May 24, 2014

Illuminating Wonders: A Review of Amy Leach’s Things That Are by Elizabeth Paul

cover credit: Milkweed Editions
Things That Are by Amy Leach
Milkweed Editions (2012)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Paul

Amy Leach’s essay collection, Things That Are, invites readers to a change of heart and perspective by exploring topics from the natural world that tend to fall outside the human radar. In the first section, “Things of the Earth,” she employs her curiosity like a macro lens and a pair of binoculars, bringing the mysterious marvels of animals, plants, and insects into view. In one essay, she examines how tendrils on a pea plant reach blindly for a lattice. In others, she observes how a beaver hauls sticks to quiet the river, how fainting goats collapse at the sound of predators, and how a warbler beats its way across the ocean in a non-stop, ninety-hour flight. In the second section, “Things of Heaven,” Leach turns a telescopic lens on the vast and remote, exploring topics such as the identities of stars and the rules of orbit. Things That Are reminds readers that they live in a natural world of wonders fully accessible to those with the eyes and heart to see it.

In addition to opening readers’ eyes to natural wonders, Leach gives them the feeling of experiencing such wonders first-hand through informed and detailed description. For example, in the following passage about the defense mechanisms of caterpillars, she writes:
The azalea caterpillar, a black-and-white plaid caterpillar with a cherry-red head and legs, when disturbed, arches up its head and thrusts it back, like a hairpin, and arches its tail up like an S. To be honest, it looks more electrocuted than scary when it does this. The yellow-necked caterpillar twists itself into the same shape, except that the yellow-neck vibrates as well, which really brings electric trauma to mind.
For all the scientific knowledge inherent in such descriptions, Things That Are has the feel of a children’s book or fairy tale. Leach’s humor, playful spirit, and love of language create a feeling of wonder. For example, in “Trooping with Trouble,” she begins a meditation on mortality and vulnerability with this playful paragraph: 
“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. Now to the siskin finch and sablefish; now to smitheries and smelteries. Perhaps the Earth is neutral, like a bridge between two cities, traveled on but possessed by no traveler.” Such are the behindhand ponderings of a doomed dragon.
Through alliteration, personification, and wordplay, the text speaks like a story-book, coaxing readers into a state of innocence and suspended disbelief, helping them to see magic even in mortality. A highlight of Leach’s humor is the book’s glossary that helps with earthy language such as “mouldywarp,” “crocodilopolis,” and “argle-bargle.” Of the latter, the glossary, in lieu of a definition, asks impertinently, “What, are professional bruisers like myrmidons going to argue with flowering vines, exchanging views, citing evidence, justifying positions? I don’t think so.” 

The book’s prelude, interlude, and postlude set these essays, and readers, in a period in history when humans have distanced themselves from nature. And these framing pieces provide subtle insights into why and how they have done it: a propensity to conquer, a fear of the unknown, and an absorption with their own technological creations. The book speaks a warning, but not in the words of gloom and doom characteristic of much environmental literature. Rather, the warning takes the form of an invitation to be more awake to the wonders of the natural world. In fact, Leach takes her readers by the hand to rediscover nature right now, between the covers of her book. In doing so, she reinitiates readers into their natural world of wonders. Things That Are baptizes readers in the book’s spirit by way of its epigraph by John Donne, from which the title is taken: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.”

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