Creaturely and scales in prose

I only came across Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays haphazardly—too much time browsing through bookstores, always on alert for hybrids of biology and literature, works with threads connecting them to writers like Verlyn Klinkenborg, Lewis Thomas, Miroslav Holub, Annie Dillard, Jean-Henri Fabre, Andrew Dunn. As a reader and writer I am more often than not drawn to seemingly random associations and shifts in scale—those leaps from the small to the large, from the particular to the universal, from the commonplace to the theoretical, from the microcosm to the greater macrocosm. Lewis Thomas believed that the ability to make this shift was a trait inherent to the life of both poet and scientist. In Thomas’s own words, both seek out “the points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.” In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau saw in Walden Pond a plethora of microcosms through which he could explain the world. He referred to the fish of Walden, or more specifically the pickerel (Esox americanus),  as “Walden all over and all through: are themselves small Waldens.”

Grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus). Image courtesy of Joshua Knuth.

The pickerel was Thoreau’s symbol, and as symbol contained an imposed meaning, allowing the fish to function as launching pad into the larger world the author sought to express—as the founder of Transcendentalism, Thoreau saw in the pickerel a greater spiritual nature, a small version of the universe’s meaning. Loren Eiseley did the same in locating in the fungus Pilobolus sporangium the greater metaphor of humanity’s drive to explore the cosmos and the wastefulness of expenditure in nature and culture.

Sporangia of a related fungus, Pilobolus kleinii. Image courtesy of George Barron.

Unlike Lewis Thomas or Loren Eiseley, but like Annie Dillard, Devin Johnston is no scientist. Like Dillard, instead of systematic study, Johnston “explores the neighborhood.” The prose essays in Creaturely are similar to Dillard’s years spent observing the landscape of Tinker Creek—they take place in St. Louis, each beginning and ending with descriptions and musings from walks along paths, streets, parks. As Johnston says, they keep with the etymology of the word digression, and the writer sees himself as a more-urban Thoreau, acting “for a time as a self-appointed inspector of thunderstorms and starlings, sycamores and squirrels, making my daily rounds.” But the collection is somewhat more wide-ranging than Dillard, and certainly more so than Thoreau. Johnston brings together a universe, darting from William Blake to peer-reviewed animal behavior research to the ultraviolet spectrum of light to, like Eiseley, the cosmos:

A dozen starlings lie scattered on the lawn, their wings fanned out to absorb the heat of the sun, letting its ultraviolet rays burn away the microbes in their feathers. Occasionally one rises in agitation and stalks among the sunbathers, pecking at tail feathers, eye darting from one to another. Beneath the dark surface of the feathers—slick as a sheath of negatives—an explosion of stars extends outward from each of their beaks. These markings become larger and more widely spaced down the breast, expanding from small dashes to arrowheads. The pattern suggests the reverse of needle-point, each bright mark a stitch. Or so it looks to me. What the starling sees is another matter.

Look at what Johnston does. In just the first lines, his prose moves between multiple scales: from observation to reflection, from eukaryotic to prokaryotic, from the heavenly bodies to the invisible, from organismal detail to the world of photographic practice. In some ways, Johnston channels a more-eclectic Robert Hooke, a figure who, in the same essay, “Second Sight,” appears as one figure who argued the boundaries imposed by human sensory perception. Hooke believed that the human senses were limiting—in particular, he focused on our eyesight—and that scientific instruments, like the microscope, could compensate, bridge the distance between the fallacy of human sight and a knowing of what details actually exist in the word. The microscope opened a whole universe for Hooke and his contemporaries—this universe was dubbed “the invisible world”—and like Johnston these natural philosophers summoned the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm to explain what they saw. The box-like structures of a slice of cork became analogous to the “cell” of a monk’s living quarters, the stinger of a bee became a saber and sheath, and the scales of fish became the tiles of a rooftop.

First use of the term "cell," inspired by the rooms of a monastery. Image courtesy of Micrographia, Robert Hooke.

Hooke wrote about these subjects in a linear and purpose-driven fashion. His Micrographia began with minute, inanimate objects and physical properties—a dot of ink from a quill, a crystal of glass, minerals—but then advanced up the scale of life into descriptions of the vascular system of plants, the details of moss, the mechanics of a flea. Hooke ended his manuscript by reversing his microscopic vision—a telescope—and describing the heavenly bodies, the order of the universe.

Like Johnston in the present, Hooke found ways to connect these various strands and categories—human and natural, the small and the large. Both authors focus on details of the world our vision prevents us from perceiving: in the case of Johnston and starlings, because the birds see the ultraviolet spectrum of light, in contrast to our trichromatic vision, the way they see the world would seem alien to us. But unlike Hooke in Micrographia, Johnston and his essays do not share Hooke’s optimism on science’s ability to bridge our inability to see that which is invisible, unknowable. Johnston ends his essay by writing, “Though Hooke believed otherwise, our scientific instruments observe rather than close the distance between a starling’s eye and my own.”  The thought echoes that of the early 20th-century pioneer of animal ethology, Jakob von Uexküll. von Uexküll argued that relations between organisms are not the product of a mechanical cause-and-effect interaction, the type of model that assumes organisms to behave as objects. Instead, the German biologist insisted that animal behavior should focus on the subjective nature of these interactions, and von Uexküll argued ecological relations are the resulting interactions between the various subjective perceptions of the environment experienced by these organisms. This understanding he called the umwelt, each of which is particular to spatial and temporal intentions, motivations, and dispositions of various beings. A century later, Johnston is arguing for a focus on the umwelt of his urban non-humans, that both human and starling inhabit different phenomenological worlds, with variation in sight being but one of many ways in which these two species experience reality differently.

Regardless if science can make claims about the spectral sensitivities of these creatures, Johnston’s point is that their experience of the world, the umwelt, remains in the unknown. Hooke desired to correct human inadequacy in vision, but nowhere in Micrographia will you find the polymath reflecting on the lifeworld of the flea, how it experiences space or time. Contrasting the systematic and empirical approach of modern biologists and 17th-century natural philosophers, Johnston suggests that perhaps it is through walks like those that fill the pages of Creaturely, where we stop and reflect on “how the starling sees,” ponder the relation of the organism to the sun to the microbes living on its feathers, that “we will find a rhyme, rune, or ritual to reveal the vibrant hues of ultraviolet light.”

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