Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Garden of Science: Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Signature' Novel

            The most enjoyable book I've read in months, Elizabeth Gilbert's novel "The Signature of All Things" is almost all things in itself. A grand novel about nature? You have it here.
            It's about nature, but not in some sort of "love-letter" way. The book takes place during the great era of scientific exploration of the natural world that opened to the West by the 18th century through geographical exploration, specimen collection, taxonomy; the cultivation in England and new American republic of plants discovered in Asia, the Americas and the Pacific; and the resulting theories of how to explain the origin and development of the abundance and variety of living things.
            The novel's main characters are fictional, but they mix with historical ones, and the author's use of these sets up interesting goalposts for the great age of nature-science her main character transits. It begins with Sir Joseph Banks, the dashing young aristocrat whose voyages to the Pacific with the 18th century English explorer Captain Cook awoke the curiosity of the English-speaking about the "other side of the world."
            Exploring Polynesia and other Pacific islands, Banks's notion of science extended to the ethnography of the open and unrepressed lives of the Polynesians, opening European eyes to the abundance of the world's peoples and societies. The period culminates in the 19th century breakthroughs to a science of natural life through the earth-shaking theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
            The novel's central character is Alma Whittaker, whose father rose from humble circumstances by following up Banks's explorations with the keen commercial eye of a new age to become the richest man in Pennsylvania. Alma is born into her father's company's international interests and his estate's material and scientific wealth. Her childhood is equivalent to a university eduction. Her home is a botanical paradise. But her education is short on ordinary human connections since her father is interested only in using people and few peers penetrate her privileged world.  
            Alma's love of nature is more of an "absorption," the scientific parallel to the romantic poets' embrace of nature as a source of wisdom and spiritual knowledge. She loves knowledge of the natural world and her special gift is taxonomy -- sorting living things into varieties and species and families; recognizing the crucial differences between related life forms.
            Alma goes through life as a large brain with an inner hard drive of limitless bytes on top of a tank-like body. She rolls over the world, cataloging its data. But by the time she discovers her own human and female needs and desires (oh, brave new world!) the few friends in her world have paired off. The scientific publisher she "loves" marries her childlike society friend, never having considered Alma a possible partner. Her adopted sister marries the nearest male at hand for purely altruistic reasons Alma doesn't learn about until much later in her life.  
            Then out of nowhere -- or out of the miraculous abundance of life -- the perfect man comes along. He loves the natural world and sees deeply into it. He's the first genuine companion of her life, but his devotion to the material world has a spiritual source: If you want to know God in his creation you must open yourself to it completely. Ambrose embraces the work of the 16th century mystic Jakob Boehme (see who saw in the physical character of the world the creator's "signature" and wrote a book called "The Signature of All Things."
            Ambrose's attempt to follow this spiritual path requires him to live, essentially, like a plant and give up significant parts of material life such as eating. In the resulting state of material deprivation you see angels dancing in the structural minutiae of orchids.... Experience shows however that this state of wonder is likely to leave you lying half-dead in a snowbank, where (in Ambrose's case) a friend rescues you and saves your life.  
            Somewhat moderated in his current habits, while completely dependent on others for his maintenance, Ambrose is adopted by the Whittaker business because of his great ability as a nature artist. Alma, older but desperately in love, marries him because she believes their regard is mutual. It is up to a point, but that point is a crucial one for Alma, a deal-breaker and -- near spoiler alert! -- Alma makes decisions that destroy the peace of her contented, but cloistered life as the world's finest student of mosses, her special study.
            She leaves her sheltered nature-science paradise of a home, travels to Tahiti, traces Ambrose's exile, discovers people and facts of human life that challenge her upbringing, gives up (or loses) all her possessions, surrenders her father's wealth and everything else she has -- except her mind. Her mind finds a paradise of mosses in Polynesia and her scientific training and gifts lead her to attempt the great intellectual challenge of her age: making sense of the natural world. How did things get to be the way they are: the near infinite array and diversity of places, peoples, species, varieties, plants, bugs, animals, and survival mechanisms. What are the "scientific laws" operating to make it so?
            She leaves the Pacific for the other side of the world, Europe, to explore one side of her own roots and discovers truly fortunate conditions for the maturation of her own studies and her theories. She is "there" -- intellectually -- when Charles Darwin and the much less well known Alfred Wallace declare their theories almost simultaneously. Darwin's term, "evolution," and his more copiously developed evidentiary basis (the work of decades) win the renown of the ages.
            In her last days Alma seeks out Wallace -- a quirky common man and social outsider like herself -- to offer her recognition of his accomplishment and seek a little bit for herself. Wallace, interestingly, is inclined to understand and embrace the universe in a way reminiscent of Ambrose's, while Alma clings to what we can know: 'all things' in the here and now.
            I loved the book for many of the usual reasons. The storytelling was good, the characters smart and likable, the narrative voice engaging. But the book's center also engages very central questions of life, the kind of things you think about when you're raking the leaves off the first emergences of spring: how do we explain the world we are part of?