Digressions and Departures: A Review of Devin Johnston’s “Creaturely and Other Essays”
December 5, 2011 § 4 Comments
Reviewed by Scott Russell Morris
If I take a stroll through the business and restaurant districts of my smallish city I will see people walking, but they are usually people who aren’t out walking, they are walking somewhere, to lunch or to a meeting. I see people in athletic wear running, iPods connected and sweat dripping. They look miserable and skinny, focused and aloof. And when I walk through the neighborhoods, I see very few people at all, and it is easy to imagine that the homes are deserted, or occupied only by automobiles. I suppose in the big cities many people still walk for transportation, but by and large that is all that walking has become, it’s rudest possible expression. But there is a holier way to walk, a walk that doesn’t lead anywhere, a route suggested by a dog’s nose, a ramble that ambles, a stroll that celebrates every possible denotation of pedestrian.
The missionary of such holy walks is Devin Johnston, who’s book Creaturely and Other Essays contains eight timeless walk sermons delivered as essays, almost all of which start out with Johnston and his dog, Chester, out for a walk. Johnston’s preface starts,
This little book is largely made up of digressions, departures from a life spent too much indoors.
If the title’s brave and brazen use of the word Essays isn’t enough to convince you that these are essays in the Montaignian tradition, than the first sentence’s admission to digressions and departures should have. Like the walks that Johnston goes on, each essay follows an inevitable pattern of meandering prose musing on urban nature: Deer mice in the cellar, owls in the park, and squirrels on the windowsill each become the impetus for exploring literary motifs, natural history, and human nature. These essays are not sweeping, dramatic revelations about the majesty of nature, but rather paced observations about our perception of the worlds that surround us, worlds that we might be able to observe on our strolls through the neighborhood, but worlds that we cannot understand, much as the squirrel in Johnston’s essay “Specific Worlds” might look into his kitchen window, but cannot understand the workings of the house.
The essays admit that we cannot know what animals are thinking, but Johnston is not content to simply say we can never know: He cannot know what his dog smells downwind, but he can explore what it means to smell and how smell keeps us grounded in our creaturely instincts. He cannot know what the crows are thinking as they hunt, but he does know what poets and myths have written about crows hunting. In each essay he explores the animal world but comes no closer to understanding it because his essays, like the science he describes, “observe rather than close the distance between” what animals see and what we experience.
Johnston succeeds because his essays, like all good essays, are steeped in “a constellation of metaphor.” While his essays do have central threads—the fleeting images of nature observed from sidewalk strolls—he digresses and departs from each thread as easily as his dog moves on to sniff a new tree. For example, in his essay “Specific Worlds”—probably the best squirrel essay ever—the squirrel is a metaphor for our inability to see past our own world, because we can never fully understand another’s. The essay meanders though the forests of Yeat’s poetry, through the philosophical writings about the Umwelt, and through childhood memory, all thinking about squirrels but really thinking about the limits of our world, limits which, “though founded through ignorance and error,…are real and determining. … The divide between subjective reality and objective fact…or between one subjective reality and another, finds no resolution in the natural sciences. It can properly be called magic.”
And in Creaturely, it is magic, but also philosophy and science, because in Johnston’s capable and eloquent prose myth, poetry, science, and observation are all as likely to lead to truth as anything else, and they are led there amblingly.
Scott Russell Morris is an MFA student at Brigham Young University. He likes essays and squirrels.