Amy Leach, Things That Are (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2012), 192 pages.
In these essays the author ponders over the mysteries of nature and science, from the smallest animals to the vastness of the universe. Nothing is too small to escape her awe as she provides a fresh look at the world in which we live and the universe in which our world travels. Of course, Leach tends to have certain favorites within creation as turtles and hippopotamuses often reappear. To the science she uses to weave her stories, she adds mythology, history and folklore, which creates a delightful collection of essays. This book provides the reader new lens for looking at the world in a novel way.
I was hooked by Leach’s prose in an early essay within the collection. In “Goats and By Goats,” she discusses the eating habits of goats and sheep and how sheep, when the grass dies, wanders aimlessly looking for more grass. Goats, on the other hand, look for new sources of food and have even been known to climb trees to eat the sprouts and leaves at the end of branches. “Goats are generalists,” she writes, noting that as explorers set out in the 16th Century, they placed goats on deserted islands knowing the goats would survive and would be there for the taking if they, or another ship, was ever marooned on the island. (15) In the meantime, the goats enjoyed the freedom of the island. This essay caused me to recall an incident from my childhood. We were fishing at night in a tidal creek off a barren island on the Carolina Coast, which still had wild goats at the time. That night we heard a ruckus and when dad shined a light, we saw two rams fight it out, not more than fifty feet away. Leach gave me a new appreciation for a specie that’s been maligned ever since Jesus told the parable of the separating the sheep from the goats.
Leach sprinkles humor throughout her essays. “What happens to jellyfish out of water is similar to what happens to bridesmaids hairdos in water,” she writes in an essay about jellyfish and light. (84) Later, in the same essay, she pronounces: “Your blessing is your curse and your curse is your blessing.” (90) I begin to wonder I she’s been reading some of the same stuff on polarity thinking that I have been studying recently? In an essay upon which she muses about the possibility of a modern day “Noah’s Ark,” she tells the animals there is not enough room for everyone because we need to save our junk (electronics, refrigerators, cars, planes, etc), however there will be plenty of room for animals with rumps and ribs! She names Noah’s first boat “Fantasy” and the new ark “Reality.” (106) Unlike Noah, we are more focused on luxury and maintaining our standard of living than saving a planet!
Her opening essays are grounded on earth as she sticks to animals and plants, but about midway through the collection, she turns her thoughts outward, to the stars and the galaxies and on to the divine. In a short essay on God, she writes: “The people say the word repeatedly, and the more they repeat it, the less I can understand it.” (99) I wondered if we say the word more and more as a way to attempt to give God meaning (which would be a form of blasphemy), and was reminded of a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent. Taylor makes the claim that God’s silence may be a defense against our glut of words. In a later essay, in which Leach muses about oracles, she writes: “Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?” (166). I am sure I would read too much into Leach to see her affirming the Protestant position on the priesthood of all believers, but I do think she has a point in that the divine is all around. When it comes to our connection with the stars, she foretells of a potential crash (or merger) of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (a mere three billion years away). When it comes to the stars, we’re really alone, she reminds us: “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.” (144)
These are essays to be savored. I enjoyed reading them and will reread them. I came across this book in the promotion of the Calvin Colleges “Festival of Faith and Writing." Leach will be one of the participants (there are generally sixty five or so) at the 2014 Festival. This every other year event is a treat and I would recommend it to you, if you are able to make it.