“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” — Henry David Thoreau
This new collection of essays touches personal loss in a unique way. Rather than deal with it by only embracing the past through personal memories, both tenses —past and present— are equals in the effort to make sense of it all. Add to it a natural world that perpetually surrounds life, loss becomes tolerable, understandable and perhaps even beautiful.
To do this author Margie Patlak in her new book, More Than Meets the Eye, says one must let their sense of wonder look into the soul of a place, allow its flora, fauna and of course the sea to open up, letting us truly see and, in return, heal.
The award-winning writer takes us on her journey of seeing the natural world on the coast of Maine as she deals with personal loss. She does this through her meticulous layered and artful approach that is her writing and sprinkles it with golden nuggets of wonder both from a science-based perspective and a very real human perspective.
An accomplished science writer, Patlak has written hundreds of articles about the environment, neuroscience, biomedical research and technology for publications such as the Washington Post, Discover magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer and many others. Patlak has degrees in botany and environmental studies and shares time living in Philadelphia and Corea, Maine
Patlak’s journey begins with “seals swimming out to meet my mother” as her remains are sprinkled into the Gulf of Maine. Two years later the ash remains of her brother would be left on a mountain in Vermont. It was then both Patlak and her husband Frank realized the brevity of life, so they purchased acreage in Maine and built a life there claiming it “as an emotional lifesaver.”
These essays explore nature and its offerings in good times and bad. From the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies, to the ethereal movement of fog, clouds and Maine’s unpredictable weather, to the monumental tectonic creep of mountains, to time itself kept in rhythm by the tides — all are captured in a science-based perspective that is done so effortlessly that I believe Patlak could be considered a naturalist poet.
Such as when she describes her shift from distasteful feelings about fog-laden days to “what treasures they offer.”
“When the mist hangs over the bay I mull over migrating butterflies, my need to name the birds or the vastness of the night sky; I remember my brother intently gazing at the woods from his wheelchair, my father giving me the gift of a beating heart and my mother moved by the rosy beauty of the sun sinking into the bay. What they signify becomes more palpable, substance gives rise to form and glistening pearls suddenly appear — out of the fog.”
In addition to the healing grace of nature, people, too, can meet the moment to make things better. In “People of the Peninsula” Patlak’s “wariness of friendly folk dropping by unannounced” eventually chips away at her Theoureavian expectations of life on a peninsula. It did for Thoreau, too. She notes that, during his time of solitude at Walden Pond, it’s rumored he often made trips to nearby Concord.
Here, too, on an unfamiliar peninsula it is the people who make the difference. Whether it’s a neighbor removing a downed tree from the driveway, others bringing food or just conversation, people will provide added comfort given any situation and as such should be celebrated just as much as the natural nirvana that is Maine.
“Dwelling in this rural community has made me see the better side of human nature, including my own, which, like the bent-over birch trees you see up here, has become more pliable, with branches that reach out and touch others. I also realize that all my lofty ideals fostered by nature memoirs I’ve read can carry me only so far when there are more pressing needs close to the ground that only the people near me can meet.”
In closing, Patlak brings us full circle with the playful movements of a new life. Though her brother and mother are not there to witness the buoyancy of a baby sitting in her highchair calling on the “adults in the room” to just take a moment to become this one, Patlak knows there is no end, just a continuance of what was yesterday and is today, like that of nature.
“The healing mascot for our family, Jo answers the ultimate question, Why is there decline and death followed by birth and life? That answer surfaces when I see her unblemished by experience, her eyes sparkling with excitement, her body pulsating with life’s heartbeat, her entire being ready to explore: To refresh the wonder.”
Life and loss amidst the surreal natural wonder that is coastal Maine are here in real-life moments that confirm the perpetuallity of life. It truly does not end if we open our self to the healing power of a place, its people and its natural wonders.
Nature indeed will speak to you about the nature of life.
Down East Books, 2021, softcover $19.95
© 2023 RJ Heller
First Published: The Quoddy Tides, March 24, 2023 : The Calais Advertiser, April 6, 2023: Bangor Daily News, April 9, 2023: Machias Valley News Observer, April 12, 2023