Timothy; Or, Notes of
An Abject Reptile
Josephine Bailey, Reader
(Tantor --- 5 CDs)
The flowers appear on the earth:
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle
is heard in our land.
--- Song of Solomon 2:12,
King James VersionTimothy got trapped in 1740 in Silesia and transshipped to England. He ends up in the hands of Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History of Selborne, an exhaustive study of plants, animals, reptiles and birds of a small town in Southern England.
White was one of the first naturalists, a man who observed, and observed obsessively, the birds and bugs and beasts that lived and died around him. The turtle, Timothy, was excellent grist for his mill after he took up abode in White's garden.
We can never be sure how old he is, for, as Timothy reminds us not a few times, turtles are the longest-lived creatures --- some able to survive for 150 years. And throughout his life, Timothy has found humans to be very peculiar indeed:
For a time I flinched whenever a human approached, especially Mr. Henry Snook, who carried such a stoop of belly before him. The feet would stop, but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species. All that brain bulk merely to prop them up? Or are they less top-heavy than they appear?
He notes the strange world-view of humans: "The louse under the shirt of the Sunday parishioner leaves St. Mary's unblessed. No matter how its host prays. Eyes screwed shut. Hands folded. Beseeching hard. A next life, please, with no biting and sucking insects."
Timothy's most intense study is White.
Late on summer nights he comes into the garden. To see if the bat still flies. To observe by candle-light what moths and earwigs do in the dark. He appears without false hair. Candle held to one side. Pale natural skull like a half moon under his stubble. He clasps together the waist of a coat thrown over his open shirt. Hiding the animal within. Bare calves beneath, spindles of flesh. He does not look very wise, tossing stones into the hedge to make the sedge-bird sing its night song.
"I have seen these humans in their disarray. Far more common than any finery. Hair wrung into knots. Stockings fallen. Skirts clotted with mud and manure. Eyes, noses red from fist-rubbings, coarsening wind."
Eruptions on rough hands from hop-picking. Itching tumors from harvest-bugs. Jaws tied up with the tooth-ache, the head-ache. Faces choked with drink, sweat, sleep, stupidity, confusions of the rut. Such a bulk of being to regulate. Disorder stalks them day and night. They stalk it back.
"Great soft tottering beasts" he concludes.
Books, as one of my friends says, are there to be eaten --- but it is rare that I gorge on one before breakfast. I certainly did with Timothy. My advantage was having it read to me by Josephine Bailey. She's the consummate commute companion, the best one could ask for. She speaks an elegant, impeccable English, reading to us as if she were a bit tired by life (as Timothy certainly was), a bittersweet elegance in her voice. I was puzzled to find Timothy being voiced by an older woman until Timothy reveals to us that he is really an older woman ... an older woman-with-shell, that is. And Mr. Gilbert White never figured out that his Timothy is a she.
He also can't figure out why she would want to run away from her comfortable garden. He can't comprehend that she just wants to get away from humans. Her half-amused scorn for Mr. Gilbert White comes from her scorn for the rationalist's "system:"
The naturalist begins to understand after years of study. He records the when, and where, and which, of the birds of passage and beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never by solved by system. No number of small corpses dissected, tagged, and preserved will ever begin to answer why. How the nightingale sings, pitch of the notes, melody of the song, structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale's why.
There is a special bonus in Timothy that comes for the reader or listener. It is one of envy, for this is a rich and lovely account of life of late eighteenth century rural England, and it makes one jealous. To be part of the swarming life of the countryside; the astonishing variety of plants, the growing and the flying and the crawling things; to contemplate the music of their names: plants known as toadflax, borecole, "Traveler's joy," twayblade, eye-bright cow-wheat, go-to-bed-at-noon, Knee-holly or butcher's broom. The birds: the sit-ye-down, ring ousel, Land rail, European bee-eater, jackdaw, missel-thrush, pettichaps, flycatcher, wryneck, butcher-bird, coal-mouse, honey-buzzard, and the nightjar.
The singers: the redbreast, mistle thrush, nightingale, black-cap, titlark, stone curlew, chiffchaff, bullfinch, snipe; the echo of their song, the hills and valleys filled with music the live-long day and much of the night. All this rustic melody of countryside haunts the reader, makes us wish to teletransport ourselves back 250 years --- no jets, no jack-hammers, no car-alarms, no stereos, no freeways, no horns, no sirens, no screeching of brakes, no banging of dump-trucks, no whining of tractors, no jarring of our days. Only a rural harmony, with its words that come to us from so far back in our heritage --- the ha-ha (a type of fence), huckaback (fabric), Marvel of Peru, pinchbeck (fake gold) smock-frock, stickleback, straddle-bob (Orion), lop and top (timber), dimity, flitch (bacon).
§ § §
Usually, in my novelling, I prefer the written to the spoken word. But here I am going to give the diadem to Ms. Bailey. Her pronunciation is blameless, her diction excellent. When she starts in reading the Glossary at the very end, we realize that she is not the old woman playing the part of a very old turtle: She was just being old for the listener for the sake of a great (and proper) reading. The only thing she is not given to do is to hiss like her Timothy.
--- Wendy Firestone