Friday 4 October 2013

Peas, Bears, Birds and Stars...

Pea tendrils sweeping the air for lattices.
(Pic from Anglia Farmer).
Peas are clocky children who become spoony adults. Once they grow long-limbed, they start to teeter, because they possess more self than they can support. Then they grow madly wending tendrils to sweep the air for lattices – just as marionettes will grow marionette cords to sweep the air for marionetteers. Yearning begets yearning: the pea plant yearns for a lattice, so it grows tendrils – then every tendril too yearns for a lattice. Yearning draws tendrils out of the spindly green pea-shoot only to find itself compounded, elephantine. 

I just love that image of teetering pea plants, and the idea of them possessing ‘more self than they can support’, which could apply equally to humankind. It’s a perfect description of teenagers, desperately trying to come to terms with the new ‘me’, bewildered by their size and appearance as they shed their childhood skin and head for adulthood. And quite apart from the physical aspect, what about the emotional implications of possessing too much ‘self’? There’s an identity crisis here I fear, just as there is if you have too little ‘self’.

And that comparison with marionettes is so apt. On a first reading I thought, how odd, but when I considered it I realised it was spot on, and it will make anyone old enough to remember string puppets see that the way pea plants grow and stretch out their curling, quavery tendrils really is very like the tottery movements of marionettes, and the way their limbs waver and tremble.

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The passage comes from Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, by Amy Leach, which held me so enthralled when I came across it in a bookshop that I ended up sitting on the floor so I could read it. Then, of course, since I couldn’t stay there until I’d finished, I had to buy it. Budgetary restrictions mean I don’t often buy brand new hardback books, so when I do it has to be something pretty special that I really, really want, and that is what this is. 
It’s a series of essays on Life, the Universe and Everything (divided into two sections, Things of Earth, and Things of Heaven), in which Leach reflects on the natural world and makes observations which, as I said earlier, could just as easily be applied to people. She’s not at all introspective, and certainly isn’t preachy. She may be examining individual creatures, plants or stars, but she takes a broad view as she meanders from topic to topic, reaching out from one thought to another to another, making her comments, drawing conclusions, but leaving readers free to make their own minds up and imbue the subject in hand with any meaning they choose.

Leach rejoices in the quirky and unusual, in little known facts. Back to the peas again, did you know the tiny plant produces two minute matching leaves every four and a half days, regular as clockwork, until it reaches that point where it starts to topple under its own weight and height, and starts producing those stretching tendrils.

Then there are other plants, like the mouse-eared cress, which suddenly go ‘batty-bat; and send their shoots burrowing down into the ground, while their roots rise up into the air (a phenomenon known as gravitropic mutation), which prompts Leach consider, among other things, losing one’s way, lilies, water lettuce, a hippopotamus, lotus plants and seeds, and what it feels like to lie dormant for a thousand years. See what I mean about one thing leading to another?
And how about the blackpoll warbler, just four inches long, weighing a third of an ounce (that’s forty-eight to the pound) that does not winter on earth at all. Instead, it flies 2,000 miles from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, then back again (another 2,000 miles) pursuing the sun from season to season. Leach writes:

We winter, we summer, we winter, we summer; while the warbler flies from summer to summer to summer to summer.
The tiny blackpoll warbler chases the sun so it never has
to face a winter.
Some of the tales are so fantastical you wonder if they can be possibly be true, but they are. Initially I kept looking things up, then decided Leach is obviously correct, and ended just taking her word for it: truth, after all, is stranger than fiction. It’s not only the snippets of bizarre information that sent me scuttling off to do some research, for Leach is as fond of odd words as she is of odd facts, and a decent dictionary is a huge help, along with an encyclopedia.

But she uses words and language like a poet, with lists, descriptions and stories that cry out to be read aloud, creating images that make you look at things in a new way. Take her account of the constellation Ursa Major which, she says, is sometimes mistaken for a ladle or a prawn, although personally, I think it looks like a saucepan. Anyway, she tells us:

The big starry bear is trailed by a little starry bear, about the same size as an autumn cub padding around on plantigrade paws. Late autumn is when Earth bears and their children run out of fresh apples and honey, when they might come across a heap of fermented apples, and devour them, and lose their bearings. Bears on the ground are the most sweepable bears off their feet.

Who else would draw such an analogy between the Great Bear and the Little Bear shining high in the sky, and a mother bear and its cub down on the Earth below? And what a wonderful picture it evokes, of a bear gorging on fallen apples, which are beginning to rot, giving off that winey smell they develop, and being toppled by the alcohol, losing their bearings, teetering like the pea plants, or losing their way, like the mouse-eared cress. And, in case you wonder, yes, bears do eat fermented apples, and yes, they do get drunk as a result… 
Bookmark bears...  I love these Earth Bears with their
Starry Bear kites linking
Heaven and Earth. (Big Bear, Little Bear by Kristiana Parn for Oxfam)
I must mention that the book is published by Canongate, because that’s the company which produces that lovely series where modern authors retell old myths, including The Penelopeiad, Margaret Atwood’s slender but superb account of the story of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, and her maids.


  1. This is a beautiful post. I enjoyed it to no end. Love the illustration also of the bears. I miss northern hemisphere sky scapes. Everything looks so different down here in the sky. It was one of the funny things to get used to when moving here. The book you reviewed sounds lovely. I am glad you bought it. Keep enjoying.

    1. Thank you Pam, I'm glad you enjoyed it! The book was lovely, beautifully written, and made me think about things in a different way - now you've made me do the same by talking about you different skyscape, and I shall have to find out about Australian stars!

  2. This was such a happy review. It sounds like a thoughtful read and I will add it to my list. Nice blog, btw. Thanks.