Foreword Reviews

Ars Botanica

A Field Guide

Writing to one’s unborn child is reasonably common; it’s the starting point for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s upcoming quartet, for instance. Such a project might suggest romanticized anticipation, but Little Village managing editor Tim Taranto’s Ars Botanica: A Field Guide is completely different. Not only is his genre-busting volume addressed to an aborted fetus (“Catalpa”), but it intersperses short letters with narrative chapters, black-and-white photographs, and sketches of an unusual selection of flora, fauna, and fossils.

It all starts with a bicycle ride to a raptor rehabilitation center in Iowa. Taranto and his girlfriend had been together just two months, yet when a van ran her bike off the road that day, catapulting her into a tree and breaking her shoulder and collarbone, emergency-room staff discovered that she was already three weeks pregnant. This girlfriend—who’s never named, just referred to as “her” or “your mother”—swiftly decided to terminate the pregnancy at nine weeks; to Taranto’s dismay, she also ended their relationship soon thereafter.

The book is thus a dual elegy for a love affair cut short and a potential life never lived. With the letters to Catalpa and the images of natural relicts, the author is introducing this unborn child to everything it will never know: not only its parents, but also the beauty of the world. To that end, Taranto includes lots of sensory detail and many striking metaphors: “The peaks materialized in mauve clots upon the bolts of indigo and violet” of the sky, and “She’s run these trails for years … familiar to her as the melodies of old hymns.”

Although this is by no means a simple autobiography, Taranto does document the changes in himself brought about by losing his partner and Catalpa: an autoimmune condition caused him to start losing his hair and nails, and he got more involved in Quaker meetings and developed a new spiritual awareness. This is represented in the mixture of visions and dreams that populate the book’s latter half. Catalpa is like the resident ghost that haunts this peculiar memoir, a reminder that something doesn’t have to last to be precious.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the publisher for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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