As longtime readers of Ekostories know, I harbour a great fondness for several storytellers: Hayao Miyazaki, for his meticulous world-building and life philosophy; Michael Pollan, with his blend of Thoreau-tinged romanticism and candid introspection; John Steinbeck, for his warmth and compassion toward fellow beings; and of course, Ursula Le Guin, in her treatment of her craft as an ethical endeavour. Their writings and worldviews have in turn shaped my worldview and writing, and for that I hold them in high esteem.
Leach has made her way into that select group. At once frivolous and profound, cosmic and intimate, silly and thought-provoking, each piece of (very) creative non-fiction in her debut collection are lyrical gems, conveying the wonders of world and universe through a sheer exuberance for life and language.
Things That Are comprise twenty-six essays on subjects ranging from swinging caterpillars and fainting goats to pea plants traversing Norse abysses and potential planets full of hypothetical beans. Some pieces, like The Trappists, are short and succinct, while others like, The Safari (my personal favourite), leverage their length and unfurl into a revelatory read.
One could classify Things That Are as nature writing, for many pieces explore natural history with a naturalist’s penchant for detail, but that seems too limited a category. Leach’s essays are as much fairy tales and nursery rhymes as they are Attenborough documentaries and Sagan space odyssey. They are never dull, filled with bizarre comparisons and so much general silliness that the punctuated poignant moments come slant and hit hard. I don’t quite know what Things That Are is; I only know there’s nothing like it.
The most striking thing about Things That Are is the sense of playfulness that permeates every page. Leach employs a host of literary techniques, from rhyme to repetition to onomatopoeia, to make her pieces a joy to read, especially aloud. For example, I can’t help but grin at her gleeful distillation of a panda’s personality in Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious:
What does the [panda] do all day who is not engaged in society, its duties and pleasures and ferments? There may be some wedging in trees, some gazing into the mist, some fiddle-faddle… Sometimes, trotting pigeon-toed across a hillside, he trips, then rolls, because he is round; having enjoyed that, he climbs back up and rolls back down.
– Things That Are, pp. 42-43
Leach’s work is akin to children stories that revel in the luscious sounds of language, filled with words and images that tap directly into the imagination. Language is not merely a means of delivering ideas, but is itself an instrumental part of the message. The flourishes in her prose directly represent the phenomena that exist in world and universe. Both exist beyond notions of utility and purpose, but have intrinsic value and beauty in and of themselves.
Yet Leach’s sing-song style is not devoid of substance; it rests upon a wealth of fantastic facts ranging from the types and numbers of eyes on a box jellyfish to the rowing habits of whirligigs. What I appreciate is that Leach understands that while facts are true and strange, they alone do not provide context and lasting connection to most readers. Instead, she blends them with her lyrical sensibilities to forge a sounder foundation, one rooted in both wonder and understanding, designed to enchant and inspire. Sometimes that means inventing words like “vasty” and “mouldywarp” and concepts like “radish ministers” and “molecule trustees” to make things more digestible (and fun to read). Other times it means leaping fearlessly across the void, connecting inconsequential insignificances to a broader and richer understanding of the world.
Mad and Unexpected Leaps
For me, the most powerful portions of Leach’s essays come in the form of those leaps. Many a time, I would be reading along, relishing in her facts and fancies. But then a passage, a sentence, would escort me out into the comfortable confines of an ordinary matter into grander soul-stirring revelations. In Goats and Bygone Goats, she takes me from the bleat of goats to ancient starshine to memory in a few short sentences:
“It is too bad that sound waves decay… The world, full of past sounds, would be like the sky, full of past light. The world would be like the mind, for which there is no once.”
– Things That Are, p.13
In Love, she connects the red of Amanranthus flowers to the essence of lost love:
“Only love can bleed forever; only love has endless blood. Only love’s slender drooping tassels can bleed yet grow stronger, bleed yet grow brighter; redder, redder, never spent, never phantasmal-gray…But when it suffers a terrible wound, love seems able neither to heal-to grow substitute tissue over its damage – nor to run dry.”
– Things That Are, p.78
Or pea plants to the risks and rewards of vulnerability in Pea Madness:
“Plants cannot stay safe. Desire for light spools from grass out of the ground; desire for a visitor spools red ruffles out of twigs. Desire makes plants very brave, so they can find what they desire; and very tender, so they can feel what they find… Those who are feeling their way into the Ginnungagap must be able to feel, which means able to freckle, and fringe, and soften, and tilt. And if they can tilt they can fall; which is a different design from that of the ticking hearts of crystal-quartz.”
– Things That Are, p.40
Or capturing the intensity of nostalgia with a scene of nature in The Safari:
“And then one of your little days, like a kingfisher, will fly over the water, diving down beneath opaque golden surface of your mind, where swim your earliest, submarine memories. What is caught is a tiny primeval memory that should mean nothing, a throwaway. Yet when pulled out of the water, gripped in a bird beak, lading the air and throwing flashing grapefruit-colored water drops from its glittering, tiny perishing silver self, this forgotten, underwater matter will suddenly mean all the world to you – the long lost glittering hour that means more than age, more than logic, more than lore.”
– Things That Are, p.125
Beyond fancy wordplay and strange facts, these passages showcase the power a great essayist can wield as he/she delves within the self and expand out into the world. Ekostories explores stories that connect nature, culture, and identity. Things That Are does this on every page, in every exquisitely wrought paragraph, with every fantastic description of migrating warblers, exploding sea cucumbers, ravenous turkey tails, temperamental stars, and lonely sirens who sing to the delight of dogs. I read it in awe.
Come and Miss the Boat with Me
“We had heard that bad things were in store for nature, the way the oceans are overfished and the skies fouled, but in my city people are not so horrifiable: we’d seen movies of the future, when the Earth is finished being ruined – humans wheezing out some last haggard weeks in cement tenements – and yet to us these conditions didn’t look so strange. We were hard to horrify, living already if nature were gone…”
– Things That Are: The Round Earth Affair, p.171
The last essay in the collection, The Round-Earth Affair, is arguably the most message-driven piece. Yet it is still a joy to read. Here Leach speaks to those who have become jaded to the fate of our damaged world, and those who attempt to evoke guilt and fear to bring about change:
“And so it was useless for anyone to try and sign us on with the ranks of the environmentally panicked, or the environmentally conscientious, or even the environmentally uneasy. We were resigned to losing Planet Earth, whose silence, whose spaciousness, whose Newfoundland, whose whales, were as foreign to us as Planet Huffenpuff’s over in the next galaxy. Imaginary, or very far away, was how we saw “Earth,” the though of whose demise brought some folks to weepy shrieks.
But while resigned people can be infuriatingly unresponsive to shrieks, they are, in some ways, very easy to enchant: when you expect to lunch on roaches and granite, bread delights you.”
– Things That Are, p. 172
It is this approach of delight and enchantment that Leach constantly employs throughout Things That Are. In the last paragraph of Donkey Derby, the first essay of the collection, Leach asks us to embark on that journey towards rekindling our connection with the world:
“Tonight, on this the latest antecedent to tomorrow, it is starry out and I am not in a conquering mood. Come and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games. 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 join got go supernova. Then we’ll listen to a recording of “Epistrophy”. I’ll wager on his left thumb, you take whichever finger you want, and with the mad currency we collect from each other I’ll buy you rain, you buy me snow, and we’ll go in together for sunshine for the grass and the clover and the delicious prickly thistles.”
– Things That Are, p. xiii
This collection of wonderful, beautiful essays is a must-read. I’ll leave this week with a video of Leach reading a few of her pieces. Enjoy.
- Changing Planes: The Nna Mmoy Language
- A Plant’s View: The Botany of Desire
- On the Evolution of Nature Writing
- It’s All Relative: Direction of the Road
Leach, Amy. (2012) Things That Are. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
Featured Image by Svdmolen at wikimedia commons.