Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Nocturnal Naturalist

Our book today is The Nocturnal Naturalist by Cathy Johnson, and it's both a gorgeous little gem in its own right and a happy reminder from a seasoned, passionate naturalist to the rest of us: all the good stuff happens at night.

Those of us who've been familiar with the quiet of late, late night know that the whole feel of the nearest big park changes completely from that of the day. Animals of sizes and varieties you'd never guess make their appearance and go about their business - if you're very still, they won't notice you, because they've got lots to do before the hated sun returns. In our own neighborhood, skunks abound; in an earlier neighborhood, the pristine quiet of 2 a.m. was disturbed once by a loud, prolonged brawl between two enormous raccoons; in the wooded areas of Boston's Olmsted Park, house cats who're pampered all day long by their unsuspecting owners viciously fish naked chipmunk babies from their tree-bowls; in Central Park, gigantic owls glide noiselessly over paths squawky tourists crowd by day. It's all unbelievably fascinating.

Johnson's book captures that fascination perfectly, and she captures also the beauty of it all. She has the naturalist's perfect ear for the nature of sounds, and her prose is almost as alive as the lush world it describes:

There is a kind of texture to the darkness, a substance, a heft. It has rained and drizzled and rained again, late afternoon into evening. At last. It has been dry too long. Now, at 10 p.m., the darkness is almost tactile. The quiet is woven with the sound of dogs. I hear them call from neighborhood to neighborhood in their varied voices. A random non-rhythm directs the sounds, a chaotic symphony of small-town Saturday night.

I hear cars out on the highway, singly or in convoys, heading for the city - heading anywhere but this backwater bedroom community, twenty-eight miles from Kansas City.

Let them go. Let them all go. When they are gone, the sound of cars and trucks will be reeled in behind them, leaving silence. Wonderful silence, woven with dog's voices and the syncopated plop and splatter of moisture that has gathered on tree limbs to roll in silver mercury drops to the ground.

Johnson's wandering observations take in all seasons, and she sprinkles them with scientific facts about the creatures she hears and sees, but such concrete information isn't really what she's meaning to convey in The Nocturnal Naturalist. Rather, the book is filled with the author's love of this other world so many people give no thought to at all. And her luminous lookings extend well past the borders of that world, encompassing much that is wonderful by day, like this note about a random dawn:

A solitary robin - the first to return to my territory, our shared domain - repeats his descending-note sequence, his spring song, as distinctive as a fingerprint. A long winter may have passed without hearing from him, but I know the voice of an old friend.

The Nocturnal Naturalist is filled with the author's quite lovely woodcuts (all the best slim volumes of natural history have copious, heartfelt illustrations), and we here at Stevereads whole-heartedly recommend it to soothe your harried souls. It was published in 1989 and is today out of print, but thanks to our new, updated links-list here on the site, you all now have instant access to, the single greatest book-acquiring site on the Internet. Our habit here at Stevereads to recommend out-of-print books need no longer result in a barrage of bleated requests that we SEND you a copy of each! Just click on over to Alibris, and tell 'em Stevereads sent you!

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