creature comforts

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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.

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