Minneapolis: MN: Milkweed Editions, 2012. 192 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Amy Leach’s essay collection, Things That Are, is a beguiling work of nature writing—filled with fainting goats, potato-shaped moons, existential pandas, and overly sensitive sea cucumbers. It’s an unusual book, more Pliny the Elder than Annie Dillard. Leach doesn’t route the natural world through her own experience, as Dillard does. She assumes the role of explainer, as Pliny did in his Natural History: doling out morsels of seemingly arcane, but often thoroughly modern, knowledge.
The twenty-eight short essays that make up the collection describe an array of inhabitants of the natural world. “Warbler Delight” follows the trek of the blackpoll warbler from Alaska to Nova Scotia to Venezuela. “The Wine of Astonishment” chronicles the life cycle of the whirligig beetle. And “The Wild What” remaps the constellations in the night sky.
Leach isn’t seeking communion with the natural world (in fact, she barely appears in the collection). Her aim is to reorder the world, remaster it. Things That Are is almost encyclopedic, blending the fact of science with the feel of fable. In Leach’s cosmos, everything has agency: stars, mice, blades of grass. “Come and miss the boat with me,” she writes in the opening essay, “Donkey Derby.” “We’ll read aloud the illegible electric green script of the northern lights; we’ll speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova.” Leach’s scope is merely everything, from the microscopic to the galactic.
The book’s title comes from John Donne—“All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing”—and accepting that premise, it’s only natural for a water lily to exhibit the same self-defeating behavior as a sullen teenager. Leach grants the world’s flora and fauna (as well as a host of celestial objects) complex inner lives. The day-to-day routine of a pea plant becomes more human resources than husbandry:
At first the life of the pea does not seem to be that of a mad-maker. The young pea plant lives by diligent routine, forming two tiny equal leaves every four and a half days. If leaf-leaf on a Tuesday morning, then leaf-leaf on Saturday evening, and leaf-leaf on Thursday morning. Someone who helps peas—a friar or a bee—may look in on them, but young peas are as autonomous as mushrooms and responsible as clocks.
What propels this passage, however, isn’t the novelty of Leach’s premise, but her invigorating language: the repetition of the novel phrase “leaf-leaf,” the figurative turn of “responsible as clocks.” Each is playful, but they also pull the reader through the passage like the oars on a boat. We see Leach, with her lyricism, breathe life into everything: animals, vegetables, even minerals.
Every essay of Things That Are is filled with surprising phrases and images. “Sail On, My Little Honeybee” attests that if the Moon has a core it is “undetectably small and inert, like a frozen mouse.” The essay—one of the collection’s highlights—features this thought experiment:
To get an idea of the relationship between the Earth and the Moon and the Sun, find two friends and have the self-conscious one with lots of atmosphere be the Earth and the coercive one be the Sun. And you be the Moon, if you are periodically luminous and sometimes unobservable and your inner life has petered out. Then find a large field and take three steps from the Earth, and have the Sun go a quarter mile away.
The use of metaphor (in both conceit and image) is part of what gives Leach her great power to reorder the world. In one essay, sheep become “cream puffs” that “totter away.” In another, beavers whose dams break drift away “like fat astonished fishes.” The plants and animals of Things That Are are always shifting, transforming—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Like the children in fairy tales, they’re morphed from one form to another. Stars rearrange themselves into newer, more modern constellations. Mountain goats become tightrope dancers.
Along with its deft lyricism, one of the most pleasing aspects of the book is Leach’s sense of humor. Take, for example, this description of a jellyfish: “The man-of-war, for example, appears to be one individual, like Leo Tolstoy; but it is actually many individuals living together as a colony, like Leo Tolstoy.” In one of the few moments Leach makes use of first-person narration, she notes woolly bear caterpillars “have one of the least advanced defense mechanisms among insects, although theirs is the reaction with which I most strongly identify: when distressed, the woolly bear rolls up into a ball.” Leach has a method (lyric explication of natural phenomena) and the jolts of humor make sure the formula doesn’t become staid.
It’s perhaps too easy to lump Leach in with the well-known practitioners of the lyric essay: John D’Agata, Ander Monson, Claudia Rankine. Their work, like Leach’s, displays an intense attention to language and the structures that convey that language to the reader. But Leach may have more in common with an essayist like Jenny Boully. In Boully’s wonderful The Book of Beginnings and Endings, each page of text is either the first or last page of a fictional book that Boully has created. These beginnings and endings come from history, memoir, medicine, and science. They create a new world, just as Leach has in Things That Are.
Things That Are concludes with a brief glossary on some of Leach’s more unusual turns of phrase (“radish ministers,” “argle-bargle,” “molecular trustees”). In this beautiful essay collection, all things are things. Leach doesn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. The glossary entry for “Vasty” ends with this sentence: “Do not let anyone tell you these words are not words; all words are words.”