September/October 2010


A California Bestiary

HOW IMPOVERISHED is a mind unhaunted by hedgehogs. Medieval bestiaries presented, for haunting purposes, hedgehogs and barnacles and coots and tragelaphuses. The fancy-free beasts were illustrated, and described, and then there was a small sermon on the meaning of each creature — “So it is with you, O man” — and then the animals entered your imagination, haunting your dreams and enriching your thoughts about this variously meaningful world. As they preceded the modern mania for veracity, these compendiums were rummy and reckless with the facts: antelopes sawed down trees with their antlers, panther breath was so sweet it enticed all the other animals to come close, except for dragons who hate sweet breath, and hyenas had a special stone in their eyes, which if you could put under your tongue would enable you to see into the future. Some beasts were endorsed; others were not: “the whole of a monkey is disgraceful.”

Rebecca Solnit endorses all twelve members of her California Bestiary, residents of “another California” besides the blatant one. These Californians are the acorn woodpecker, the bluebelly lizard, the California condor, the elephant seal, the Tule elk, and others. Modern animals are likelier to be described as besieged and fragile than “fancy-free,” and many of these beasts are truly besieged, like chinook salmon by dams and California condors by bottle caps and mission blue butterflies by asphalt.

In keeping with traditional bestiaries, Solnit does not shun imaginary creatures. You are as liable to run into a California grizzly as into a unicorn. “When the Yankees came, they raised a flag that bore a crude image of a bear and in the next sixty years or so hunted the real thing into extinction.” Can you miss someone you never met? Yes, although you may not know it: “as a species we are menaced in shadowy but crucial ways by their absence.”

Still there are happy facts in her book, like how the acorn chores of the woodpecker free it up to live an “antic” life, and how California ground squirrels dispatch blood to their tails and wave them around to confound the snakes peering with infrared vision into the dark forest, and how desert tortoises are so long-living and slow-moving that “it could be said they live a short, quiet life played out very, very slowly, a movie moving by at a frame a minute.”

Some things about the Middle Ages seem enviable — the quaint health of the fauna, the intrepidity with which truth was discerned (that old mania for truth). But perhaps with Rebecca Solnit’s descriptions and Mona Caron’s lovely illustrations of the animals (haunted by security fences and housing developments), this book is demonstrating another way of discerning truth — the Wallace Stevens way: “the world itself was the truth.” Solnit writes, “It’s important to celebrate the bluebelly for its own sake, for its twenty long toes as delicate as eyelashes, for its ball-bearing eyes, for its grainy camouflaging stripes in tones of dust and shadow, for the secret blue bands of its white underside . . .”

Amy Leach grew up in Texas and earned her MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and numerous other publications, including Granta, A Public Space, Orion, Tin House, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her first book was Things That Are. She lives in Montana.