The Naturalist, Review, National Post

April 13, 2016
by Philip Marchand

The true test of a naturalist is whether he or she can cozy up to creepy crawlies in the wild. Some spend their lives with ants, for example. Some, as in the case of Walter Ash, protagonist of Alissa York’s novel The Naturalist, love reptiles. Birds are fine and all, but Ash’s strong suit is lizards, snakes and turtles.

He shares this predilection with Rachel Weaver, a Quaker farm girl who functions as a “shifting hybrid of assistant, companion and friend” in the Ash household, according to the narrator — a role that continues after Ash is killed in a freak accident, leaving his widow Iris alone.

But he is survived by his beloved reptiles as well, and Rachel is prepared to do her part. As Ash had written before his death, “Any woman might marvel at a feather, but it takes a special turn of mind to appreciate a scale.” Rachel makes nothing of it. “I like all creatures,” she stoutly affirms.

This unusual dedication will be put to the test when Rachel joins Iris and Walter’s son Paul — a child born in the Amazon to an indigenous woman and brought to North America as an infant — in an expedition to the Amazon collecting specimens. It’s a voyage for profit: there is apparently a market in the United States for large, exotic turtle shells, as well as for the skins of exotic lizards and snakes, particularly that of the fearsome boa constrictor.

But the expedition is also a scientific one, intended to expand knowledge of our scaly friends. To assist in the quest, Iris — a talented water colourist — has brought along her paints in order to record precisely the size, shape, colour and so on of the creatures they encounter.

Two narratives parallel this expedition. The first is the validation of Darwin, with Ash’s party recording instances of natural selection among members of competing species. This quest requires a steadfast cleansing of observation, eliminating distractions such as native myths and the Biblical story of the serpent. Once these impediments are clear, we can see Nature in all her brilliance.

Walter Ash did not say if metaphors were also distractions. Does it hinder measurement of the piranha to note that the fish “wears the hard eye and under slung jaw of a stubborn old man?” Is it not sometimes the case where expressions that seem metaphorical turn out to be scientifically accurate?

When Rachel hears that traversing a certain stretch of soft, cool sand has been described as “like walking on moonlight,” she dismisses the account as fanciful — but when she experiences it, she characterizes it as an “authentic report.”

The second parallel narrative is more personal. For Paul, the expedition is an attempt to measure up to his father. But Paul is not the man his father was: he is instead bookish, fond of poetry and literature. He is also of a different skin colour, and with the care of a naturalist distinguishing varieties of milk snakes, the narrator notes that sunlight brings out the bronze in Walter, while it brings out the copper in Paul. Paul’s childhood classmates are not so subtle — they merely salute him with “red Indian taunts.”

For Rachel the issue is not race but something delicate in a different way. “If they were sisters,” the narrator states, “Iris would be the first-born girl who drinks up all the beauty, leaving the dregs for the quiet girl to come.” Iris may not drink up all the beauty, but she can be cavalier about matters calling for sensitivity — she freely characterizes Rachel as a “farm girl,” for example.

Rachel’s response is to live up to that label by making herself useful: on the expedition she takes her turn paddling, she stacks firewood for fuel for their boat, and she helps prepare food. When an unfortunate captive macaw stirs, Rachel hardly stops to think. “Rachel picks it up,” the narrator describes matter-of-factly. “Eyes open, it struggles against her. She cradles it and pulls its neck.” So strikes the farm girl, who has wrung the necks of many a chicken. It is also worth noting that Rachel is the only one of the three North American voyagers who attempts to learn Portuguese during their sailing.

This is in contrast to Iris’s mercurial disposition — reacting hysterically to a crowd of blood-sucking fleas, for example. It is also true that Iris feels most alive when painting, and seems to snap out of her moods when called upon to render services with her paintbrush.

What most vividly defines the characters in the novel is not the richness of their inner lives but what happens to them in the jungle
But the reader is never quite sure of what makes her tick, other than continuing grief for the loss of her husband — a grief shared in different ways by Rachel and Paul, and even by the Brazilian family Walter Ash married into.

What most vividly defines the characters in the novel, whether North American or Brazilian, is not the richness of their inner lives but what happens to them in the jungle. This is most striking in the case of a young deckhand and hunter named Tui who is preternaturally skillful in everything from killing snakes with a blowpipe to saving a riverboat from a sudden squall.

Furthermore, the middle-aged woman who runs a household by the river is defined not so much by her personality as by the skills she possesses, called upon dramatically when Paul is wounded and poisoned by the bite of a lethal sea creature. She is also, coincidentally — and no thanks to Darwin — the keeper of ancient stories of her people.

The narrative, in the absence of strong personal conflict, can be quite muted. It’s the jungle and its often deadly inhabitants that animate York’s novel, rather than a build-up of tension among characters. Only the mystery of who precisely was Paul’s family adds a note of suspense. Otherwise the jungle, with its gloom and impenetrable pathways and moments of terror and beauty, has centre stage — and never abandons it.

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