It’s hard to write about summer reading when it’s been 45 degrees and raining for the last five days. The forecast is for “winter storm warnings” in the Bighorn Mountains, which means I’ll be able to see fresh snow when I look at the mountains from my bedroom window. So, I have been reading in front of the fire and trying to remember that tomorrow is the first of June. (I am well aware that by the time I post this, it could be 80 degrees and everyone will be watering their lawns, but today it’s cold and wet.) Since school ended 3 weeks ago, I have had time to read. (I need to amend that statement. I ALWAYS have time to read, but now I have the luxury of sitting down in the afternoon, and reading for several hours without interruption.)
The first book that I have finished recently is The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant, Vintage, 2011. The Tiger takes readers to a place that is remote and unfamiliar to most of us, a small part of Asian Russia where North Korea, China and Russia share borders. Vaillant’s story involves a tiger, trackers, villagers. He shows us the conflicts between development and the environment. In the course of the story of tracking a tiger who seems bent on murder, Vaillant gives readers history, natural history, insight into animal behavior and politics and economics. The Tiger is totally engrossing. It’s a book we all should read because of Vaillant’s discussions of the interconnections between humans and animals, connections we too often ignore, and in Vaillant’s mind, ignore at our peril.
The central tiger tracker in the book talks about being able to read the story in animal tracks. He can not only read the size of the tiger, and how long ago it was that the tiger has passed by, but he can tell the sex of the tiger, the age of the tiger, when the tiger last ate, and of course, whether or not the tiger has been injured just from reading the tracks. I was thinking, as I read this, of a line by Ray Bradbury from his book Zen and the Art of Writing. Bradbury, in discussing plot, says that plot “is the footprints left in the snow after the story has moved on.” I found Bradbury’s metaphor interesting in light of the stories that the tiger tracks tell. In one, the tracks ARE the story, in the other the story is something different.
This sent me to the dictionary because I wanted to know about this history of the word “story” and how these two seemingly contradictory ideas about story connected. Dictionary.com told me that story was derived from the old French word for “history” and was a tale or a narration.
Clearly the tiger tracks tell a story that only an experienced tracker can read. Most of us can barely read the tracks of our own dogs, or recognize the tracks of the deer who cross our yards in the snowy night. One bird track looks more or less like another. We literally cannot read the story. Bradbury seems to be saying that there is something beyond the “this happened and then this happened and then this happened” plot that creates a story. Most of us who have learned to understand the subtleties of literature, to read for subtext and character growth can understand this. We see meaning beyond the events themselves. However, as I was learning about tracking tigers, I began to think about plot in fiction in a different way. What the tiger trackers see in the tiger tracks is the bigger story. Not only do they see, for example, a paw print that is weighted more heavily than the other three, but a good tracker will be able to tell why that paw is more heavily weighted. This led me to think about text, not the meaning of the text, but the text itself, the black letters that form on the screen as I type this. These, too, are kinds of tracks. To someone who is illiterate, they are nothing more than marks on the page, something with no meaning, the way the bird prints in the snow in the backyard tell me very little. However, once someone learns to read written language, to decipher these abstract marks, they reveal the meaning of the story, just the same way the tracker reads the meaning of the story in the tiger’s tracks. It’s never just the events, but with careful reading, it’s always about the why of the events, and it’s the why of the events that provide meaning.