A natural history museum doles out a thick dose of awe. The Texas horned lizard shoots blood from its eyes! There are deer as tiny as terriers! And who would have guessed at so many variations of horns? Swirling and branching and ridging and spiking and looping… mahogany, gold, white, freckled, variegated! Seeing animals all together—the twist and freckle and sinew and beak of them all, the whimsy and boldness and joy of them—glory becomes a weight and a befuddlement. The breadth and pattern of nature engulfs you.
“We baffled creatures,” Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “are immersed in an overwhelming truth. What is plainly before our eyes we know only in glimpses and through disciplined attention.” This baffled dance within overwhelming reality is the experience of the museum visitor beside mounted grizzly bears, the experience of the zoologist or botanist who intently studies her corner of wonder, and the experience of the reader who picks up a copy of the new essay collection Things That Are, a debut from award-winning essayist Amy Leach.
In this series of short essays accompanied by Nate Christopherson‘s whimsical black ink illustrations, Leach unhinges and unsettles the natural world just enough so her readers will discipline their attention. It’s not an easy book because it doesn’t easily reveal how a reader might decipher its meaning; it whirls up and down registers, jokes and teases, and demands that the reader keep up. That’s part of the fun.
At first, the natural world as Leach describes it is hard to recognize. She inspects pandas, peas, goats, and galaxies so closely that the effect is like macro photography. Looking at the familiar up close destabilizes it. Leach begins an essay on jellyfish and sea cucumbers not by describing a jellyfish or the pain of its sting, but by looking closely at bones: their usefulness, the burden of responsibility borne by skeletal creatures, and concludes, “even great paroxysms of responsibility have little effect when you are made of mucus.” Thus, with one attribute of the creature (its lack of bones) examined closely, the jellyfish shines newer.
As she explores each newly magical piece of earth and heaven, Leach reaches for sources beyond science and into mythology, archaic taxonomy, biblical imagery, and philosophy. Part of the fun here is that she entertains each source with equal credulity. In her essay on Sirens, the mythical creatures are as real as the Fry County Emergency Warning sirens that also figure in the essay:
“Contemplating the sandy bones of their latest audience, the sirens would vow to sing less devastatingly next time… but as soon as they sensed someone sailing by, their vows evaporated: they would start feeling ecstatic; their voices would swell, and deepen, and soar, and then it was all over. They sang deliriously, mercilessly, driving the hearers wild, drawing their haunted hearts into the sea.”
The rule seems to be that if a mythological character gets pulled into this book’s orbit, it becomes, like lilies and warblers, simply one of the things that are. And her believing tone draws our heads into a confused sea, creating the child’s insecurity about the lines between when something’s true and when the adults are only joshing you. Leach’s credulity embraces the mystery of existence, and humans’ ways of making sense of it, and deepens our childlike wonder at the world.
But all is not well in this world of wonder. At the natural history museum, you may be dismayed to think of the great safaris of the past that felled the rhinos and gazelles now locked behind glass, and may find troubling photos of birds whose bellies are full of wires they thought were worms. In Things That Are, likewise, there are essays that change from wonder to worry, as in the satirical “Memorandum to the Animals.” Here, Leach imagines that the animals, who know that their ancestors boarded Noah’s ark to to escape the flood, need to hear the message that “that was a sentimental era and God was a sentimental fellow,” and, “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.” Mentioning environmental crisis, this staple of political debate, could have drowned this book; Leach’s imagination and subtlety, however, guide her deftly past the propaganda. Leach’s book becomes an ark where she gathers living things to celebrate, at least, if not to save.
She gathers them because she believes the living things have something to teach us. Wendell Berry once watched a heron somersault in mid-air and took it as evidence that the world is brim-full of joy; he wrote that we need to “know the world… learn what is good for it…cooperate in its process, and yield to its limits.” Leach’s gripping picture of what it means to know the world presents earth as an oracle, able to teach:
“The earth itself may be our authority, what communications we receive from it as cryptic and ravishing as the ravings of Pythia: a frog or a fox flying by, Texas mud babies in the bog, Chinese lantern plants, chrome yellow foam resembling scrambled eggs but itinerant and not good with toast. Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?”
Whether she means that earth reveals the divine or embodies its own divinity, it’s clear Leach sets herself up as a kind of priestess. Her study of nature yields lessons about our hearts, our relationships, and ourselves. She does this subtly, bringing to mind Fabio Morabito’s essay collection Toolbox. Both Leach and Morabito use description to build their lessons. Morabito, for instance, describes file and sandpaper as metaphors for the way people either grate on each other or sand down each others’ rough edges; Leach examines the difference between dust on earth and dust in space, concluding that space flatters “faint diffuse spreading things” while earth’s light flatters organized and sculpted things—a metaphor for the creative process.
The creative process that shaped Things That Are has left us with a book that invites us to take a wilderness hike in its poetic pages. It’s a steep climb, with a guide who wittingly disorients you, and is more interested in the pudgy caterpillars than the view from the pinnacle. Steady yourself as you begin, for the world may not look the same to your eager eyes afterward.
Things That Are. Milkweed Editions.