Book review: ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ is a journey to the center of the Earth, and to the center of oneself

Right now, at this very moment pinched in time, the sun spills out from behind the line of Dartmoor: dark, hard, and fierce against the sky. On my left, fields pass by in tufts of brown and green. I'm on the bus, winding through the roads of South West England. Patches of mud reflect the sun. Occasionally, I see a bird. Yesterday, I held a worm between my fingers for the first time in years, seeing every segment curl, its tender pink body wriggling around in the January chill, pulled from its cradle of damp earth.

For such moments, I am grateful to "Fingers in the Sparkle Jar."

Not in the book's responsibility for creating such moments, but in its ease in guiding me toward a better appreciation of them. Chris Packham's memoir is a maze – I might say a jungle – of such meditations on the alive world. The prose breathes in poetic lines so beautiful, I can't help but whisper them:

– "... that stars pinpricking the void below the vapourlands..."

– "frost became dew, each drop flaring miniature spectra before it dripped and all the wonder became just wet."

"Fingers in the Sparkle Jar" is about growing up, with nature your parent as much as any human. It's about appreciating everything alive, the great grand complexity of the Earth in everything small.

It's also about Asperger's.

Asperger's Syndrome, or 'high functioning autism,' is a spectrum condition characterized by impaired social communication, restricted behaviors and interests, and sensory sensitivity. Such symptoms are never explicitly stated in the book, but instead remained intertwined in its very language. This, I think, is liberating. We are so swept up in Packham's often magical experiences that we forget the very circumstances that created them: his social isolation, obsessive passion, and hypersensitivity.

And, this liberation is even more thrilling for someone who, every day, has to struggle against the sounds that boil from the edges of everything: the bus, the computers, the TV and all its chatter. As someone with autistic traits, hearing them intertwined into the story so organically is something truly quite special, especially as Packham frames them in such magical ways.

One such mythical experience arrives at the point in the book where Packham, holding a baby falcon on his arm, describes the feeling of the bird being 'the centre point about which I danced.' Here, the trait of obsession synonymous with Asperger's is written in such a way that it does not seem debilitating, but artistic. Reading it, I saw the kingdom of Lego structures I'd spilled into the classroom as a five year old. Their interlocking histories and backstories were known nowhere other than my own head, and I refused to go 'out to play' until I was certain they wouldn't be touched. They were 'the centre point about which I danced.'

But just as honestly as Packham describes his spiraling adventures in the plexus of forests and streams, he also pains over the darker side of Asperger's. He speaks of an aching loneliness, bitter resentment to the pillars of his past – the bullies, the hypocritical parents and all the blundering obstacles that cut all ties with this dream world.

The thing about the magic is that to stay magic, it must remain detached from the reality of the world affected by everyone else. It must remain ours.

Meetings between a much older Packham and his therapist are as raw and honest (sometimes painfully so) as when he flew the falcon or the time he saw a fox cub wander by his eyes. In the reality of these scenes are his most gut-crushing paragraphs, the most searingly relatable in the entire book. They spoke to me, in the hollows of my mind. Their heaviness wasn't a burden – a realization of 'oh me too' – but an anchor, a rooting to some truth I hadn't heard so explicitly before:

'It's all about being Mr. Bloody Bubbly all the time, to everyone, because it's not a singular or linear thing ... it's like, I don't know... it feeds on itself, it expands, reciprocates, grows into a monster of happy fun which stamps around people like me.'

The reason I appreciate this book so dearly is due to this balance, these plundering holes into pain, side by side with the healing experience of being within the earth.

I also treasure it particularly due to a certain kind of kinship I felt with its narrator: restless, obsessive and observant to the point of passivity – but only when he was in a world that wasn't his. In fact, this book helped me to recognize my own offbeat traits, where they may come from, and what I can do to be more aware of how they affect others. As well as reassuring me that sometimes, the only thing to do is to run off into the woods and be alone.

If everyone could read this tale and see what beauty really lies in wildlife and biodiversity, perhaps more people would be inclined to protect it, as well as seek a respite from the mentally ill modernity we all seem plagued by.

Packham's Asperger's isn't everybody's experience, but his adventures can put us all back on the path of the wild. The dripping madness of nature's hidden space, where life oozes and everything grows. When interactions are vibrant and in multitudes. When things are beautiful, and that is enough.


Sophie Sleeman, 17, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Devon, England.

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