Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006

In 1851, Thomas Carlyle wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson recommending William Bartram's Travels, noting that the book "has a wondrous kind of floundering eloquence in it; and has also grown immeasurably old." In 1789, just two years prior to the publication of Bartram's travelogue, an English curate, amateur naturalist, and less far-flung traveler named Gilbert White issued his equally floundering and eloquent book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Whereas Bartram explored the then-wilderness of the American South (in addition to the nobly savage customs of the Seminoles, Cherokees, and Choctaws), presenting the marvels of people and place as having no limit or boundary, White confined himself to human and natural decorum and a world filled with all manner of borders and bounds, from the glebe-close to the ewell and the ha-ha, the garden wall to the turnip patch. Whereas Bartram concerned himself with the exotic practices of the Indians and fought with alligators, White contented himself with his local, familiar surroundings and, among other critters, with an imported tortoise named Timothy. Both men, however, reached similar conclusions concerning creatures who belong more comfortably to Nature than does civilized man. On a friendly encounter with a fierce-looking Seminole, Bartram remarked, "Can it be denied, but that the moral principle, which directs the savages to virtuous and praiseworthy actions, is natural or innate?" And White recorded this note when observing Timothy's eager warmth for the woman who fed him: "Thus not only ‘the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib,' but the most abject reptile and torpid of beings distinguishes the hand that feeds it, and is touched with the feelings of gratitude!"

Now comes Verlyn Klinkenborg to give both voice and charm to White's humble and aged Timothy. His splendid novel, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, is also eloquent in its floundering, if we regard it as perfectly natural for a tortoise, out of its native element, to have somewhat halting prose. But there is nothing fallacious in the pathos here. As with his previous books, which include the bucolic accounts Making Hay and The Rural Life, Klinkenborg finds himself in the company of ruralists E. B. White, Noel Perrin, and Wendell Berry, as well as earlier exemplars like Thoreau. Klinkenborg takes a stern look at the restless human world through the eyes of a homebody creature and observes that what troubles humans most is their desire to remove themselves from Nature. As if that were possible.

During the thirteen years Gilbert White studies Timothy and the vicinity of Selborne, Britain, Timothy studies White. The tortoise notes that age shakes the mild confidence of his inquisitor, whose dependence on knowledge and reason quietly turns to unanswerable question. "He records the when and where and which of the birds of passage, beasts of the field," Timothy notes. "How the nightingale sings. Pitch of the notes. Melody of the song. Structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale's why." And yet, the tortoise wonders, anticipating Keats on the same subject: "Is not the love of sitting upon logs of an evening motive enough?" Even the kindly White cannot accept such simplicity; "humans are blinded—even the naturalist—by being human." What emerges from Klinkenborg's novel is an affecting portrait of White himself, a man who, despite his high-mindedness, precision, and eccentricities, cannot escape the fact that he is not only a human being but an animal as well.

One also develops a sense of Timothy, who, by being "truer" to his nature, by never desiring to separate himself from the rest of Nature, possesses a wisdom and honesty rarely seen in humans. Late in the novel the tortoise reflects, "I wish to live again in a place that is not a map of the gardener's mind." In other words, what humans impose on Nature through study or wonder will always be human invention and preference, even our regard for what we call beauty, perhaps the most exalted of Nature's attributes. This time-worn idol Timothy drags back to earth, reminding us, "the first condition of beauty is survival," as if settling the issue for good. Woven into the fabric of this story are references to English fashion of the later eighteenth century (ridiculous hats, powdered wigs, the odd hermit); the English ingenuity for taxes (the poor tax is doubled, the window tax is raised); the intricate doings of the village economy; and the slowly hatching fact that the Turkish tortoise's presence in Selborne is owed to an early chapter in the adventure tale known as British colonialism.

Timothy's constant solitude, his very closeness to the ground, his silence, and his slow, reptilian experience of time allow him to observe that humans are predictable in their ignorance and less complicated than other creatures. "So it is with humans," Timothy explains. "Quickness draws their eye. Entangles their attention. What they notice they call reality. But reality is a fence with many holes, a net with many tears." Just as Melville revealed the ambivalence of the natural, Timothy sees ambivalence in the human: "The truth of my time among humans. As subject to their neglect, their forgetfulness, their most trivial intentions, as I am to their malice. As vulnerable to their wonder as their loathing." Yet there is cause for hope, even sympathy. "Sense of wonder rising within him," Timothy observes of the aging White. "Not at the beauty of nature alone. But at what it knows."

White, for his part, is driven by Milton's two-handed engine—science and religion. These are not opposing provinces in his mind, since each seeks ultimate answers, and he believes there is no question that cannot be answered with its own brand of certainty. The elder Timothy sees uncertainty in both, however, though he is comfortable with the outlook of negative capability. This much he has learned from being who and what he is and—above all—where he is. "Only a single vocation in all the rest of this earthly parish, all the rest of creation. Vocation of place." From the sanctity of his carapace, Timothy tells us there is much to learn from what humans cannot know in this world, and there is wisdom in living slowly through it. Timothy is a companionable creature.

Maurice Manning is the author of Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions (Yale University Press, 2001), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. (Harcourt, 2004).