a tree sticky with birdlime; or a snuffling piglet; or a trapeze artist swinging by who takes you for an aerialist and collects you—then alas, unless you have excellent timing and a leotard, you will be a lost cause."

A longer essay near the end expresses Leach's concern that we've already written off too many creatures as lost causes. "Memorandum to the Animals" begins with a quote from Genesis evoking Noah's ark and then calmly explains to the animals that "This time around we are in charge: producing our own cataclysm, designing our own boat, making our own guest list, which does not include Every Living Thing.”

"We need the space for our works and wonders," announces the Memorandum. "Many of you are being superannuated because we must give priority to our machinery: our televisions and computers and refrigerators and cars, trucks, airplanes, combination microwave/convection ovens with auto-timezone adjusters.” Those animals who are not on the guest list are encouraged to "know that the extinction of your type is not necessarily the extinction of your glory. You can live on in the imagination, like the angels—although like the angels, you are likely to be simplified.”

If Leach's fable-like essays sometimes simplify the complex lives of the creatures she describes, she does so in language that sparkles and startles with fresh, playful expressions and descriptions. In addition to those hippos trundling around like inklings, she gives us beavers that "speed to the nearest trees to chisel girdles around their trunks so they go whomping down and then they can stuff them into the chatterboxy river to strangulate it into silence,” galaxies that collide "as with crisscrossing marching bands" (but "unlike the gaps between clarinetists, a galaxy's gaps are sometimes flammable"). In the end she gives us a warning about numbness to environmental catastrophe:
But perhaps nature needs us like a hostage needs her captors: nature needs us not to annihilate her, not to run her over, not to cover her with cement, not to chop her down. We can hardly admire ourselves, then, when we stop to accommodate nature’s needs: we are dubious heroes who create a peril and then save its victims, we who rescue the animals and the trees from ourselves.
Reading Thing that Are makes me want to embraces the world, from the lowly pea plant to the lumbering hippopotamus, to celebrate our common remoteness from being nothing before it is too late--before many things that are simply aren't.

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