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Creaturely and Other Essays by Devin…

Creaturely and Other Essays

by Devin Johnston

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This was a lovely and thoughtful little book, something between essays and poetry, with both ancient and modern poems sprinkled throughout, etymological musings, and an intimate look at our backyard nature. The essays about dogs, crows, starlings, fairies, squirrels, sycamores, mice, and owls are beautiful, erudite observations and meditations on those rather commonplace creatures: "largely made up of digressions, departures from a life spent too much indoors. This is a book to read with wonder, and I can think of no better way to describe it than to share some excerpts:

From Crows in Winter:
"Bare in winter, a raggedy stand of trees -- alders, walnut, and sumac -- backs up to the highway. Every brarnch holds a dozen crows, oddly fluttering like dead leaves. They number in the hundreds, with more arriving from the west as the sun falls. Yet the birds are surprisingly quiet: their wings softly creak as they settle down for the night, with occasional caws from the younger males jockeying for a branch. In the midst of the colony, I can hear the dry snap of an icicle.
Within the city, so many birds react to human shadows with mild, directionless anxiety: sparrows agitating a bush, starlings darting between telephone wires. Yet these crows maintain a steely alertness at my presence. With neither a cat's sleepy perturbation nor a dog's frenzy, crows are close but unfamiliar. They know more of us then we of them.
Metaphors lie in wait, the world's hidden scaffolding; yet the living bird adapts and evades fixed association. Now ominous, now jolly, it alights in the vicinity of meaning and moves on. As documented in Laura C. Martin's The Folklore of Birds, counting rhymes enumerate what crows might augur:
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own sel'

So mysterious have we found their comings and goings, close at hand yet as remote as stars, black marks in the book of our own fate."

From Sycamores and Sleep:
"Massive brick homes line the avenues around Tower Grove Park. We who live here can feel dwarfed by our own structures, misplaced among these monuments to arid passions. In Walden, Thoreau warns us, "Better not keep a house. Say, some hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner parties!" In his journal from 1840, he declares whimsically, "My neighbor inhabits a hollow sycamore, and I a beech tree." Thoreau kept alive the childhood dream of living in trees, finding a lair or nest in nature that would allow him to live without alienation or excess.
Nor was he alone in this fantasy. Gilpin describes a plane tree that stood in Lycea during the reign of Caesars: "From a vast stem it divided into several huge boughs... Its branches still flourished, while its trunk decayed. This in process of time mouldered into an immense cave, at least eighty feet in circumference, around the sides of which were places seats of pumice stone; cushioned softly with moss." The governor Licinuius Mutianus feasted with eighteen of his men in this hollow... In "The Hollow Tree," John Clare recalls a pollard "wasted to a shell/Whose vigorous head still grew and flourished well/Where ten might sit upon the battered floor/And still look round discovering room for more." In such accounts, the trunk expands to a primitive feast hall while at the same time offering a snug retreat or nest. It is at once inside and outside, intimate and immense.
My two year-old daughter frequently opens the children's book [I am a Bunny] to its last page, where Nicholas sleeps through the winter in his hollow tree. In Richard Scarry's illustration, the rabbit lies on a pallet of soft straw, tucked beneath the blue blanket; his yellow shirt and red overalls hang on the tree wall. Outside, the snow falls steadily through a gray sky, weighing down the branches of a fir in the distance. It's an image of living alone without loneliness, finding a warm home in the heart of the wide outdoors."
1 vote AMQS | Jan 26, 2014 |
Excellent--I feel more intelligent after reading this book. Wow. ( )
  Elleneer | Jan 6, 2010 |
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In vivid prose, Devin Johnston makes forays across the border between humans and animals, seeking out intersections between culture and nature. These eight essays describe encounters with creatures common to city parks and empty car parks, including dogs, crows, starlings, squirrels, mice and owls.… (more)

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