Swimming Through the Library

"It's dreary in this world, ladies and gentlemen." (And yet): "Marvelous is the working of our world!"

So wrote Nikolai Gogol, and so ends A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, George Saunders' new book on writing, reading, and life, via a handful of Russian stories.

I wish I had known, in 2017 when he visited Lawrence, that Saunders has been teaching Russian stories for twenty years. Reading A Swim in a Pond took me back to those heady days of college coffee shop discussions of Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature (which, naturally, Saunders cites). It would have been fun to discuss the dreary and marvelous world with the guy who was just about to win the Man Booker Prize (for Lincoln in the Bardo).

However, this is not a review of A Swim in a Pond (though I recommend it), but is rather a few thoughts on a few books about the marvelous working of our world.

We could start in a pond, though, where a great blue heron wades and a kingfisher fishes, where the water sometimes turns a shocking green in the summer. I'll admit that since watching "My Octopus Teacher" I've been wishing for a convenient tidal pool, but then Ruth Kassinger's Slime gave me newfound respect for the green gunk known as algae. As Kassinger points out, algae, "innocuous in the singular and extraordinarily powerful in the unfathomable many... first conquered and then killed a living planet." 

So there. Algae, simple chlorophyll-laden oxygen-exhaling sun eaters, arrived long enough ago to become constituents of crude oil, but nowadays are also constituents of soups, salads, and sushi – and under-appreciated as players in the evolution of life.

Life's evolution -- and mind's, as if life wasn't enough -- is the subject of a dense but well thought-out new book called Metazoa, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Yes, the same guy who wrote about octopuses and the aquatic origins of consciousness in Other Minds. My recent briny fascinations were right at home here, Metazoa combining Nick Lane's The Vital Question with Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish (and his new some Some Assembly Required) and a slew of other works by folks from Darwin and Haeckel to Barry Lopez and Gregory Bateson.

And speaking of Haeckel, one of the most handsome books to come through lately is a collection of hundreds of his 19th century prints. If you're not familiar with the good doctor and his works, or if you just like artful aquatic flora and fauna (the differences often aren't obvious) like cnidarians and siphonophores, you owe it to yourself to check out The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel.

I'm swimming through all these marvelous books on early life and alternative evolutionary paths, wondering why we value so little the non-human life on this blue marble, remembering whales I've witnessed and the sensations of snorkeling, when I'm gut punched and have to come up for air. Barry Lopez, one of my very favorite writers, has died.

Three months earlier, wildfires drove him and his family from his home of 50 years. Most everything burned to the ground. Just days prior to his death in December he published an essay (an introduction to a book of photos called American Geography), reminding us that "an era of emergencies is bearing down... We must now consider, for example, how to organize the last industrial extractions of oil, fresh water, natural gas, timber, metallic ores, and fish in order to ensure our own survival; and we must consider, of course, what comes after that." Gone, it seemed, were his luminous essays of scuba diving in the Galapagos, the meticulous and loving descriptions of a whaleboat model or a community firing an anagama pottery kiln, the long meditative walks with people of Africa or Australia or Alaska.

Barry Lopez, near the end of a long battle with cancer, was worried, seeing no signs of salvation for us, his fellows, on the horizon.

And yet...

He maps the road to our survival: "We appear to be on the verge of another kind of orientation, resituating the arts in a position of authority. We are seeing this in photography, in musical composition, in fiction, in dance and theatre, and in installation and performance art and in painting, as artists make our existential predicament more apparent and point us in the direction of radical social change, for which, frighteningly, we have made virtually no preparation.”

I have many of Barry Lopez's books, including rather old paperback editions of Desert Notes and Winter Count. I noticed, rereading them over the past weeks, how their pages have dried and yellowed. The lignin in the wood of which the paper is made is oxidizing. Barry Lopez's books are burning.

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