Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Tortoise and the Curate

I will admit that I came to Verlyn Klinkenborg's new book, Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile, hoping it really would be what the flap copy suggested, a story told from the point of view of a tortoise. I was hoping for something akin to the trick Richard Adams manages in Watership Down, where he mixes anthropomorphism and convincing animal behaviors to tell about characters which, though complex and captivating, never seem like anything other than rabbits.

It turns out that's not what Klinkenborg is up to. Instead, he's written a gently chiding appreciation—and inversion—of eighteenth-century naturalist's Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789). White was a careful observer of nature, recording climatic details, movements of animals, results of the harvest, and everything he saw on his rambles through the countryside near his house. Given to White by an aunt, Timothy was a tortoise who lived in his garden for years, turning up now and again in the journal.

Now Timothy gets center stage, and it turns out that he's as much of a naturalist as White, but without the handicap of being human. White, though an undoubted lover of nature, was a curate of the Church of England, and he suffered from the beliefs of the era, which, before Darwinism encouraged a view of humanity at the top of nature, separated humans from the natural world entirely. Timothy knows better, knows the limits of what White preaches on Sundays:
Is death so fearsome that it must be undone? Is this life so poor a thing? Is not eternity somewhat too long?
Theirs is a niggardly faith, withal. Parishioners believe only as much as will save the humans among them. Never mind the rest of creation. Unwilling to distinguish the dead from the living. But eager to set apart the rest of creation.

He rises to the pulpit. God's family, he says, is numberless. "comprehending the whole race of mankind." And only the race of mankind. Thereby cutting off most of creation.

But numberless is not the race of mankind. Numberless is the race of beetles. Numberless are "the most insignificant insects and reptiles." Flying ants that swarm by millions in this garden. Armies of aphids falling in showers over the village. Palmer-worms hanging by threads from the oaks. Shoals of shell-snails. the earthworms. Mighty, Mr. Gilbert White avers, in their effect on the economy of nature. Yet excluded from the family of god.

Timothy watches, as White watches, only Timothy sees more, keeping track of the humans and their thoughts and activities as he keeps track of nature. Clearly, Klinkenborg is not trying to make Timothy seem like a turtle in essence; rather, he's using the idea of a tortoise to slow down and refocus his own thoughts about nature, pushing himself and the reader out of their ordinary understandings of the human and the animal. It doesn't always work, but at its best—as when Timothy watches White age and poignantly realizes that the events of nature will continue in Selbourne, unrecorded, once White is gone—it marries natural history, environmental philosophy, and the story of the odd semi-friendship that develops between man and tortoise. It was good for Saturday reading in my front room while watching the finches and sparrows and juncos crowd the feeder.
But what is the heron's vocation? To what occupation is the viper called? Or summer's myriad of frogs? What trade was the otter following when he strayed down the rivulet?
Only a single vocation in all the rest of this earthly parish, all the rest of creation. Vocation of place.

There are certainly worse vocations, for any animal, including a human.

1 comment:

  1. It's weird to think how much reading pleasure I owed to curates in fiction, especially considering that I've never (so far as I remember) met one. From Gilbert White to the fawned-over curates in Barbara Pym's novels to the Bartleby-like curates of some of J. F. Powers's short stories, the role, with its odd combination of thanklessness, esteem, and ill-defined duties seems to lend itself to good fiction.