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.
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