Introduction to Botany nearly derailed my college degree. In the final semester of senior year, it was the one required general ed credit I had left to take. I attended every lecture and lab and completed all the coursework, but couldn't make heads or tails of the complexities of seed anatomy or the stages of mitosis. My mind would start to wander as soon as the professor busted out the cell cycle charts. Thanks to extra credit projects, I scraped a low C and graduated on time.
Perhaps I'd have done better had Amy Leach been my instructor. Leach, a writer based out of Bozeman, has released Things That Are, a series of beautiful, graceful essays musing upon beaver dams and intergalactic dust and everything in between, like the wonders of salmon spawning, the moon's gravitational orbit, jellyfish eyes, mushroom sprouting and supernova formations. It's science made into poetry.
Take the opening, which begins by explaining that in the 17th century the Pope declared that beavers were fish. "They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water."
Leach's work is difficult to categorize, but might be best described as magic realism. She likes to anthropomorphize flora and fauna and twine myths and philosophy into her tales. Lovers of poetry and the lusciousness of the English language will find much to absorb here. People have always been describing nature; for Leach to describe it in new ways is a fantastic feat. Phrases like "frothy churning staircases of rocks" almost ask to be read aloud.
Her writing is also a lesson in strong verbs and manipulating words to extend their meaning. Take this, also on beavers: "As soon as they hear the burbly gushing of a stream, beavers speed to the nearest trees to chisel girdles around their trunks so they go whomping down and then they can stuff them into the chatterboxy river to strangulate it into silence."
I'm tempted to recommend parts of Things That Are for reading aloud to children, except that the vocabulary will stretch even a well-read grown-up. Terms like "frumenty," "glö¨gg" and "Yablochkov torches" sent me to Google. There's a glossary in the back of the book, but it's playfully unhelpful. The entry for "toxodons," an extinct Pliocene mammal, says, "If ever anything seemed indestructibly built, it was the toxodon, chunky and solid and stout. However tumbleweeds have fared far better. Something to think about, trucks."
The essays have deeper points, too, some of which are more subtle than others. "Love" explains the motivations of flowers like love-in-a-mist and love-lies-bleeding, which is amaranth, actually, and love-bind, which Leach describes as a viney plant that happily takes over everything. I'm not sure that love-bind is a real plant, but the message of the chapter is sweet and clear. "For love, onslaught-love, beleafs all things."
Leach's whimsy might be too much for some, and it's best in small doses, like reading a chapter before going to bed. If you'd like a break from the awfully boring language of adulthood, from customer service numbers and insurance claims, Leach's essays are the perfect escape. They're a reminder to grown-ups that the smallest things in the world, and the very biggest, all contain enormous wonders.
Amy Leach reads from Things That Are at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third St., Wed., July 23, at 7 PM. Free.