A beautiful book crammed with exquisite details about our universe and everything in it. The subtitle is Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, and in this collection of poetically observed scientific essays, Stars really do seem like just another bobbling entity, not that dissimilar to a whirligig beetle, a baby penguin (which she describes as a “pear-shaped bit of fluff”) or a biscuit starfish.
I found myself entranced by the juxtapositions Leach throws together – drawing unexpected connections between tomato frogs and bears and grass (they all prefer to live in light) or between man-of-war jellyfish and Leo Tolstoy (both resembling, she asserts, a single entity while actually being made up of many).
Moments of surrealism gather you in – there’s a whole section on sirens, were “free like thunder, and dangerous like tornadoes, and enchanting like fire” and who used to sing songs “people would follow to the other side of life” and now forced into service as Emergency Warning Sirens sounding the alarm.
There’s a whole chapter marvelling on the efforts of the hapless water lily, and another on the delight of peas (which Leach describes pleasingly as “clocky children who become spoony adults”).As well as soaring us out into the galaxy, where she acquaints us with neighbouring planets as one might distant relatives, Leach draws us into ourselves to consider our leaps of the imagination, our thought processes, and, most vividly, our memories.
In Leach’s guiding hands, long-confined recollections escape to cavort free, intriguing, terrifying and full of possibility. “There are trumpeting ones that could flip and trample you, or wrap their trunks around your wrist and dangle you in the air; fanged ones, demented ones, small vulnerable ones like klip-springer lambs hidden in the grass, others leaping on every side, sleeping under shrubs, huddling with their tails twisted together.”
The analogy of a wildlife safari is both extraordinary, and utterly appropriate.
Among this chaos of rampaging metaphor nestle the facts – glowy-gilded (and, often, glowy-gilled) with such wondrous beauty that you can’t help to be drawn in, panting lightly, to crouch over them, paying attention and learning something new without even realising.
By the end you’ll feel you’ve been on a madcap nature trail, only I suspect you’ll discover that you’ve been the one caught and collected by Leach’s vast and glorious net.
Things That Are: Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals by Amy Leach is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy from Amazon.
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