Things That Are by Amy Leach possesses the whimsical wordplay and wonder of a Victorian fairytale. Through a series of sparkling essays, Leach enthusiastically explores the oddities of all things great and small in the universe, from lilies to honey bees to black dwarves. Black-and-white woodcut-esque illustrations by Nate Christopherson enhance the storybook quality. Reading the Things That Are reminded me of being a child, of hunting through the crumbling hollows of tree stumps to seek evidence of fairy life, of composing funeral dirges for a favorite tree stricken with Dutch elm disease, and of simply inhabiting a magical world that buzzed with layers of life. Leach ushers you through the rabbit hole, where animals do better than merely talk; they chisel, whomp, muzzle, slosh, and yackety-yack.
Every sentence in Things That Are is as pure and fanciful as frost patterns on a window pane. Leach delights in reciting lists of gorgeous laughing syllables. Wrap your tongue around phrases like “rubbled regolith,” “zoologically illogical,” and words like mishmash, mouldywarp, bladderwort, smitheries, and smelteries and you will understand the sensual pleasure inherent in simple recitation. Things That Are should be read aloud, tasted, and savored. Like the bards of old, Leach makes liberal use of that great gem of Germanic-based languages—the kenning. She glories in the hyphenated-word or the compound phrase that is so much greater than its referent. Is there a more apt descriptor of the tentacles of a jellyfish than “death-streamers,” or the innards of sea cucumbers than “heart-soup”?
Leach portrays herself as neither master nor creator of these happenings, merely the wonder-filled adventurer let loose in the universe, the “Alice ascending” into Wonderland. Only in the final essay, when she muses upon the role of the ancient oracle, a priestess who acted as “an exhilarated intermediary,” does she potentially reveal where she fits into the things that are. Like the oracles of old, Leach’s role is to translate the instincts and dispositions into enchanting riddles for the enjoyment of the reader. The oracle’s “messages were as intelligible as the jingly messages of wind chimes,” and needless to say, just as pleasing.
One of the marvels of Amy Leach is her ability to spin fantastic yarns while remaining scientifically accurate. Reading these essays was like watching a National Geographic special written by alchemical poets. She can refer to the laments of dragons (the ones from fairy tales, not the Komodo ones) but also accurately explain the variations in planetary orbits. She riffs off the names of natural entities that sound like so much nonsense—whirligig beetle, love-lies-bleeding flower—and finds both the science and the story.
Leach presents more than just a recitation of sensual sounds; rather she unfolds a complete philosophy. Nature possesses its own logic and at times that logic is not ours. A panda bear swears unswerving fidelity to bamboo, even when other tasty treats lie temptingly near. At other times, nature exerts the practicality of a thrifty housewife. A jellyfish has 24 eyes but no brain, a human has a brain but only two eyes, because what being can endure both infinite sight and infinite knowledge? The closer you look at the world, the more beautifully its every quirk possesses a purpose. You can term this worldly logic magic, except that would negate its scientific precision, and you could call it science, but that would deny its magical spontaneity. Delightful patterns traverse the universe, and whether you are a panda, a whirligig, a jellyfish, or a person, if you are a thing that is, you are part of this delight.
Leach takes her title from another master of the English language, John Donne: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” I kept thinking, however, about a biblical quotation that I once stitched into a sampler of butterflies, from Proverbs 30:24: “There are four very little things of the earth [which we soon learn are the ant, the rabbit, the locust, and the lizard], and they are wiser than the wise.” Everything in Amy Leach’s world, from the lilies to the sea cucumbers to the panda bears to the mangel-wurzels, abounds in wisdom, the wisdom of being, not to mention merriment and beauty and joy. Succumb to her world for a few hours and your heart will be the lighter for it.