Research Notes · 07/18/2014

Invisible Beasts

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sharona Muir writes about Invisible Beasts from Bellevue Literary Press .

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My new novel, Invisible Beasts, narrated by a naturalist who sees invisible creatures, began as a game I played with a biologist couple. Moira can entice male grasshoppers with a mating call produced by scraping her fingernail on a certain nylon jacket; Robert has been heading a study on cocaine addiction in crayfish. We all live in the country, sharing (if that’s the word) the same wild bees.

The game went like this: I’d research some scientific facts, then invent an imaginary animal based on them, and describe it. My friends would smile and reply, “Oh yes, there’s a creature that does that.” They’d repeat the principle that whatever human imagination could conceive, in the way of life-forms, nature already had. And the game turned serious, as games do.

“A poet is, after all, a sort of scientist,” Lewis Thomas averred in his essay, “A Trip Abroad.” Blissfully obsessed with making fantastic animals out of real facts — like Dr. Frankenstein stitching body parts together to make a living myth — I burrowed into biology books and websites. Time after time, ideas for fiction arose from some fact so odd that it felt as if nature were saying, playfully, “Oh yes,” just to make me stare. Yes, vampire bats know truth from lies. Yes, alligators rearrange their lungs at will. Yes, ants have a decision-making process fairer than any human committee’s. I couldn’t beat nature at her own game, but I was too hooked not to play along. I imagined sharks wearing propeller beanies . . . for evolutionary reasons . . . and Yes, there’s something like that. My friends smiled and offered a glass of Robert’s homebrew.

Finally, I invented an animal that I was sure could not exist: a tiny ball nourishing itself on the energy released by natural cold fusion. I spent weeks researching the Golden Egg: the most ancient, self-sufficient, and happiest of animals. It was too wise to exist. It was too weird to exist. I mean, cold fusion. Moira and Robert smiled. They said, “In principle, it’s possible . . . and we don’t know everything that’s out there.”

What’s out there, and what’s in ourselves: twin poles of research. One question Lewis Thomas asked of poet-researchers is, “How should I feel about the earth, these days?” I write for a time that stares over the world’s edge into environmental doom. Each culture, in each period, has its bestiaries — its collected stories of animal ways. Early humans, I suspect, told tales about the beasts painted on their cave walls. Medieval bestiaries sought to show the mind of God in the habits of animals; written before science, they could describe whatever they pleased — e.g., unicorns. Our own time cries out for poetic imagination paired with scientific vision. If all the Antarctic ice melted, could it reveal a dying creature the size of a civilization? Yes.

For researching another of Thomas’s questions — “Where has all the old nature gone?” — only the Book of Life answers. I live in a small forest, among farmlands, sharing the drama of its wild creatures — the terrible passions displayed by two very long fox snakes draped on an oak limb, biting each other, competing for the eggs of a mother wren who hops near her nest, yelling. Or the musicianship of a catbird, that doesn’t repeat itself in a half hour of jazzy trills, chords, buzzes, and melodies. But nature “these days” necessarily means all creatures, on a spectrum from the wild to the profoundly enmeshed with humanity. After one of my dogs died, I had trouble swallowing and felt that she was in my throat, begging for words. So I volunteered at the Humane Society, helping to rescue dogs. I learned how “human society” is really human-and-nonhuman; how the fate of animals is indissolubly bonded with the fates of women and children, of the lonely, old, and poor.

In the mouth of Sophie, the naturalist who narrates my tales, I put these words: “Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts.” Research of this kind means entering a maze at whose center is a myth — an animal half-human, a human half-animal — for which you’re afire to search, re-search, and keep on discovering how (in Sophie’s words) “Animal life is mindful, and the mind’s life is animal.”

Through my research, I experience astonishment, veneration, and most of all, the joy of allying my mind to the creative freedom of the natural system, of which my being, with its imaginative abilities, is a typical part. A thousand-and-one glimpses of nature add up to the portrait of a force whose majesty resides in the affirmation of possibility. Against the No of entropy, its static cosmos, the end of ends, she is always spinning a new thread, spider-like, out of her principles into the unknown, saying Yes . . .

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Sharona Muir is the author of The Book of Telling: Tracing the Secrets of My Father’s Lives. The recipient of a Hodder Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, her writing has appeared in Granta, Orion Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Invisible Beasts is her first novel.