Hidden Cargoes by Chris Arthur

Review by Walter Cummins

Hidden Cargoes—like Chris Arthur’s previous eight essay collections—is a book that can change your life, not so much your behaviors and beliefs but how you relate to the world around you. That is, to the objects in the room in which you read his pages and to all you encounter as you observe what passes through your immediate perceptions—a young woman’s ear when riding on a bus, long-eared owls in a thicket, an oystercatcher flying under a bridge, a tulip tree leaf, a photo snapped on a cruise ship.

Normally, as Arthur notes, we take so much for granted that the familiar dulls our perceptions: “It breeds a kind of existential drowsiness, so that we pass our days giving scant attention to what’s real.” Arthur’s goal is to provide profound attention, each essay focused on some apparently small thing that, when examined deeply, reveals vast meaning as it may connect to the heart of our personal lives or to evolutionary history going back millions of years, all that led up to the existence of the object being examined.

The word “cargo” suggests large, bulky objects and originally referred to goods loaded on a ship and transported great distances. But for Arthur, ironically used in this book’s title, the smallest object, something that fits into the palm of one’s hand, carries a huge cargo of meaning and reference. And it’s hidden until unpacked by analysis and exploration.

Arthur reminds his reader that “we need to remember that our unaided senses reveal only a minuscule fraction of the world.” Yet he also reminds us of John Muir’s insight: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That understanding is the foundation of Arthur’s writing. If he can’t include the “everything” in each essay, he can suggest the connections he does find are a starting point.

In “Ear Piece” Arthur uses an exchange with his brother over his brother’s reaction to an earlier draft of the essay to illustrate the great contrast between the way most of us perceive and relate to objects and details and the way Arthur does. His brother wants a story, a narrative with the setting of time and place and purpose: “[Readers] need an idea of what the people look like, where they’re going, and why they’re in such close proximity to you that their hairs fall in your lap.” Readers will want an ending to resolve the significance of the human encounter.

Instead, Arthur focuses on the ear of a young woman who told her older seatmate she was from Australia, speculating on what that ear had heard and will hear, placing that one ear in a timeline “of almost inconceivable duration.” He asks, among other questions, “What does she feel when she hears the wind rushing through the trees, when her father calls her name?” He can’t, of course, answer. By the ending of the essay this young woman just leaves the bus and walks off, but Arthur is much more interested in the message of her ear.

Arthur calls the hairs that fell on his lap during the bus ride “shrines.” For Arthur, myriad objects fill the role of shrines, significant and meaningful. He finds actual and potential connections that resonate throughout time and place, all that the objects in the shrines have or may have experienced, all the steps that led up to their existence, and all that their existence will influence in the future.

Such knowledge does not come easily. Arthur is a great reader, often citing the specific specialized book that aided his delving into a creature or an object. Few of us, even if we are open to having our lives changed, would be able to duplicate his studies. But Arthur offers so much about the subject of an essay that is satisfying in itself and that exists as a model of how we can expand our relationships to the universe around us.