Amy Leach, Things That Are, Milkweed Editions, 2012
The beginnings of Amy Leach's splendid, squirming, teeming essays in her first collection, Things That Are, are like the beginnings of wonky fairytales or fables. "In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters" begins, "In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish." The essay "Trooping With Trouble" begins with similar whimsy:
"To whom, then, does the earth belong?" said the dragon as he was being slain. "Sometimes it seems to belong to dragons; at other times to dragon-gaggers. Sometimes it seems to belong to the harmattan wind, then to the doldrums. Sometimes to the slaves, when the sea parts to let them through, and sometimes to the sea when the sea does not part....
The collection maintains this sense of the fabulous, of ancient tales told to explain the world, but the explanations themselves, the ‘how the takahe bird got his scarlet crusher beak,' as seen in the essay "Talent," are not old wives' tales, but rather high-flying and see-sawing accounts of nature, as it really is, at its most lush and imaginative; this is The Origin of Species as a fairy story. Leach has written essays and stories, together in one; essays that explain, that explore, that assay far and wide, into depths and nooks and crannies and the vast expanse of sky, that show the incredible things we've learned from Earth and heaven—but all done sneakily, with the fabulist's knack for narrative. In "Goats and Bygone Goats," she tells the story of Pinta Island, where humans brought goats and left them, and which used to be "fernier before the goats landed." But less ferny meant ghastly things for a native species already occupying Pinta Island:
Since the goats ate the tortoises' food as well, Pinta tortoises eventually lost their grip. All except Lonesome George. For thirty-five years Lonesome George lived by himself on Pinta Island until he was moved to an institution and beatified alive.
The tale of Lonesome George is a well-known one, but never has it been quite so heartrending, quite so, in fact, lonesome, than when told as an almost-tall tale of a sainted tortoise made all alone by "generalist," fern-gobbling goats.
The protagonists of these stories are the beings and phenomena the rest of us forget, take for granted, and ignore when they are not in zoos or planters or the lenses of telescopes. And in these stories, all those beings get, finally, to be their own protagonists. We are not seeing them, as we often do in even the best naturalist writing, through the lens of humanness (though at moments the essays become wonderfully and fundamentally about being human) but rather standing on their own two or four or many or no legs, outside the realm of humanness and inside their own wondrously fertile and twirling worlds. It is an approach seldom taken, and one that makes the stories of the lives of plants and planets outsized and important, taken seriously. This is naturalism that cares about nature, that wants nature to have her own tales told. Leach's essays feel, often and surprisingly, not written for the reader's sake, but for the subject's. Salmon are heroes, here, of the story of salmon—brave and slightly mad as they swim in place against the current for a year after their birth, "like maintaining the same longitude on a steam train going east ... like being tossed endless apples while trying to retain a total of zero apples." In these essays, we identify achingly and want to care carefully for sea cucumbers and jellyfish polyps and tiny lotuses in a bowl. Leach's pages are riotous with all the teaming life that is, and here all things that are get their fair shake at being unspeakably beautiful.
Such is the diversity and the phenomenality of the subjects Leach invokes, from a herd, a tribe, a trip of goats to a skyful of moons and would-be moons and will-never-be moons, that one imagines some of this must be imaginary, so the real, humdrum, outside-your-window world, the Earth and sky and all they hold, become themselves the stuff of magic. There is the fainting goat, who "often serves as special companion to a herd of sheep. When they get rattled at, screeched at, hollered at, fainting goats sprint away for a second and then freeze, toppling like upended chairs." There is the star in revolt against stardom, Eta Carinae, which twinkles madly from decade to decade, returning from its massive supernova death to shine on, the "party resumed." There is the sheer fact that, as Leach describes it, "Living in a galaxy is like living in a neighborhood where the house down the street might have burned down four thousand years ago but you wouldn't know it for another three thousand years." The subjects here are mystical and wondrous, and the language burrows into the mystery and wonder and makes a home for itself, and matches it, mystery for mystery, wonder for wonder. Leach can only keep up with herself by inventing words and phrases and creatures and holidays, like the Feast of the Bean King—a "midwinter feast where everybody gets as fat and featherbrained as possible"—and both "floppy kid syndrome" and "mad staggers," described simply, tragically, as, "Some goats live long enough to lose their hearts to moss and peas and sparkling sleet and some goats do not."
The book is divided into two parts, "Things of Earth" and "Things of Heaven," and the former section feels more richly realized, the earth-bound creatures better known and more beloved. The essays in "Things of Heaven" feature great pyrotechnics but tend to wobble and twinkle and occasionally dim like their subjects. Most haunting are the essays that are neither exactly of Earth or Heaven, but rather of the mind, like "The Safari," about a menagerie of memories, or "God," in which Leach writes, "The people say the word repeatedly, and the more they repeat it, the less I can understand it: listening to words I do not understand is like swallowing stones."
But finally, and of course, like all fairy tales, these leaping goats of essays feature morals, and there we learn more about being people than we could have possibly imagined learning from tales of warbler migration and the direction in which peas and lilies grow. There are lessons here about being open to beauty and to the unknown, being torn asunder by them, like a girl on a porch in June who begins to plunk her banjo:
And then you are a migrant, and then you are amuck; and then you are music's toy, juggled into its furious torrents, jostled into its foamy jokes, assuming its sparklyblue or greenweedy or brownmuddy tinges ...
And there we find the wherefore of these fables, the reason for the storytelling. We have learned about flora and fauna and phenomena for their own sakes, and in that learning, have come to know ourselves. We have realized that, in our own human ways, we know what it feels like for a penguin to swim or an ostrich to run, for a star to implode or a Siren, mythic or prosaically planted atop a metal pole, to sing. We have been given all these gifts, these talents, these great wheeling feelings, as human beings, and all we have to do is to let ourselves be taken over by them, by art and nature and beauty and our wondrous selves, to be magnificent.
In the introductory essay, Leach urges us: "Come and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games." Be glad you've been invited. [HPW]