Amy Weldon

Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood

By Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, 2004)

Recently, more Americans than ever are getting to know Anne Enright, whose novel won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. But almost nobody here has read , which has yet to find an American publisher. It’s hard to describe the fascination these spiky, lovely essays on motherhood have for me, a woman without a child or any particular wish for one. Like memoirs by mountain climbers or four-star chefs, these are dispatches from a world of exhilarating and frequently terrifying physicality, creativity, and endurance. “A child came out of me,” Enright writes. “I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” This vulnerable, defiant voice marks each page: deft, exact, and deceptively casual, as in The Gathering, Enright’s style perfectly conveys the permeability of self to the world that motherhood — like writing — can heighten. The brain “tries to make you feed anything helpless, or wonderful, or small,” she explains. “So I have let down milk for Russian submariners and German tourists dying on Concorde. Loneliness and technology get me every time, get my milk every time.” Her ironic feminism, inflected by her Irish Catholic upbringing, animates descriptions of nurses’ reactions to male and female babies’ genitalia, divisions of household labor, and the body’s mattter-of-fact disorder: “Women leak so much,” she writes. “Perhaps this is why we clean — which is to say that a man who cleans is always ‘anal,’ a woman who cleans is just a woman.” These passionate dispatches from an ongoing mystery were as compelling to write as they are to read. “The reason I kept writing about my babies,” she tells us, “even when they were asleep in the room, was that I could not think about anything else… I wanted to say something about the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out.” Making Babies takes a reader inside the new world of motherhood — a stained, dark, complicated, and beautiful place — as few other writers are willing to do.

Amy Weldon teaches English at Luther College.

Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests

By John Kricher and Roger Tory Peterson, with illustrations by Gordon Morrison (Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

Pity the poor “reference” book — sturdy and uncomplaining, plastic-bound for a dictionary stand or a doctor’s office or, in the case of Peterson Field Guides, a backpack. Need, rather than pleasure, drives us to seek it out. What a shame. Because what pleasures it can give. Take, for instance, the For anyone with ties to a specific rural place — or just drawn to the concept of “place” itself — this is a treasure. As a former Alabama farm kid now living in Iowa, I’m captured by the Field Guide’s wealth of resonant terminology: old field succession (the gradual dissolution of pastures back into forest, seen on so many abandoned farms), windthrow (“an important disturbance factor, creating gaps of various sizes that permit light to enter, churning up the soil and providing new sites where seedlings and saplings can grow”), and forest islands (“as suburbia and agriculture have each claimed ever-increasing amounts of land, forests in many areas have become fragmented”). There are careful descriptions of animals: meadow voles (“husky little rodents”), possums (“gives birth to babies so tiny that a dozen will fit on a tablespoon”), and roadrunners of the Texas savanna (“reminding one of a tiny feathered dinosaur as it races along.”) The tone is quietly humorous, quietly marveling. “Don’t bother looking for Field Sparrows in an Oak-Hickory Forest and forget about finding Hermit Thrushes hopping between ragweed stalks,” it advises. “The factors by which birds recognize and orient themselves to their chosen habitats are poorly known.” Today, rooted in a place eleven hundred miles from my home, I’m reminded of rainy days spent poring through my family’s Peterson guides, and the way the sturdy pages with their color paintings rendered the familiar creatures of my world — rat snakes, mockingbirds, bobwhite quail, fox, and white-tailed deer — miraculous. “With persistence and patience,” the authors promise, “you will see many species and come to understand many facets of their natural history.” This is a patience and persistence we need more than ever. And so we need the Petersen Guide — a handbook of quiet ecstasy, organizing the wonders of the visible world for anyone who cares to look.

A graduate of Auburn University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amy Weldon is assistant professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.