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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) vii-ix
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The essays we publish in our Essays and Memoirs section are entirely submission-driven. We try to publish the best of whatever the tide brings in during our biannual reading periods. That usually makes for an eclectic mix.
For this issue, however, we are struck by the reoccurrence of a theme and a narrative technique and, in the case of one essay, an even more serendipitous confluence of both. Many of these writers probe the human infatuation for things nonhuman, for the flora and fauna that make our world whole and complete. Others explore the narrative possibilities at the interface of prose and photography. In each case, their meditations open all of these writers—and us—to an ecological consciousness that bridges realms of self-insight and cross-species understanding.
In "The Natural History of My Begonia," Barbara Sjoholm takes us on a journey into her "fellow feeling" for a bedraggled house plant that somehow manages to survive a number of changes in human habitat. It is a story about a survivor of sadness and abuse and, eventually, a lesson in how to fit into a changing world, how to interact with, adapt, and fully inhabit it. (We found ourselves pulling for the begonia.) We won't give away the ending of Jennifer Sinor's "The Marlin," except to say that Sinor, like Sjoholm, takes us into another realm, into "the wilderness heart of the ocean" where she too finds self-insight in a world alien to humans. (Watch for the marlin roiling out of the inky water like a "ballet dancer holding the air.")
Meanwhile, V. Penelope Pelizzon—in "Memoire on the Heliographe"—passes her prose and her family's complicated mythology through the aperture of photography. She uses her father's photographic archive of old glass negatives to discover and "confirm my father's past existence while simultaneously emphasizing his absence" in a daughter's touching investigation into her late father's free spirit. Along the way she is moved to ask a key question [End Page vii] about her own artistic work: "how much had my life been a reaction to these [photographic] images, or to the absent man I imagined producing them?" Writer and photographer Cheryl Merrill's close-up black-and-white crops of the topography of an elephant's body ("A Creature of Many Parts") recreate lyric sensations of a season she spent in the company of three immense creatures who walk on their tiptoes and "crush entire ecosystems with a single step." The closer her camera gets to the elephant Jabu, the more she realizes his body "holds immense landscapes." How appropriate, then, the Hindu story Merrill cites about six blind men who seek out the elephant in order to satisfy their curiosity about the world.
In our lead piece, William J. Scheick twines together this infatuation with things nonhuman and the use of photography as a vehicle of self-insight. The subject of his essay is his "lifelong habit of viewing flowers with a painterly and photographic eye." His love for things floral is magnified by old photographs of plants, flowers, and gardens that his essay "f-stops," as he says, into an "agreeable obsession" with "Floral Images from Childhood." Photographs of the flora of his youth transform memorable scenes from childhood into lasting "memorial images." His essay is about that difference.
Other things came in with the tide, including investigative journalism, genealogy, psychological profile, and history. But still it's nice to find company and coincidence among some of these writers—almost all of whom are visiting our pages for the first time. Their essays remind us of the dual nature of insight: a simultaneous perception of the inner, sometimes hidden nature of a thing—a neglected begonia, an elephant's "tributaries of wrinkles," old family photos—and a discernment of one's own consciousness and moral complexity. We are left wondering whether the literary nonfiction essay has a special capacity, perhaps even a calling, to merge these inner and outer worlds.