In a prefatory piece to her debut work, a collection of essays, Amy Leach invites the reader to "come and miss the boat with me," to read "the illegible electric green script of the northern lights" and "speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova." Then says she, herself a bluegrass fiddler, we'll wager on which of Thelonious Monk's fingers will play which piano key next, and both bettors will win: "I'll buy you rain, you buy me snow, and we'll go in together for sunshine for the grass and clover and the delicious prickly thistles."
Leach's essays are both fanciful and erudite. They're about such things as blackpoll warblers that travel 5,000 miles each year from Alaska, with a stopover in Nova Scotia, to Venezuela; and about whirligig beetles which, by echolocation, seek their prey; and moon jellyfish that taste like "blue rubber bands," 2,500 of which NASA sent into space, testing their sense of up and down; and the two moons of Mars, one of which "looks like a potato that experienced one terrible, and many average concussions." She divides the work into two parts: "Things of Earth" and "Things of Heaven," each section offering similar delights of whimsical, wistful observations and astute explanations of natural phenomena.
There's puckish humor here, too: Leach calls the stellar system Eta Carinae an unaware "supernova impostor," comparing it to the "Santa impostors who never squeeze down the chimneys, deposit the presents and eat the cookies," who "probably just enjoy taking sleigh rides in the air, though the frivolous use of reindeer seems unconscionable." And throughout are liberally sprinkled arcane and fascinating factoids: in a year the mopane worm eats 13 times more mopane leaves than an elephant does; all whiptail lizards are female; caterpillars ("enviably imperturbable in the face of a brilliant future") have only six real legs, the rest, fake, "mere stumps to keep their hind parts from dragging and getting scuffed."
Her diction is electrically poetic: her anthropomorphized flora and fauna are "flaunty," "spriggy," "thwacky" and "lampy." Her metaphors are startlingly original: "The secret to crypsis [blending in] is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants." Hers is a realistic, though affirmative philosophy: Life is chancy, she admits, and throughout these inventive, sparkling essays, she proposes that for us mortals the way to serenity is through laughter.
Leach, 31, is a writing teacher, pianist and violinist, as well as a gifted writer/naturalist, whose essays are reminiscent of Diane Ackerman's, with a bit more fizz. Her first book, captivatingly illustrated in the woodblock tradition by Nate Christopherson, portends a bright literary future.
Kathryn Lang, former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas, is a freelance editor and reviewer.