Thursday, April 24, 2008

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Pop Quiz!
1. ha-ha
a.) favored retort of Nelson Muntz
b.) sunken fence faced with brick
c.) tree root that resurfaces far away from the tree

2. blains
a.) pumpkins
b.) twigs suitable for starting a fire
c.) swellings, sores, or blisters

3. besom
a.) broom
b.) bosom
c.) paraffin produced by a particular subspecies of bees

4. buckram
a.) kind of coarse linen or cloth stiffened with gum or paste
b.) short grain
c.) male sheep

5. corn
a.) wheat
b.) corn
c.) barley

6. flitch
a.) counterpart to Aberclombie
b.) side of bacon
c.) another name for a thrush

7. dishabille
a.) dishwater
b.) weeds that thrive in rocky soil
c.) careless dress

8. duodecimo
a.) referring to animals with eyes on the sides of their heads
b.) a small printed book
c.) 20

9. loggerhead
a.) lumberjack
b.) goat
c.) endangered sea turtle

10. sit-ye-down
a.) great Native American warrior
b.) archaic basketball trash talk
c.) the great tit

11. pizzle
a.) Snoop's way of expressing 3.14
b.) a penis
c.) the central post of a tent

12. milt
a.) semen of a male fish
b.) turtle excrement
c.) common name for males born in the 30s

1b, 2c, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6b, 7c, 8b, 9c, 10c, 11b, 12a

You shouldn't feel bad if you didn't know the definitions to most of these words. Many of them were part of the personal vernacular of Mr Gilbert White, an 18th century English curate in the little town of Selborne. The ones that are not of his devising are incredibly arcane.

Besides being a curate, White was something of a naturalist. Among the many aspects of nature that he observed and recorded was a turtle, that he named Timothy. His notes about the animals and plants that he studied survive to this day, housed in various institutions. With Timothy, Klinkenborg turns the tables on White and other naturalists, letting a turtle expound on man and nature. Klinkenborg tells the story of Mr White and the village of Selborne through the eyes of Timothy, using the terminology of White. The result is oddly poetic, akin to reading the King James Bible. You may not understand every word, but the overall meaning sinks in.

I really struggled with the first forty-or-so pages of Timothy. After finishing the book, I went back and looked at the beginning, and came to the conclusion that it was no different from the rest of the book. The vocabulary and Klinkenborg's style (a lot of short, abrupt sentences...fragments really) just took some getting used to.

Here is a brief excerpt that is indicative of both Klinkenborg's writing style and Timothy's ruminations:

Humans repose in the distinctness of their being. Family of god. Upright stature. Bipedal stride. Pride of reason. Pompion head. They hold themselves apart from the works of creation as much as they can. Except for sporting and poaching. Breeding and rearing of barnyard animals. Coaxing wheat and barley and turnips out of the ground...
...Are there to be no swifts in the skies of Mr Gilbert White's heaven? No house-martins building under the thatched eaves of that celestial city? No tortoises in the gardens there? And what if instinct -- so little known to humans, but a pure flame in swifts -- is a surer guide than reason to his god?


Nihil Novum said...

Was this good? What inspired you to read it?

Carlton said...

Yeah, I liked it a lot.
I thought the basis for the book sounded interesting.

Nihil Novum said...

I had to read the review twice to understand that it was from a turtle's point of view. That does make it sound pretty interesting.