With all the worries of coronavirus and economic catastrophes on our minds, and living in “Ground Zero” of the pandemic–Seattle–as I do, I think it’s normal to freak out at least a little about the news these days! Last night I had a hard time falling asleep, so I picked up Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song.
Oh, I am so glad I did! I never met him, but if he was anything like his writing, Brian Doyle must have been a dear, warm-hearted person. He died in 2017, at age 60. Thanks to Margaret Renkl for bringing One Long River of Song to our attention, in a December 2019 New York Times book review.
In the passage below, notice how the narration moves over the subject first in a scientific, analytical gaze, to such an extent that you do not initially realize what he’s talking about. At the beginning, the perspective lies extremely close to the body. Plus the words refer to ambiguous visual and metaphorical effects (tiny, stubbish, fleshy, rudder, adamant, ship, prow). Then we realize what it is, a mole! Later, the narration focuses on the subject’s life style (largely solitary) and suddenly the subject is us! We homo sapiens are living like moles do, in families that come together and then disperse. We all suffer, we all love, we’re all alone. All of us call this earth our home.
From Chapter, “The Deceased”:
I measure the body with a ruler. The deceased is eight inches long and five inches wide if we count arm-span. There’s not much in the way of arm-span. Mostly the arms are hands. The hands look eerily like baseball gloves. The teeth are tiny but populous and adamant. The tail is stubbish and not a tail you would boast about if you were in a pub and the talk turned to boasting about tails. It’s more of a fleshy rudder than a tail. The eyes are small and black and open. I look in vain for ears. The nose is epic and tremendous and clearly what the face was designed to carry much like a ship carries a prow. I refrain from trying to ascertain gender, out of respect for the dignity of the deceased.
The deceased is, I believe, Scapanus townsendii, the Townsend’s mole, native to this region, found everywhere from swampland to small mountains.
This tribe of mole is thought to be largely solitary, I read, and I want to laugh and weep, as we are all largely solitary, and spend whole lifetimes digging tunnels toward each other, do we not? And sometimes we connect, thrilled and confused, sure and unsure at once, for a time, before the family cavern empties, or one among us does not come home at all, and faintly far away we hear the sound of the shovel.
I should toss the body over the fence, into the thicket, as food for the many, such being the language of life, but I think of how we feel when we are tucked tight in bed, inside the cocoon of the blankets, wrapped and rapt, and I wonder if moles love the grip of the earth that way, love the press and the dense of it, its inarguable weight, the blind swim through the dark, would love finally to dissolve in it; and I bury the body.
–Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019), 16, 17.