LYALL WATSON is a biologist, a lyric biologist, in the manner of Loren Eiseley. The lyric scientists not only explain, they celebrate, like poets. When they are good at their literary craft, they exercise not only our cognitive and intellectual skills but our sensibilities, which produces an experence beyond the content, as does good poetry. Lyall Watson's book is quite literally enchanting, in the sense of the original word, incantare , to bespell, to cast a spell - darker tones in that "enchanting" than the word we have come to use.
The narrator of Gifts of Unknown Things goes to live and study in a small village on the Indonesian island of Nus Tarian. The narrative "I" is scarcely delineated. We know little of him, but we presume this is the voice of Lyall Watson. He can tell us about blue-eyed scallops, and fireflies in Malaysia which light up with synchronous pulses as part of mating behavior, so that a pocket flashlight produces "an appropriate swarm of admiring female fireflies." We know he has studied the healers of the Amazon, because he can tell us, as an aside, how the dolphins of the Amazon leave the main channel in flood to follow their food in shallow water, and remember every tree and bramble on the way back.
In the village on Nus Tarian lives a 12-year-old girl, TIa, who has some extraordinary gifts. She knows a particular heron because "he sings a green song." Her grandfather has "brought her to her senses and taught her how to dream . . . letting her see lizards where there had been only leaves, producing butterflies from flowers and mushrooms out of stone." Tia is an orphan, but she has precocious shamanistic skills. When a young boatbuilder burns his foot, she can heal it instantly with the palm of her hand. This behavior brings her into conflict with the devout Moslem ecclesiastics of the village, and the slight and simple story is the development and denouement of that conflict. St. Joan of the Islands, anthropology and the occult.
What is it that casts the spell? (Incantation is closer than "enchant" to incantare ). Partly it is the rhythm of the prose, which has an unobtrusive pulse like distant surfs. Partly it is the focus, for the narrator can make us feel the island path under bare feet, and sense subtle stimuli beyond our reach that cuases bees to dance, cluster flies to cluster, and cattle to lie in a certain part of the field. The Indonesian villagers dance the events of their lives. We miss those basic rhythms in the industrial world.
Watson has a point of view to sell, as much as a story. "I wish," he says, "there were some way or reconciling formal education and natural knowing . . . the scientific journal has yet to be founded that would accept a report in blank verse whose sense was in the sound and not in the syntax." Science insists on quantification, on duplicated experiments; some sense of reality slips away between the numbers of the computer printout. "Establishments are no longer as stable as they used to be. They are having to make way for another kind of knowing which is concerned only with harmony, with keeping in touch with Earth's tune." Watson has the gift of seeming to peel away a cloudy outer layer of our sight.
Gifts of Unknown Things is a short book, so its spell lasted for me. But only just. For the narrator's asides, so much a part of the spell when celebrating the iris of the squid in the luminous green sea, began to nudge my cognitive side. "A person who is looked at a lot tends to have a higher heart rate than someone who isn't. "Schizophrenics have abnormally high levels of copper in the blood." I began thumbing for the references in the back, which aren't there in a book like this. Some of the experiments he cites I know from my own research. "Three top theoretical physicists say . . ." Hey, wait a minute, I know those guys, theoretical yes, but top? And all of these papers are interesting probes, speculations, yet the narrator is delivering them as fact in his calm, measured tones. The denouement of Tia's story demands total attention; you have to feel fire and smell smoke. My cognitive side was nagging; the incantation was wearing off.
So; I value this book, as I would any that teaches by imparting information along with he smell of the sea. I would like to meet Watson. Any writing that lends another dimension to statistics and computer printouts is praiseworthy. If I could turn off a few linear and analytic arguments, the praise here would be unqualified.