ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I woke up this morning, having gone to sleep thinking about some lines Eric Lemay wrote in his book In Praise of Nothing. He is writing about returning to Ohio as a now-married man, having grown up in this town in Ohio (Athens?) but had moved to New York for a decade or so. The essay is about how he feels like two people at once, or, rather, feels as if his old self was never interrupted. That his old life and his current life are parallels, nearly one-in-the-same, but different because he observes both selves as if from outer space. He witnesses his past life and his current life from a dissociated distance. “Every time we went [to the lake] I wondered if I’d entered that pattern, if I was my younger self or the self in my swimsuit,” he writes. But that sense of dislocation, of dissociation, falls apart when a thunderstorm hits at the lake he visited in his past life, at the lake he is visiting in his current life:
One afternoon while we were there at that lake a thunderstorm came up. It was like a message from a far-off country that I’d once lived in and left for good. The momentous feeling that arrives with an electrical disturbance over a lake in America hasn’t changed in any important respect. This was the sublime, still the sublime. The whole thing was overwhelming, the overcast clouds that rolled in and the general worry on the beach about whether it’d rain. Then before long (there was no question now) a dark greening of the sky, and a lull in everything that has made life tick; and then the way the leaves suddenly turned up and showed their silver sides with the coming of a breeze across the water, and the premonitory rumble. (67)
There is no more wondering who is who. The essay ends with LeMay saying, “suddenly I felt the joy of my youth.”
In the feeling, in the moment, in the beauty of those leaves-turned-silver, the fractured self comes together in one trembling, unified mass. It didn’t matter if it was the LeMay or any other book or painting or actual silver shimmering. What mattered was the notice.
Having awakened thinking of this passage and thinking about how this sublime brings the selves, the writer self, the younger self, the swim-suited self, the married self, the young turked self, the observer self and the observed self together, I wondered what did it? What allowed for the collapse into unity?
Sublime beauty, I think. It takes an overwhelming event to bring the senses to bear, to bring the selves together.
How does beauty work? Or sublime beauty. I would have to look it up. Maybe Montaigne could help me with sublime beauty, so I looked through Montaigne’s collected table of contents. No “On Beauty.” But thought there is no single essay “On” Beauty: Beauty stitches the whole collection of essays together.
Maybe this is the point, maybe beauty is the stitch, I think, although I did dread reading through all of the Montaigne essays. Montaigne is good on a subject or two but to read them all at once, to read them to distill his views on Beauty, to trouble anyone who might read this with a series of beauty quotations, is to akin to looking for my son Max’s monkey that he may have left under his bed, in the car, on the back porch, in his closet, or, possibly, at the restaurant. It’s very good to have read/looked, but the reading/looking is taxing. We will read all of the Montaigne. We will find the monkey. Just perhaps not today. But as we look under the bed, maybe we find the necklace his grandma gave him, in the car perhaps we find the thank you note a student wrote me, on the back porch we find a pinecone. Max uses it for a brush. Now he has sap in his hair. Isn’t it messy? Isn’t it beautiful?
But the idea that the word beauty is used so often but not as its own thing made me think about the big bang, how elements from the big bang are in each of us—how we are physically connected through matter and the “we” is wide. Me, you, and the lilac bush, the tree with the widest trunk in Oaxaca, General Sherman, the tree with the biggest mass in California, the tiny stick and the microorganism, the largest spider and the titmouse, the Doberman and the orange tabby. Molecules all expanding, expanding. The big bang was a big break. Humans are good at tracing that break back together. As David Kirby has said,
Everywhere the world is broken,
and only the poets can make it one again.
But essayists find light through the fractures, not necessarily wanting to make it one again. If beauty is what holds us together, how do nonfiction writers catalyze sublimity rather than mere aestheticization? As writers of place—and, I would argue all nonfiction writers are writers of place, even if that place is their body, their memory, their mother, their sofa, their Afghanistan—it’s important to remember that place isn’t stable. It shifts. It moves as you try to pin it down. Like Eric LeMay’s lake, there are two of everything. The moment and the memory. The ideal and the real. The destruction and the creation. The planet, as we move into the sixth great extinction, is so much more beautiful for what it is now that it slips through our fingers.
Like the monkey we can’t find, we see so many other things while we’re looking. As the last white rhino died in 2018, the same month, a new species of tardigrade, or water bear, was found in a parking lot in Japan. Admittedly, the tardigrade, at about a millimeter long, isn’t as massive as the white rhino but it is very adaptable. It can survive at 328 degree below zero and 300 degrees above Fahrenheit. It can even survive the vacuum of space.
It is not beautiful. With eight legs on their sausage-esque bodies, a snout that looks like it ran into a glass wall, and tendrils sticking off its body. But perhaps the tardigrade is beauty. A crashing of hope against a wall of doom, the thunderstorm barreling in from a distance. A sublime recognition, as speedy as lightning, that who we were and what we are as one in the same. Perhaps creative nonfiction writing is a writing that asks, who will we be—cataloguers of death or exalters of life? Or, more likely, the writers who, as we trace the trail of pollen back to its dark green source, say, to do this writing, you have to be the cataloguer and the exalter at the immediate and exact time.
In the Slide fire, a pair of nesting herons lost their chicks. A ranger found four heron babies lying on a picnic table under their nest. The mother heron flapped around the campsite all day, frantically looking for her children. I wondered how many animals had died in the fire. Emily, the housesitter who packed up our things during the pre-evacuation order for the Little America fire, posted on Facebook, “As we breathe the smoke, we are breathing them.” For a minute I thought she was being very woowoo Sedona, and then I knew what she meant. Animal particles going up our noses. It was horrible. It was kind of beautiful. Horrible beauty shocks. Reaching for the words for my page, “breathing them” is tempting but perhaps “breathing animal particles going up our noses” is more accurate. Which language lays the truth more bare? Perhaps the writer needs both, the woowoo and the hard facts to make the death beautiful and tragic and thus, meaningful.
Brian Doyle’s short essay after the September 11th attack “Leap” does this beauty writing carefully. As he write the first and last names of witnesses who watched people jump from the Twin Towers, he repeats their names. He repeats the phrase “pink mist everywhere.” Pink mist everywhere normally refers to sun setting over oceans or the breath of morning particulating over red canyon rocks. In “Leap” Doyle means bodies exploding on the ground. Doyle is not aestheticizing these deaths. The tone is matter of fact. Journalistic but the repetition incants the darkness that brought us to this place. There were real witnesses with first and last names. There were real jumpers with first and last names that we will never decipher because they have become particulated into pink mist. He isn’t making them pretty. He’s making them beautiful. He’s making them as hard core real as he can. He’s making them meaningful.
Beauty is such a spacey word. It doesn’t hold much weight on its own. But Eric LeMay’s silver leaves hold some weight. And the lilac bush holds some weight. The human-sized cracks in the bark in the tree called General Sherman, the snow on the eyelash, Max’s chin, Max’s monkey, Zoë’s eyelashes, the snow on Zoë’s eyelashes, Erik’s cheekbone, Erik’s hand in my lap. Even the smoke holds a little weight when you inhale deeply every animal that it burns.
Last week, Safa Motesharrei published a report using data from NASA research, argues that civilization as we know it will last only a few more decades.
Motesharrei’s report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor].” This “Elite” population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the “Masses,” accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.
I feel bad for my kids. Forcing them to live in a world full of big brown bats with rabies was bad enough. I did not intend to saddle them with a big brown planet. When I imagine the worst of my fears coming true—no food, no electricity, no water, no trees—I have the capacity to delude myself: Max and Zoë will find a nice spot in the Northwest to hole up while the worst of the violence and depredation rages. They will live among the bears, learn to pick salmonberries, learn to catch salmon. When it’s over, they’ll return to a smaller, more egalitarian world where everyone is happy just to eat the fruit of shrubberies, just to watch the bears.
It’s my ability to imagine this prelapsarian Eden for my kids that I deny the images of the misery they most certainly will inherit.
Later in the day, NASA distanced itself from the report, saying that although Motesharrei used their data, they in no way support his findings: “As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.” I breathe a sigh of relief. If only NASA could alleviate all anxieties through a statement or two about its endorsements and conclusions. But what would exist if Motesharrei hadn’t posted that catastrophic vision? If NASA hadn’t distanced itself from such catastrophe? In between despair and hope, we struggle to wrestle the words that erupt between these moments and shove them into paper.
That misery. It keeps us together. That coastal shelf is growing and it is beautiful. Look, kids. The tide is coming in. It is beautiful.
Images will sustain us. Bad images. Good images. The image of a broken-necked dove. The image of a bald eagle as tall as you are. I can see the lilac bush, tilted half way in the wind. The last petals hang on. The bush bends so hard, the petals touch the ground. The petals sweep the ground. The ground is clean and purple now. I put my nose to the dirt and smell the spring.
Real images. Imaginary images. Our own brains looking infiltrated by images. How are we one with the world? Because the images reverberate in our heads. The images go into the paper via words. The words go to the eyes. The eyes see the words. There’s a conflict between the real and the imaginary, between what we thought we saw and what we actually saw, between the worst version of events and the best version of events, between the visual of the image and sound of the world, in between those flashes of horror and beauty, we find the sublime. They send a message to the hands. The hands plant a lilac bush because they want the dirt to smell of lilac.
Even the sky breaking blue holds a little weight. Everyone finds something beautiful. The ATV rider finds the stream just as beautiful as the hiker finds the stream. The hunter finds the grizzly bear just as beautiful as the photographer finds the bear. The gun lover loves his metal as much as the car owner loves her metal as much as the solar panel loves its metal. My husband Erik sands and polishes the baseboards. He plays the guitar. My best friend Karen learns time-lapse photography. My other best friend Rebecca paints a painting of her mother in a posters bed, draperies frame her mother’s body as if she’s in a painting.
The most beautiful thing is rain because it rains a little bit everywhere even if it’s raining upward as the clouds pull water from the pines in the drying southwest where it hasn’t rained in four months. On the page, I write of the increased coastal flooding due to storms strengthened by climate change because the tidal wetlands that used to contain that water have been destroyed.
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Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story from Ohio State University Press and the forthcoming The After-Normal from Rose Metal Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.