(New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2017)
To enter Leslie T. Sharpe’s narrative world is to consent to view the Catskills ecosystem through a lens of wonder and attention to modest detail. In The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, Sharpe proffers the magical in the mundane, tracing her affinity for nature to childhood encounters with crustaceans. “The blue crab, unimpressed – and unintimidated – held its ground, then tweaked the charging dog’s nose with one of its powerful pincers to much yelping (lesson learned!), before flying off the dock, brandishing its claws like a gunslinger wielding six-shooters.”
Some anthropomorphism is inevitable — how else to connect the experience of the crayfish, the Cecropia moth, the bobcat, with that of the (presumably) human reader? Trees are “companionable,” the mating rituals of woodcocks and the robin’s affinity for vocalizing full of “pure joy.” Her understanding of foxes is guided by Aesop’s now culturally naturalized characterizations of these mammals as clever tricksters with a streak of vanity. And when Sharpe discovers animal tracks along the paths she clears through the woods, she interprets them as “tokens of their appreciation.” Subjectivity is presented as an inevitable necessity: “the naturalist’s most essential tools are his or her senses.”
Sharpe further explicates her understanding of what a naturalist is and does thusly:
[I]t is, I believe, that connection – a very powerful and deeply felt connection to the natural world, as well as an appreciation of its beauty and a sense of commonality with its creatures – that marks the true naturalist, whether a wildlife biologist or a backyard birder, and differentiates him or her from the “pure” scientist conducting lab experiments and attempting to draw conclusions from data alone.
Divided into seasonal chapters, as well as meditations on species, natural disasters, or more ephemeral ideas such as beauty or miracles, the book is less an exhaustive field guide to Catskills flora, fauna, and environs, and more an invitation to share in one woman’s closely observed experiences. Sharpe pays homage to her literary lineage, dedicating each chapter to a nature writer, ranging from familiar heavyweights like Rachel Carson and Thoreau to regional personalities such as 19th century naturalist John Burroughs and the more recently departed historian Alf Evers.
The prose meanders pleasantly enough, tracing the web of life that connects the many critters Sharpe introduces. Sentences are punctuated with frequent asides. Her affinity for the natural world is rivaled only by her affinity for the comma. At times, it becomes difficult to follow her thread of anecdotes as they double-and-triple back on one another like so many switchbacks on a steep mountain trail. An encounter will often trigger memories of first and second sightings, and Sharpe’s trail blazes are faint. But internal narrative consistency is beside the point. This book is about experiencing nature – hardly a linear endeavor.
Sharpe’s ability to retain her capacity for awe despite her extensive knowledge and experience is reminiscent of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and brings to mind Donna Haraway’s work on “becoming with” our fellow creatures. She is unafraid of embracing the grandiose, readily exploring the universal potential contained in specificity. Observing a woodcock flying upwards through the dusk, Sharpe sees within all creatures “the potential for brilliance, for some moment of transcendence, when we rise above the everyday and become transfigured by our own specialness, the uniqueness that is within us all.”
Considering herself a steward of the land and its fellow inhabitants, she invites readers to share in her intimate wonder. Even nature’s modest bounty – a bluestone rock, for example – opens windows into mysterious worlds and long-eroded geological epochs. Sharpe demonstrates an impressive capacity to transmit her visceral awe to the reader. Her subjects are varied, but all inspire lyrical language. Of a prominent bluestone boulder, she writes,
Time has gentled it, crowning Old Blue with wildflowers that thrive in its thin, scattered soil – daisy fleabane, butter-and-eggs, devil’s paintbrush with its flaming orange face – now a sunlit roost for mourning doves, an occasional oriole adding color, its “slices” of stone beginning to fall away, the rock, cracked and corroded, soothed by dark green moss, stippled with pale lichens, ancient organisms even older than the rock.
She aims her descriptive gifts at many subjects and despite the title, her subject of choice tends to be avian. (Little surprise, given her affiliation with the Audubon Society.)
Illustrations of various “critters” delight the eye throughout the text, and scientific and historical tidbits are sprinkled throughout. Sharpe deftly weaves biological knowledge into her sensory impressions, inviting the audience to discover along with her. Did you know that the robin’s migration route is governed by temperature, and that this correlates to the earthworm’s propensity to surface at 37 degrees? Those without prior knowledge of the region will learn much; those who are more familiar may enjoy the recognition Sharpe’s prose inspires, how a vignette might trigger their own fond memories.
The titular fox makes its first appearance halfway through the book, as a curiosity – why is she seeing it during the day, and in an abandoned quarry? “What concerns me is that it seems to have sought me out, has come so close.” Her respect for nature’s self-sufficiency and concern for its safety among encroaching human development inspires her to scare off animals several times in the book. Sharpe’s meditative conclusions come, significantly, at the end of this chapter, which makes the seasonal shift toward autumn carry more weight:
I have learned that death is common; it is life that is extraordinary. […]I have learned it takes true courage to love wild critters.
Though entangled with the critters and foliage and topographic features, Sharpe keeps herself at a certain remove, one of a few human interlopers into what she presents as a self-sufficient wilderness. Not that she’s above intervening, freely admitting her emotional motivations. Sharpe embraces, rather than shuns, sentimentality, forming attachments to the critters she encounters. “It is such a conundrum, loving these creatures that kill and eat each other.” Reflecting on a moth she frees from a spider’s web, she writes, “I knew I should shoo it away […] But just for a few minutes more, I wanted to sit there with the moth, to feel the lightness of the Luna’s being, its weight no more than a breath, to hold beauty in my hand.”
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Rachel Sona Reed is a social scientist by training and a writer by trial-and-error who applies these predilections to the social sector. She has published the blog “Contemporary Contempt” since 2011 and explores the lives of inanimate objects at tinyletter.com/lostisfound. Once upon a time, her research explored the intersections of consumer culture, gender, semiotics, and animal-human relationships. She is not as pretentious as she sounds. Peanut-butter-and-jelly remains her favorite sandwich.