My sabbatical starts next semester. I’ve been worried I’m going to screw it up since last summer. If I don’t leave town or do something wild, it will be over before I know it. I should go to Tanzania. I should hole up in Oregon. I thought, briefly, about riding my bicycle from Flagstaff to Salt Lake City, a 530 mile trip that I could possibly do on back roads on my mountain bike, bypassing all freeways until I got to Provo, where the only way around the point of the mountain is, I think, I-15. I’m so looking forward to no interruptions. I’m really going to write, damnit. I want to write one, good thing. One focused thing. No dishwasher to unload. No student essays or poems to comment on. No grant writing. No prospective student meeting. No dinner to make. No interruptions about the NonfictioNOW conference I’m hosting in Flagstaff next year. Sabbatical means nothing in Latin and I’m sure my kids know Latin and will respect my special time by making their own lunches and doing their own laundry. My husband will enjoy going to his non-sabbatical privileging job while I stay home and do nothing. Nothing is the dream of a pretend writer. A writer who writes in between calls to the conference center and lining up in an Excel spreadsheet draft number 47 of the spring 2016 schedule is not a writer. She’s a minute-taker at worst, a thief at best. The sabbatical, the nothingness, is already over and here I am with a bit of lettuce on the end of my fork wondering where it went.
While I’m panicking about the already-nothing of the already-over-sabbatical, I’m reading two books—Alison Deming’s Zoologies and Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. Both books are the opposite of me. Alison Hawthorne Deming’s book observes closely animals that she has come in contact with to understand what we’re losing due to climate change and what we gratefully still admire. Haupt’s book investigates the crow, a species as adaptive as our own, as it out-survives species more sensitive to climate change and habitat loss. These are books of patience. These are writers who, sabbatical or not, stop emptying the dishwasher and, in Haupt’s case, stare at a stuffed crow for 9 hours straight or in Deming’s case, tease apart an owl pellet to find out what kind of rodent the Spotted Owl threw up last night.
Haupt, and Deming, in particular, have the observational, compressive, power of poets. Deming’s sentences twist with the energy of a lasso, as Deming ropes in bobcats, elephants, dragons, lions, and monkeys into her scope. She moves from mourning her brother’s death to describing the long history of lobster. In tribute to her brother, Deming buys a lobster from the grocery store and takes it to the water near her family’s cabin in New Brunswick.
What happened then is not at all what I expected. I’d thought of doves set free at a wedding, bursting forth into exuberant freedom. I’d thought the lobster would sense freedom and swim (yes, I thought it would swim) for the depths. Wouldn’t it be coded to hightail it for the benthic zone? “May you travel well in the vastness,” I said. A small bit of theater in the face of the eternity of water stretching out as far as I could see. The lobster, of course, had no use for my exhortation. And what could I know of my brother’s spirit, which had become even more inscrutable with his death?
Lobsters walk, I later learned (147).
Her focus tight on the lobster, Deming can explore her mixed feelings about her brother’s death. Her back and forth between lobster and brother is intersection, not interruption. It’s a practice—a meditation about how to go forward and how meditate means streamlined.
Haupt’s prose is more languid, possibly because she has more room to deal with her one subject but she too has the capacity to make me see the violet edges of a crow’s wing feathers and pretend that I have noticed them too. She sits for three hours, stares at the dead, stuffed crow not only to learn about crow but to learn a practice like zoologist Louis Aggasiz who sent his would-be student Samuel Scudder to study the same stuffed fish day after day.
Lacking Agassiz himself, but wanting to benefit as I could from his methods, I placed a prepared (that is, stuffed) study skin of an adult male crow on my desk. My intention was to observe the specimen for three days—a total of twenty-one hours. That might be paltry by Agassizian standards, but it seemed like a reasonably stringent goal for me and my still-delicate, recently toppled brain (Kindle page 62%).
Haupt compares this kind of practice to that of the Benedictine monks she visits regularly: “Not in a cave, as Benedict spent his early hermetic years, but as nearly all of us live: with others. With meals to cook, with work to do, and with people other than ourselves to look after. With forks that need putting away, linens that need folding, clothes that need replacing, crows on the wire, and guests who drop in” (Kindle page 64%).
I have never done anything for 9 hours, or even 3 hours, straight. But, as Haupt talks about the monks, I realized that both Deming and Haupt are doing their writing while they're living. Deming and Haupt do what they always have done. They observe. They sign-up. They stare. They eat lobster. They free lobster. They feed the birds. They stuff the birds. They put away the forks. Their essays are their lives. A sabbatical is a life. A regular life that should be noted for its willingness to observe its lived-ness.
I do not know what a junco is. I have as many ravens as Haupt has crows but I have never seen their roosts. I live in Arizona as Deming does but have not paid the attention she has paid to the animals in my backyard. I know I will keep emptying the dishwasher while I sabbat. That sabbatical really just means too short, not nothing. But here is where the poet in me, and in Deming, and in Haupt intersect. I notice the dishwasher, the fork, the salad, the dinner I should make with free-range chicken in the same way Deming notices the lobster crawl into muddy water or Haupt notices the crow’s sometimes hop, sometimes walk. The essayist in us makes explicit the noticing. At the end of Zoologies, Deming writes of intersections. How the microorganisms that make up our gut flora, 400 trillion of them, make up who we are. We drink a glass of kombucha, add to the organism. We take an antibiotic, we kill a trillion or two. Haupt asks us to slow down when driving by a crow eating road kill—crows don’t pay as much attention as they should when they’re eating. So even though I will ruin my sabbatical, half-running, half-walking through the forest, listening to the Serial podcast while checking my email, stumbling over a rock and missing what I think was a hawk (although it might have been a raven) take off from a branch just above my head, I will ruin it not completely because I will go home and write about how the fork got stuck in the dishwasher and it took me seven minutes to get it unstuck, which is way longer than I usually spend on any one object, but long enough to make me late to pick up the kids so I didn’t have time to go to the store so I forget about cooking chicken for dinner and instead make tomato soup and grilled cheese, thereby saving one bird in this life and thinking, chickens matter, too. Sabbatical proposal #243: Chickens matter too: A study in the nothingness and everythingness in the human as essay.
NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.