Things That Are: Essays

  • Amy Leach
  • Milkweed Editions
  • 192 pp.

With clever flights of imagination, the author ponders quirks and mysteries of the natural world and the cosmos.

Filled with the lively illustrations of Nate Christopherson, Things That Are is a magical work of natural history that fuses the adventurous spirit of Tom Horton’s An Island Out of Time, the style and teachings of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind and the whimsy of Doctor Seuss and Lewis Carroll.

Containing  25 essays, the book is divided into two main sections. The first, “Things of Earth,” focuses on creatures and plants such as salmon, frogs, beavers, goats, pandas, pea-tendrils and mouse-ear cress, denizens of essays with such delightful titles as “Pea Madness” and “Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious” and  “Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumber.” There is no discernible pattern to Leach’s choice of subjects other than that they have captured her imagination and held it fast.

No matter what the riff, her essays are filled with crystalline imagery and intriguing nuggets of information. For example, among the many breeds discussed in “Goats and Bygone Goats,” Leach tells of a type of goat that becomes a sacrificial lamb to a herd of (clueless) sheep: fainting goats. “When they get rattled at, screeched at, hollered at, fainting goats sprint away for a second and then freeze, toppling like upended chairs ... [and then] fall over for a few seconds, muscles rigidly locked, fully conscious, like terrified figurines. So when a coyote rushes from behind a boulder, the goat is stationary, available, and the cream puffs [sheep] can totter away.”

All Leach’s essays are filled with information such as this that you don’t necessarily need to know, but once you do, it brightens your day. Even if you already know the facts, having them filtered through Leach’s eye makes them seem fresh.

The second section, “Things of Heaven,” takes over where our planetary atmosphere leaves off, turning outward to orbits, dust, supernovas, moons, planets and stars. Strangely, it also includes an essay about warning sirens (the kind that get tested every week) and another on memories of the past. It seems to me that the categories “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven” are an unfortunate, artificial attempt to impose order in a collection that doesn’t fit neatly into any box.

Nevertheless, Leach continues to spark the reader’s imagination with unconventional meditations. In “Twinkle, Twinkle” she recommends that “students of the stars” begin not with our Sun but instead with Eta Carinae, which brightened like a supernova in 1843 and then, like a supernova, faded so that from 1900 to 1941 it was down to the eighth magnitude. “It seemed like everybody either was passed out on the floor or had gone home,” Leach writes whimsically. “But then the party resumed, and by now Eta Carinae is shining at fourth magnitude — or, to be more accurate, by the fifty-fifth century B.C., since the star is seventy-five hundred light-years away. Living in a galaxy is like living in a neighborhood where the house down the street might have burned down four thousand years ago but you wouldn’t know about it for another three thousand years.”

Every reader will have favorites. Earthbound, concrete and literal, I had to stretch mightily when Leach left solid ground. Those who regularly ponder the cosmos may find the “Heaven” section more captivating. Yet whatever the topic of the essay, be prepared for it to morph unpredictably into something else.

Things That Are closes with a  “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena,” which includes novelties such as “mouldywarps,” “dragon-gaggers,”  “argle-bargle” and “quagga,” to mention a few. The quagga (now extinct) is defined as a “browsing animal that resembled a zebra, except with slipperier stripes that fell off its round brown bottom. Quaggas themselves were slippery and fell off the face of the Earth.” What a sad day for us all.

Things That Are may not be for everyone. Let me propose a litmus test from Leach’s “Glossary.” Leach defines “vasty” (differentiated from “vast”) as having “approximately the same meaning as ‘biggy,’ ‘hugey,’ and ‘giganticky.’ Do not let anyone tell you these words are not words; all words are words.” If this definition makes you smile, you are a potential fan. For myself, I’m making a special place among my books for this gem. Things That Are will serve as a tonic I can take down and savor whenever I need to reconnect with the natural world but can’t get out.


Carolyn Sienkiewicz is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. She’s a terrible walking companion because she keeps stopping to look for mouldywarps and dragon-gaggers.

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