EVER SINCE LEAVING the anonymity of the womb, we’ve been questioned about our identity. Some questions are simple to answer, like “Are you a man or a mouse?” or “Are you a private or a generalissimo?” Other questions are trickier, such as “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” or “Are you a materialist or an immaterialist?” Feeling something between optimism and pessimism, you might be more of a pessimop or an optimess. And “Materialist,” as an identity, seems so general, because matter is so general. You might be into solids rather than gases, or you might prefer liquids, solids seeming superficial. Oh sure, land has a pretty face—all bluffy and wheaten and green in the gullies. But that’s as far as you can see: land you look at, whereas water you look into. Water is deep, like lemonade.
Even if solids are your thing, you might not be into all of them. You might be into doilies but not bellows, or bellows but not bauxite, or bauxite but not chocolate, or chocolate but not cellos, or cellos but not cellophane, or cellophane but not jalopies, or jalopies but not jalapeno poppers, or jalopies and jalapeno poppers and bauxite and foxy bangles and lilac-scented floating candles but not dreadnought battleships; or you might be into all of the aforementioned things but not nanobots. Of course complicating considerations can occur with the immaterial, too, as you might be into time and gravity but not augury or angels—or you might be into some angels, like the six-winged amber ones, but not the messenger of death.
As we have all these intricacies; as we are always being convinced by disparate things—I am convinced by the cuckoo and the stickleback, the samba and the honky-tonk, by bitter and sweet and hot and cold and bright and dark—as we are always being bundled from day into night and night into day; and as night and day show us different things, persuading us to different ideas: why can’t we just shift our identities with the shifting light? Why do we have to be either Immaterialism Jim or Materialism Mack (“Buffaloes ain’t got no spirits”)? Why must we join a camp, when earth is camp enough? It has a lot of ambience, and they say its ambience came from within, that the earth emitted its own variable atmosphere. Why not vary too? Why can’t we be materialist by day, immaterialist by night?
So one nice thing about material is that you don’t have to activate your third eye to apprehend it. You don’t have to chant “Om” 108 times, collaborate with amethysts, do the flying pigeon pose and take zeolite supplements to be able to see monster trucks. To see gritty graffiti and whitty pears, and late bloomers like the saffron crocus, and that castle-looking island in the deep blue lake. To see the rainbow in the trout and the trout just hanging there. To see how a tree bleeds sap when its branches are removed (a tree’s branches are removable but still it bleeds). How the needle on your compass starts whirling when you are standing on the North Pole. How dried lettuce, when burned, “sparkles like nitre.” How if you look up in the rain you can see particular drops falling from such a long, long way up. They say the angels are jealous of us down here—if I think about it I am jealous of me, too, getting to see all those raindrops, fall down all those dunes, ride in all those trucks, wear all those sweaters.
That blue lid of light over us during the day is a particularizer. When they take the lid off at night and we can only see for trillions of miles, it is tempting to generalize about the things down here, the weeds and the waves and people in their fifties. When you can’t see things, it is tempting to imagine them identical—the mind is such a mimeograph. It is especially tempting to generalize about generalissimos; they wear all those medals and are therefore substantially material. But then daylight brings back their particularity: this one has wavy white hair, this one plays the ukulele, this one has a brain without a flue, and this one in exile on a tiny island still wears all of his shiny clinky medals even when napping. And watching waves, you see how this one is foamy and that one is fishy and that one is surfable and that one would demolish you. Similarly, this person in her fifties is charming and that person is not. You can be in your fifties and still not be charming.
Everything material has a pull, not just the pulleys. Gravity is an immaterial force that pulls materials together, however subtly, and every day you can see combinations of various materials that are not you—the aspens and the wind, the bear and the butter, the zucchini and the sunlight, the porcupine and his inamorata. (It is wonderful not to be involved in every relationship.) If you asked a group of successful plants what their main influence had been, many of them would probably say sunlight. The sun has trained up the zucchini in the way he should go, and the zucchini is profitably productive and has an uncomplicated relationship with the beets three feet away. The aspens are blown and blown and never ruffled. The bear got in through the cabin window and binged on the butter and now with her buttery paws is having a terrible time opening the sliding door. Before he had a chance to eat the kitten he was carrying, the hawk accidentally dropped it mewling into someone’s back yard, and that other hawk dead on the pole had some kind of unfortunate relationship with electricity. The bees’ relationship with thousands of asters results in a laboriously composed spoonful of honey, which if they had their druthers they would keep for themselves.
Ants if they had their druthers would have you not place their log on your campfire. If you accidentally do, they will hurry out, carrying their squishy white babies, depositing them in safety, then going back to retrieve more and more of them from the burning log until they are wobbly from the smoke and bringing out fried babies. Sometimes matter combines in such a way that we stop being jealous of ourselves. If the five-year-old in your family has not been putting his books or blocks or cars away, or the sheepo—half-sheep, half-hippo—he pulls around in a wagon, or the many drawings of winsome monsters, and the three-year-old has not been sorting through the mail or washing the dishes or sweeping the crumby floor, and the baby has been neglecting to put everybody’s boots away, you can either do it all yourself or just wait until dark, when clutter disappears. You might be in your own house or in a shipshape house full of utterly elegant, utterly unbroken things.
As commendable as is consciousness, unconsciousness seems excellent too, for when people are asleep there is no behavior. For all the consciousness-raising campaigns out there it seems like there should be some unconsciousness-raising campaigns too. For when no one is running riot around you, your mind can hie to the moon, hie to Ohio, hie to people who no longer have any whereabouts, and sweet old dogs. Though it is not possible to memorize a dog like you memorize a poem, still there is something to hie to, after she is gone. Then it is, in the dark, that it seems there are things in the wings. As night filters out the visible, so it features the invisible—that which is not obvious or concrete or ironclad, which will not be clad in any metal; which is not truck, nor sweater, nor medal, nor all the rage; which can’t be hawked or haggled over or requisitioned, and can’t be cracked. It can’t be cracked because there is no code.
And words from poems might come to mind, like “The rain it raineth every day” or “The river Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah” or “O Maurizio!” or words with a blue beat, or little astral words spinning around each other. Words are an immaterial material: artists who work with atom-based materials have to take on odd jobs so they can save up, so they can go to the store and buy their paints and canvases and clays and woods, but words are free. Not that words cost nothing—how many stars must Shakespeare have visited to compose those lines?—but they don’t cost dollars. And when his words come to you, in the middle of the night, it’s like the bees are personally bringing drops of honey to your lips.
Of course it is possible to tire of the immaterial, to fall out with abstraction. The solitude of darkness can be searing—solitude requiring no more than, but also no less than, one soul. At night it may seem that your life is like a book about somebody who never shows up. And abstraction can be misused. We’ve all seen people getting into the abstraction racket, promising goodies out of their chintzy cabinets of nothing, claiming to have cracked the code, getting all pious and proprietary about nothing, which seems slightly more absurd than being proprietary about the moon. Such abuse of abstraction can make you want to run headfirst into a brick wall, to beg for great chunks of concrete or wheelbarrows full of slag.
And for those very concerned with appearance, who strenuously strive to appear, who wish for nothing but to appear more and more and more noticeably, night is no fun. The night doesn’t divest one of her ambience but it does divest her of her appearance. If you have no ambience, if all you are is photogenic, the darkness robs you of all your attributes.
But if you do fall out with the immaterial, you have only to wait till morning, when they put the lid back on. Towards dawn is an overlap, when like a shedding snake you can almost see and you almost can’t, and all of Animalia seems amphibious, ambiguous, the creatures funny junctions of the seen and the unseen, like origami with woes. A fencepost and a goth can both get muddy, but only one of them can get dispirited; a compass and a pizza delivery guy can both get disoriented, but only one of them can get discouraged. The dispiritable ones show that form is not all. Not that form is nothing—form can suggest cool—but just having a mohawk like a zebra don’t make you cool like a zebra.
Twilight is when you might possibly catch sight of the Gegenschein, in special months like October, in special places like Erdenemanal or the forest called Zardasa. The Gegenschein, composed of dust particles in space, five miles apart, shines faintly in the sky along the zodiacal belt, directly opposite the sun. It was always elusive, that countershine, even in the Age of Sea Lilies, sea lilies never having gotten it together and invented the incandescent bulb. But now our modernization of earth has modernized the sky too, rendering the Gegenschein generally invisible. There are some things that light can obscure.
Used to be, night and day had reciprocal rights to us, and after the day had substantiated the seen, the night would take its turn, substantiating the unseen. But in this Age of Light Bulbs we can clamp down that lid of light, at night, and do the substantiating ourselves. We are like ants rushing out of the tormenting darkness. We are like zucchinis, with light our primary influence. Light substantiates the immediate: there is nothing in the wings. Buffaloes have no spirits. How clear-sighted we are, how sober; how strange to think we ever sought, with these our removable bodies, that which cannot be removed.
From Beasts in the Margins, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are (Milkweed) and Beasts in the Margins (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Science and Nature Writing, A Public Space, Orion, and Tin House. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award.