'Thoughts about Possible Thoughts'

Christmas Critics

Amy Leach’s debut collection of nature essays, Things That Are (Milkweed, $18, 192 pp.), imagines how constellations like Ursa Major and creatures like apple-green caterpillars might perceive their experiences. To some readers, such philosophical flights may come across as oppressive impositions on the cosmos. Can’t we let the stars have their privacy? But I enjoy her almost-too-clever writing, filled with lyrical puns, and I found these thoughts about possible thoughts anything but presumptuous.

Grounded in sometimes unreal-sounding science and history, Leach’s “guessing games” seamlessly combine basic lessons in biology, botany, and astronomy with nimble imaginative leaps. Like the eponymous patent clerk in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, many of these essays depict alternate worlds. In this collection, sirens and green dragons share a universe with jellyfish and whirligig beetles. Postulating a world where sound waves don’t decay, she writes, “The world, full of past sound, would be like the sky, full of past light. The world would be like the mind, for which there is no once.” She makes good on her offer to exchange a “mad currency” with her readers: “I’ll buy you rain, you buy me snow, and we’ll go in together for sunshine for the grass and the clover and the delicious prickly thistles.” Gleeful lapses into absurdity abound in...

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About the Author

Sarah Rich is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. She works in the sociology department at Yale University.