Tag Archives: Lewis Thomas

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.

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Are we sponges or technicians?

Somewhere in his journals Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pray and dig away long enough, and lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous.

This note, by Saul Bellows, a several National Book Award–winning Canadian-born Jewish American, brings to mind and contrasts a parable I read several years back by Italo Calvino. The brief tale comes at the end of his essay “Quickness,” one of the five lectures that compose the Italian author’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Although the preceding essay in the compilation, “Lightness,” is more well-known, especially for its connection with the Roman poet–natural philosopher Lucretius and both early and modern atomism, Calvino’s paraphrase of a Chinese fable, both in content and method, eloquently reduces the heart of the piece to a moment:

Among Chuan-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

The essay gravitates around Calvino’s concept of this economy of movement, this exact and instantaneous making of a world, and in doing so skips directly from and back into the writer’s notes on lightness and reducing weight from words, sentences, ideas. Along these lines, Calvino details the process of stripping a paragraph of its density in his Italian Folktales:

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