Nuannaarpoq: Thomas Wharton’s Every Blade of Grass

Nuannaarpoq: Thomas Wharton’s Every Blade of Grass

In all of his literary fiction, Thomas Wharton speculates on one question: what is a book? Answers are as various as books themselves. Wharton imagines fantastic books: books as pinwheels and books nested inside books until they were too tiny even to read. Audio-books and graphic novels stretch books in the direction of the purely acoustic and the primarily visual. In e-formats, a book no longer has to have a cover. Nor does it have to be made of paper and ink. It might even have a paratextual soundtrack. Having a life of their own once they leave authors’ desks, books follow chequered and unpredictable careers. They thrive or disappear, often without rhyme or reason, rather like animal species that adapt to their environments or not. In this regard, maybe a book is an organism whose life may be long or short, and whose impact on the environment may go undetected.

Wharton has not followed the usual career path of a literary novelist. He launched his career with Icefields (1995), which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean. It is a novel about glaciers and orchids, among other things. He consolidated his success with Salamander (2001), a novel in which round-the-world voyages intersect with a love story and the impossible quest to make an infinite book. Salamander was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor-General’s Award for fiction. His third book, The Logogryph (2004)—a quirky collection of tales about mythical animals and libraries—was nominated for the Dublin-IMPAC award. In Canada, these three novels were published by, respectively, NeWest, McClelland & Stewart, and Gaspereau Press. Every Blade of Grass (2015), by comparison, was self-published. It is available in both electronic and print versions. As far as I know, it was not nominated for any literary prizes, which may have something to do with its being self-published.

In a post on his website, Wharton explains why he chose not to publish Every Blade of Grass with a commercial press: “Partly because I wanted to learn how to do all of this for myself, partly because I’m cheap, but mostly because of freedom. I mean the daily rush of freedom I felt now that so much of the journey from manuscript to finished book was in my control.” In pursuit of his authorial freedom, he ushered the book through all stages of production: designing the cover, editing the manuscript, readying the file for publication, promoting it. He has posted a “soundtrack” for the novel, which includes music by Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Tanya Tagaq, Beethoven, k.d. lang, and others. The soundtrack is not integral to the novel. Posted on a blog, it provides author-added value that readers may or may not even know about. If e-publishing has its demerits, namely loss of conventional readers who haunt bookstores, it also has the merit of making readers nimble. They have to trust their curiosity to find books that have been overlooked by prize panels and left unsung by marketing campaigns. Readers have to adapt their reading strategies to books that do not come blurbed by authorities and heralded by reviewers in mainstream media.

In Every Blade of Grass, the letters between Martha Geddes and James Wheeler are collected and made into a book as a family record and commemoration. The exchange of letters does not begin with the intention of being a history, but that is what the correspondence becomes. The individual letters circulate from place to place—most often between Vancouver and Manhattan—before they take up their position inside the novel. Part romance, part melodrama, part travelogue, and part scientific novelty, Every Blade of Grass is a composite novel. It is genial and gentle in equal measures.

The novel plays with the fundamental proprieties of fiction: time and space. In Reykjavik on 21 June 1974—the summer solstice—James leaves a letter for Martha at the front desk of her hotel. He is a scientist from Vancouver; she is a journalist from New York about to head home. They have been in Iceland to look at geysers and glaciers. Prompted by this initial letter, they strike up a friendly correspondence. As Martha is married, she never writes anything untoward to James, nor does he to her. Measured by letters, time goes by. James and Martha seldom see each other but they tell each other anecdotes about their respective lives. A slow-simmering romance lies unspoken within their correspondence, even as they exchange views about climate change, meteors, species extinction, and rarities of the natural world. In Manhattan on 2 December 1981, in a replay of the opening scene, Martha leaves a letter for James at the front desk of his hotel; upstairs in his room, he lies awake and thinks about what future he and Martha have, if any.

Every Blade of Grass is an epistolary novel, with a few interspersed diary entries and inset stories. Novels-in-letters were all the rage in the eighteenth century, a genre pioneered in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and perfected in Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses (1782). Indeed, there is something old-fashioned about James and Martha’s protracted courtship. The novel mostly takes place in the 1970s and 1980s: why not phone each other instead of writing letters? Yet Every Blade of Grass challenges received wisdom about epistolary fiction. James and Martha’s correspondence attenuates intimacy rather than maximizes it. The carefully crafted letters omit crucial information. James neglects to recount the full extent of his involvement in conservation efforts on the West Coast. Martha reveals her marriage and pregnancy rather coyly. Martha’s cousin, Nancy, puts her finger on the duplicities of epistolary communication: “yeah sure the letter-writing is kind of romantic, but it’s also a way of keeping someone at a distance isn’t it?” Despite all appearances to the contrary, Martha’s and James’s letters inhibit them from knowing each other very well and pre-empt spontaneous outbursts of passion.

In their letters Martha and James surprise and delight each other with little-known facts. Most of these facts concern animals or oddball scientific information. While at sea, James sees a “moonbow”—a sort of nocturnal rainbow in which the moon glistens through rain vapour. Martha informs James that gingko trees were nearly extinct in China before being saved by Buddhist monks. James tells Martha that sound waves, lasting a few seconds or a few minutes, have been detected in the Pacific Ocean; these “t-waves” may be the venting of undersea volcanoes, but no one knows for sure what makes these sounds that vibrate between 3 and 12 cycles per second. In an effort to amuse each other, both letter-writers are on the lookout for marvels, of whatever kind or size: a pink dolphin, a moth with a wingspan of twelve inches, a place in Antarctic where it last rained two million years ago. Even cousin Nancy gets in on the fact-finding mania and offers up “the most amazing little facteroonie you’ve ever heard.”

The more unexpected or unlikely the facts, the more pleasure they deliver. The point of the facts, however, is not their completeness, but their capacity to generate wonder. The facts point to how little human beings actually know about their environment or the animals with which people share the planet. According to James, all facts are incomplete: “We humans haven’t finished writing the book on nature, in fact we’ve just barely started.” The incompleteness of facts generates amazement about what is left to be learned about the natural world. Faced with incomplete knowledge, the inquiring mind has to remain open to wonder.

So many facts make Every Blade of Grass sound like an encyclopaedia. It is not. It is, rather, a book of marvels. Martha likes to take her infant son, Michael, to Central Park “to discover marvels.” James refers to Charles Darwin’s émerveillement before the natural world. As Darwin states in The Origin of Species, single-celled organisms branched out over millions of years into “endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.” In that phrase, Martha finds a title for a book made up of her scientific articles. “We need to be surprised,” Martha writes to James: “the amazing facts that you and I like to collect and share would mean nothing if we weren’t open to the risk of finding out that the world isn’t what we thought it was, or would like it to be. It’s part of keeping alive one’s sense of wonder, I suppose.” Wonder allows some liberty with facts: James confesses that he makes up a fact about Icelandic leopard frogs, a species that does not exist but ought to, if only for the sake of a good story.

In its predisposition to locate wonder in the natural world, Every Blade of Grass makes surmises about life outside human cognition. As a journalist, Martha writes articles about cockroaches, urban gardening, and bacteria that live on human skin. James wonders about the suspended animation of cryptoendoliths, which are tiny bands of lichen-like vegetation trapped inside rocks. While part of a seafaring research group, James looks into the eye of a whale as if it were the eye of God. Curious about owls, bats, ants, and other species, he speculates on the sensations that animals have. After riding an elephant in Nepal, he “got to thinking, how does it feel like to be an elephant? To be this size, to have an elephant’s senses and way of seeing the world? What does an elephant think of us?” The question, although unaswerable, dethrones human beings from their self-declared centre of primacy on planet Earth. James sums up this post-human idea of species with a quotation from Emerson: “All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle.”

Martha’s Uncle Henry, an amateur kabbalist, espouses the view that all matter has a soul, whether a wall or a blade of grass. When people cannot assign a human meaning to sounds—the chirrups and rustling in a forest or the crash of a breaking glass—they are hearing “the voice of the soul of things.” In this regard, Every Blade of Grass promotes awareness as a human good. If only human beings could amp up their awareness without imposing themselves on nature, they might learn something from cryptoendoliths or deep-ocean rumblings. While in the Arctic, James learns the Inuktitut word, nuannaarpoq, “which means something like ‘taking pleasure in the awareness of being alive.’” Awareness of gingko trees, moths with a twelve-inch wingspan, and every blade of grass imbues the natural world with pleasure. These features—sounds, textures, organisms—give pleasure by their sheer being. They also give pleasure in being thought about. And they give pleasure as entities in and of themselves, even as they co-exist with human beings.

Every Blade of Grass plays with—and plays up—the dimensions of time and space. Time stretches and contracts. Cryptoendoliths slow down time until existence seems suspended altogether. Time is measurable; time is an aspect of eternity. At the Museum of Natural History in New York, Martha touches the four-billion-year-old meteorite that Robert Peary hauled back from Greenland, despite its weighing 70,000 pounds. Touching that hardened lump of time is, for her, like touching “something as old as the sun.” Her letter about the meteorite inspires James to speculate on the first instant of time. What existed prior to time and space? While watching an eclipse in Indonesia, James experiences a terrifying sense of isolation from Martha that he describes in terms of temporal duration: “I felt as if the last time I had seen you was a thousand years ago, in another life.”

Time ticks along. As it advances, time brings sorrows and reunions, endings and renewals. The laws of literary time do not follow the laws of time as it is generally understood. In fiction, time can fold back on itself. It can show synchronization, syncopation, or asynchrony as effects of story-telling. All the letters and diary entries in Every Blade of Grass have dates; they document the forward march of linear time. Meanwhile, James and Martha reckon with various aspects of time that defy that forward movement. Martha wonders “what paths will open or close for life in the future?” On a trip to China, she feels as if she is travelling “back in time, entering a mysterious city of long ago” (268).

These distortions in time recall Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). Like Borges and Calvino, Wharton speculates on the nature of infinity (as an aspect of space) and eternity (as an aspect of time). In Every Blade of Grass, characters remain aware of time and space as dimensions that need not contain human beings at all. Martha finds a stand of old-growth trees in New York; James fights environmental battles to preserve old-growth forests on Persephone Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. He writes to Martha: “we hold stewardship over all such wild places” (64). Rare though they may be—and made rarer because of the avarice of logging companies—these small zones of timelessness are a human heritage that ought to be preserved.

Whereas Martha remains relatively fixed in New York, James travels around the world. Ostensibly he pursues scientific research, but, truth be told, he actually tries to satisfy his curiosity about time and space. He makes trips to the Antarctic, Indonesia, Alaska, Saskatchewan, the Chinook Valley, and elsewhere. In the Amazon, he watches, wide-eyed, as other members of his research team have an hallucinogenic experience. In Nepal, pursued by poachers, he runs off a cliff and breaks an ankle. While being operated on, James has a vision, in which he can “see the heart of the impossibly large and the vanishingly small.” This vision leaves him with “awareness. Just awareness, by itself, without the body or the usual mental chatter tagging along.” For some time after the accident in Nepal, James feels shut out of a larger, more significant world that he glimpsed in this visionary state. He is on the outside of some infinite process, which diminishes him to existential insignificance.

Every Blade of Grass is filled with glimpses into eternity and infinity. Yet it never loses sight of the fact—marvellous in its own right—that human beings are creatures of their time. James and Martha make incidental remarks about the black-out in New York in 1977, the shooting of John Lennon in 1980, climate change in the late twentieth century, and the arrival of the Internet. Taking pleasure in the awareness of being alive—nuannaarpoq—means totting up the gains and losses that one experiences over time. Every Blade of Grass imagines deep time, history, animal time, suspension, and other temporalities as part of the pleasure of awareness, no matter how long or short a time the pleasure lasts.

About Allan Hepburn

Allan Hepburn is James McGill Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature at McGill University.