Wednesday, May 04, 2011

`A Dry and Withered Semblance of Life'

Dave Lull numbers among his favorite writers Samuel Pickering, whose latest essay collection, Journeys, was recently published by Texas Review Press. On page 20, Dave found himself “immortalized,” as he says, though in a rather anonymous fashion. Here’s the passage in question:

“During the week I'd received only one letter, this from a man who liked browsing used books, searching for things left by previous owners: letters, packing lists, birthday cards, flowers, and locks of hair. Between two copies of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies in a public library in Wisconsin, the man discovered a dried sparrow. The bird was odorless and was `shelved skull up, its spines oriented like the spines of the books on either side.’ `Gracious,' I said then grunted sleepily like a hog that had lounged away an afternoon in a corn crib.”

Pickering’s retelling of Dave’s story is good, but Dave’s is better. Here’s his version, describing what he found more than twenty years ago on a shelf in the Superior Public Library. This account is taken from the e-mail Dave sent Pickering in June 2006:

“The bird had obviously been dead for a while (stiff, dried, flattened, not much odor) before it was shelved in the stacks (the bird books were in that part of the collection shelved on a balcony). It was a sparrow. It was shelved head up, its spine oriented like the spines of the shelved books on either side, which were copies of the same book, one of Roger Tory Peterson's field guides (sorry, I don't remember which, but mostly [sic] likely it was the guide to the birds of Eastern and Central North America; this was a library in Wisconsin.)”

My favorite touches are the play on “spines” and the clinical description of the avian mummy: “stiff, dried, flattened, not much odor.” The conceptual artist who made a sparrow sandwich with two slices of Peterson was inspired but inscrutable. How do we read such an act? Was it a protest? If so, against whom or what? I’m assuming Peterson field guides get a fair amount of use among birders. So, was the sparrow pressed elsewhere, then inserted between the volumes, or was the pressing done on site? Who can plumb Wisconsin weirdness? And what did Dave do with the almost-odorless bird? Thoreau, of all people, provides some clues. In his journal for March 7, 1853, he writes:

“I read an account the other day of a snipe, I think it was, which, though neither plucked nor drawn, underwent no change but that of drying up, becoming a natural mummy for some unknown reason, as has happened to other, larger bodies. Methinks that many, if not most, men are a sort of natural mummies.”

You can see where this is going. Thoreau can’t resist outlandish metaphors or opportunities to belittle his fellow citizens. He continues:

“The life having departed out of them, decay and putrefaction, disorganization, has not taken place, but they still keep up a dry and withered semblance of life. What the salt is that saves them and robs the worms I do not know. Some bodies there are that, being dead and buried, do not decay, but after the lapse of years are found as fresh as if they had died but yesterday. So some men, though all true life was long ago extinct in them, wear this deceitful semblance of life. They seem to live on, without salt or season, from mere toughness or dryness or some antiseptic duality in their fibre.”

Perhaps the library stunt was not a protest against, say, hunting; rather, its target was library patrons and their “deceitful semblance of life.” Or maybe the perpetrator was a literary critic with a Dadist bent, chastising the desiccated semblances of bookness he found on the shelves of the Superior Public Library. Or maybe he was just a creep.

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