An Interactive Polyphony

So my previous post linked to even more books (and documentaries) than usual. No regrets. However, after I finished it I told myself the next one would be a one-title review. Then I checked the calendar -- only a couple weeks until it was due! That clinched it.

Or it should have...

One book that didn't make it into that post is another that I just stumbled on to. Though I haven't yet finished it, Hugh Raffles's The Book of Unconformities, well, rocks. The Book of Unconformities is a nonconformist look at geology and "speculations on lost time" that is nearly overwhelming in its scope and breathless prose. At first its frequent paragraphs-long run-on sentences were somewhat intrusive, to use a geologic term, but after a while I grew to appreciate and even enjoy them.

Perhaps you've heard a favorite author talk, or read from his or her works, and found that author's voice completely charming and memorable. The next time you pick up one of their books, there they are in your head (my favorite example of this is Wendell Berry's slow Kentucky drawl). As I read the unusual Unconformities, I wondered what Hugh Raffles might be like, and imagined an excited and impassioned man who just can't help going on about, for example, those nondescript stones over there.

Then it hit me -- he must have a video or podcast or two online. Amazing thing, this internet. Not surprisingly, the voice that I imagined didn't match up with his actual voice, though I was right about the English accent. If Wendell is your wise and genial grandpa, Hugh Raffles is your eccentric uncle, expounding upon petrified whale fat, waxing (ha!) lyrical and chuckling to himself about Svalbardian blubberstone.

Intrigued but needing to return The Book of Unconformities, I looked into his previous book, Insectopedia. I figured it would be a quirky compendium of insect tales, and it sort of is, but at the same time it's anthropological and ecological and historical, a drab beetle that suddenly opens its shockingly large and colorful wings and flits about the room, then lands on your shoulder.

Raffles's sentences reminded me (with a serendipitous assist) of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her diary, "…I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment."

This, it seems to me, describes a common feature in both good fiction and non-fiction writing. For Insectopedia, though, the caves are not only subterranean but aerial, ever present but coming to daylight only when we're lucky. The idea that Raffles's excavations behind his characters, be they bugs or stones, shall connect, perfectly ties these two books together.

The insects' caves are endless, ranging from the author's malaria to the inscrutable fighting crickets of Shanghai to the fighting flies of California to dancing bees to Saharan locust swarms to Kafka and Henri Fabre and Himmler and the online beetle peddlers of Japan.

The Insectopedia crawls and flutters around the world, like the rolling stones of Unconformities, but it has less of that Woolfian breathlessness to it. I can't decide which I like better, but the former's perspective-expanding chapter on wood borers stands out. Imagine hearing the sound of light in trees, via the connecting caves of pine borers. There’s a similar polyphonic symphony happening in ash trees right here in Lawrence.

Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees) and David Haskell (The Songs of Trees) both have written about high-tech arboreal eavesdropping, as has M.R. O’Connor (Wayfinding) in a great New Yorker article, but none are as excited and eloquent as Raffles is here. A (lightly edited) snippet:


“Let’s reimagine the landscape of the soundscape…

Yes, the world of insects is a noisy world, a constant whir of acoustics: drumming, clicking, squeaking, chirping. Yes, it’s also a vibrating world… Yes it’s a chemical world, too… And yes, it’s a world of direct physical intimacies. It’s an intensely interactive world, a landscape across which animals of the same and different species connect and communicate.

Listen. Can you hear it? With the soundscape we take tentative steps into a wider, richer world.”

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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