Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:
• Machina Mundi – The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)
• Wandering Wonders – Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)
• Love Buzz – A Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)
• Quake’s Progress – The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth’s Deadliest Natural Disaster, Roger Musson (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)
• Sin after Cin – Gargoyle Girls from Beelzebub’s Ballsack: The Sickest, Sleaziest, Splanchnophagousest Slimefests in Scum Cinema, Dr Joan Jay Jefferson (TransToxic Texts 2016)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
• Songs from the Center of the Sun — an interview with Faster Than Lichen
By Algernon Charles Sin-burn
STRANGE beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,
Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?
With thy bosom bespangled and banded
With the hues of the seas and the skies;
Is thy home European or Asian,
O mystical monster marine?
Part molluscous and partly crustacean,
Betwixt and between.
Wast thou born to the sound of sea trumpets,
Hast thou eaten and drunk to excess
Of the sponges — thy muffins and crumpets;
Of the seaweed — thy mustard and cress?
Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral,
Remote from reproof or restraint?
Art thou innocent, art thou immoral,
Sinburnian or Saint?
Lithe limbs, curling free, as a creeper
That creeps in a desolate place,
To enroll and envelop the sleeper
In a silent and stealthy embrace,
Cruel beak craning forward to bite us,
Our juices to drain and to drink,
Or to whelm us in waves of Cocytus,
O breast, that ’twere rapture to writhe on!
O arms, ’twere delicious to feel
Clinging close with the crush of the Python,
When she maketh her murderous meal!
In thy eightfold embraces enfolden,
Let our empty existence escape;
Give us death that is glorious and golden,
Crushed all out of shape!
Ah! thy red lips, lascivious and luscious,
With death in their amorous kiss,
Cling round us, and clasp us, and crush us,
With bitings of agonized bliss;
We are sick with the poison of pleasure,
Dispense us the potion of pain;
Ope thy mouth to its uttermost measure
And bite us again!
Arthur Clement Hilton (1851–77), written at the Crystal Palace Aquarium.
A big book for a big subject: the sea. But “guide” isn’t the mot juste. “Encyclopaedia” is better, because the book covers all aspects of oceanography and marine life, drawing on physics, chemistry and biology to describe everything inorganic from waves and icebergs to whirlpools and underwater volcanoes, everything organic from a beautiful flower like beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati, to a grotesque fish like the Pacific blackdragon, Idiacanthus antrostomus. The flower is on the shore, the fish is in the abyss, but both of them descend from a single ancestor.
And that ancestor may have evolved in the sea. It certainly moved there before it gave rise to flowers and fish. This big subject is also a very important one: the sea is central to the evolution and continued existence of life on earth. Only the sun matters as much, but some marine life could potentially survive the disappearance of the sun:
Hydrothermal vents are similar to hot springs on land. Located near ocean ridges and rifts, at an average depth of 2,100m (7,000ft), they spew out mineral-rich, superheated seawater. Some have tall chimneys, formed from dissolved minerals that precipitate when the hot vent water meets cold, deep-ocean water. The mix of heat and chemicals supports animal communities around the vents – the first life known to exist entirely without the energy of sunlight. (pg. 188, “The Open Ocean and Ocean Floor”)
The deep ocean is a fascinating and little-known place: much nearer than the other side of the earth, but much harder to get to. Like climbing mountains, plumbing the abyss is difficult and dangerous. It’s interesting that both endeavours have been dominated by a particular group of human being: both the highest and lowest points on the planet were first reached by white males. Fabien Cousteau, who introduces this book, continues the tradition. He’s the grandson of Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), who popularized diving and marine biology for millions of people. Jacques saw huge advances in marine technology and science and his son and grandson have seen more. But the discoveries are still coming: as Fabien points out, it’s estimated that “over 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity resides in its oceans”.
Some of that biodiversity left the water for the land and evolved new forms. Some of those new forms went back to the water, like the ceteceans and sea-snakes. Like human beings, they’re descended from fish, the most varied of all vertebrate groups. But some marine life never left its cradle. Where else can you find the beauty and strangeness of groups like the jellyfish? Radial symmetry is a marine speciality and when H.P. Lovecraft was inventing his aliens, he looked to under-space as much as outer:
But to give it a name at this stage was mere folly. It looked like a radiate, but was clearly something more. It was partly vegetable, but had three-fourths of the essentials of animal structure. That it was marine in origin, its symmetrical contour and certain other attributes clearly indicated; yet one could not be exact as to the limit of its later adaptations. The wings, after all, held a persistent suggestion of the aerial. How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake; and the wild tales of cosmic hill things from outside told by a folklorist colleague in Miskatonic’s English department. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)
Lovecraft would have enjoyed Ocean as much as Jacques Cousteau. It closes with a detailed “Atlas of the Oceans”, with maps of the ocean floor all around the world. Before that, you can learn how the Corryvreckan whirlpool nearly killed George Orwell in 1947, where to find manganese nodules, why so many deep-sea creatures are red and what the narwhale’s horn really is. You can also feast your eyes on photography that records everything from microscopic plankton to swirling hurricanes hundreds of kilometres across. Big subject, big book. Beautiful subject and beautiful book too.
A big book with a big subject: fish are the most numerous and varied of the vertebrates, from the bus-sized Rhincodon typus or whale shark, which feeds its vast bulk on plankton, to the little-finger-long Vandellia cirrhosa, the parasitic catfish that can give bathers a nasty surprise by swimming into their “uro-genitary openings” – “the pain is agonizing and the fish can be removed only by surgery”. The book is full of interesting asides like that, but I doubt that readers will read every page carefully. They’ll certainly look at every page carefully, to see Norman Weaver’s gorgeous drawings, which capture both the colour and the shine of fish’s bodies. Another aspect of the enormous variation of fish is not just their differences in size, shape and colouring, but their differences in aesthetic appeal. Some are among the most beautiful of living creatures, others among the most grotesque, like the Lovecraftian horrors that literally dwell in the abyss: inhabitants of the very deep ocean like Chauliodus macouni, the Pacific viperfish, whose teeth are too long and sharp for it to close its mouth.
The crushing pressure and freezing darkness in which these fish live are alien to human beings and so are the appearance and behaviour of the fish. But fish that live in shallow water, like the hammerhead shark and the electric eel, can seem alien too and some of the strangest fish of all, the horizontally flattened rays and mantas, can even fly briefly in the open air. Some of the piscine beauties, on the other hand, like Cheirodon axelrodi, the neon-bodied cardinal tetra, are routinely kept in aquariums, but then so is the very strange Anoptichthys jordani, the blind cavefish. There’s a blind torpedo ray too, Typhlonarke aysoni, “which has no functional eyes and ‘stumps’ along the bottom on its thick, leglike ventral fins”. But the appearance, behaviour and habitat of fish aren’t the only things man finds interesting about them. Some are good eating or offer good sport and the authors often discuss both cuisine and fishing in relation to a particular species or family. That raises the second of the two questions I keep asking myself when I look at this book. The first question is: “Why are some fish so beautiful and some so ugly?” The second is: “Are fish capable of suffering, and if they are, do they suffer much?”
I don’t know if the first question can be answered or is even sensible to ask; the second will, I hope, be answered by science in the negative. It’s not pleasant to think of what a positive answer would mean, because we’ve been hooking and hauling fish from fresh and salt water for countless generations. In the past, it was for food, but when we do it today it’s often for fun. I hope the fun isn’t at fish’s expense in more than the obvious sense: that it deprives them permanently of life or, for those returned to the water, temporarily of peaceful existence. I hope the deprivation is not painful in any strong sense. Either way, fish will continue to die at each other’s fangs and to serve as food for many species of mammal and bird. Nature is red in tooth and claw, after all, but it’s a lot more beside and this is one of the books that will show you how. From luminous sharks to uncannily accurate archerfish, from what men do to fish to what fish do to men: the 315 pages of the large and lavishly illustrated Fishes of the World can offer only a glimpse into a very rich and fascinating world, but a glimpse is dazzling.
Previously pre-posted (please peruse):
• Slug is a Drug — Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife (2012)
Living by a river is good, but living by the sea is better. This means that the ideal might be Innsmouth:
The harbour, long clogged with sand, was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater; on which I could begin to discern the minute forms of a few seated fishermen, and at whose end were what looked like the foundations of a bygone lighthouse. A sandy tongue had formed inside this barrier and upon it I saw a few decrepit cabins, moored dories, and scattered lobster-pots. The only deep water seemed to be where the river poured out past the belfried structure and turned southward to join the ocean at the breakwater’s end. (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, 1936)
Lovecraft would certainly have liked Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, a solid photographic guide to the flora and fauna of the British coast. There are some very Lovecraftian species here, both floral and faunal. Among the plants there’s sea-holly, Eryngium maritimum, a blue-grey shingle-dweller with gothically spiky and veined leaves. It has its own specialized parasite, Orobanche minor ssp. maritima, “an exclusively coastal sub-species” of common broomrape (pg. 94). Among the Lovecraftian animals there are the cephalopods (octopuses and squids), echinoderms (sea-urchins and starfish) and cnidarians (jellyfish and sea-anemones), but also the greater and lesser weever, Trachinus draco and Echiichthys vipera, which are “notorious fish, capable of inflicting a painful sting to a bather’s foot” (pg. 278).
But the strangest and most wonderful creatures in the book might be the sea-slugs and sea-hares, which are brightly coloured or enigmatically mottled, with surreal knobs, furs and “rhinophores”, or head tentacles. If LSD took organic form, it might look like a sea-slug. Greilada elegans, “orange with blue spots”, Flabellina pedata, “purple body and pinkish-red cerata”, Catriona gymnata, “swollen, orange and white-tipped”, resemble the larvae of some eldritch interstellar race, destined to grow great and eat worlds (pp. 218-222 – “cerata” are “dorsal projections”). As it is, they stay tiny: the orange-clubbed sea-slug, Limacia clavigera, gets to 15mm on a diet of bryozoans, the miniature coral-like animals that are Lovecraftian in a different way. That “Limacia”, from the Latin limax, meaning “slug”, is a reminder that sea-slugs have an accurate common name, unlike Montagu’s sea snail, Liparis montagui, and the sea scorpion, Taurulus bubalis, which are both fish, and sea ivory, Ramalina siliquosa, which is a lichen. This book includes a land slug too, the great black, Arion ater, but it has none of the charm or beauty of its marine relatives.
Arion ater is included here because it’s “particularly common on coastal cliffs, paths and dunes” (pg. 239). The land snails that accompany it have charm, like the looping snail, Truncatella subcylindrica, and the wrinkled snail, Candidula intersecta, but they don’t have the beauty and variety of marine shell-dwellers, from the limpets, scallops and cockles to the wentletraps, cowries and whelks. And the violet snail, Jacintha jacintha, which rides the open ocean on a “‘float’ of mucus-trapped bubbles” as it feeds on the by-the-wind sailor, Velella velella. Layfolk would say that Velella and its relative Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man-o’-war, are jellyfish, but they’re actually “pelagic hydroids”. And Physalia is a colony of animals, not a single animal.
Both jellyfish and hydroids are related to sea-anemones and corals: they’re all classified as cnidaria, from the Greek κνιδη, knidē, meaning “nettle”. In short: they all sting. Some swim and sway too: the colours, patterns and sinuosity of the cnidaria are seductively strange. There are strawberry, snakelocks, gem, jewel, fountain and plumose anemones, for example: Actinia fragacea, Anemonia viridis, Aulactinia verrucosa, Corynactis viridis, Sargartiogeton laceratus and Metridium senile. The tentacles of the last-named look like a glossy head of white hair and the snakelocks anemone sometimes has green tentacles with purple tips.
After the cnidaria come the annelids, or segmented worms, which can be beautiful or repulsive, mundane or surreal, free-living or sessile. For example, the scaleworms are “unusual-looking polychaete worms whose dorsal surface is mostly or entirely covered with overlapping scales” (pg. 129). They’re reminiscent of the sea-slugs, though less strange and more subdued. But segmented worms gave rise to the wild variety of the crustaceans, including crabs, sea-slaters, lobsters and even barnacles, one species of which is a parasite: Sacculina carcini forms a “branching network” (pg. 178) within the body of a crab, particularly the green shore crab, Carcinus maenas. You would never guess that it was a barnacle and you might not guess that an infected crab was infected, because the yellow “reproductive structure” of the barnacle looks as though it belongs to the crab itself.
And there’s a photograph here to prove it. In fact, there are two: one in the barnacle’s own entry, the other in the entry for the green shore crab. I like the way the guide gives extra information like that. In the entries for sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare, and thrift, Armeria maritima, there are small photographs of insects that feed “only” or “almost exclusively” on these plants: the plume moth Agditis bennetii, with very narrow wings, and the more conventional moth Polymixis xanthomista (pg. 90), respectively. Those insects, with Fisher’s estuarine moth, Gortyna borelii, and the Sand Dart, Agrotis ripae, are stranded in the wild-flower section, as though they’ve been deposited there by a stray current. The fiery clearwing moth, Pyropteron chrysidiformis, is stranded in another way: in Britain, it’s “entirely restricted to stretches of grassy undercliff on the south coast of Kent”. It looks like a wasp wearing make-up. The scaly cricket, Pseudomogoplistes vincentae, isn’t attractive but is romantic in a similar way: it’s “confined to a handful of coastal shingle beaches in Britain and the Channel Islands” (pg. 17).
Also confined is the bracket fungus Phellinus hippophaeicola, which is “found only” on the trunks of sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides (pg. 54). Its photograph appears with its host, but the full fungus section is only one page anyway. It includes the “unmistakable” dune stinkhorn, Phallus hadriani, whose scientific name means “Hadrian’s dick”. It’s “restricted to dunes and associated with Marram” grass (pg. 50). But fungi flourish best away from the coast. Not that “flourish” is the right word, because fungi don’t flower. Nor do seaweeds, the giant algae that have to survive both battering by the waves and exposure to sun and wind. They cope by being tough: leathery or horny or chalky or coralline. And though their colours are limited mostly to green, brown and red, their geometry is very varied: leafy, membranous, thong-like, ribbon-like, whip-like, fan-like, feather-like, even globular: punctured ball weed, Leathesia difformis, and oyster thief, Colpomenia peregrina, for example. The book doesn’t explain why “oyster thief” is called that. Landlady’s wig, Desmarestia aculeata, red rags, Dilsea carnosa, and bladder wrack, Fucus vesiculous, are self-explanatory.
And there’s a bluntness to names like wrack, kelp and the various weeds – bean-weed, bead-weed, wire-weed – that go well with the rough, tough life these plants lead. That’s why rainbow wrack, Cystoseria tamariscifolia, sounds so odd. But it lives up to its name: it’s “bushy and iridescent blue-green underwater” (pg. 36).
Seaweeds are at the beginning of the book; birds, fish and mammals are at the end. After the strangeness, surreality and beauty of some of the plants and invertebrates, the higher animals can seem almost mundane. Evolution hasn’t found as many spinal solutions as non-spinal, because the invertebrates have been around much longer. Among the vertebrates, it’s been working longest on the fish, so the variety of shapes is greatest there: rays and flounders, lampreys and eels, sea-horses and pipe-fish, the giant sun-fish and the largest animal native to Britain, the basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus. Some of the names seem ancient and long-evolved too: saithe, pogge, goldsinny, weever, dab, goby, blenny, shanny and brill. The last-named, Scophthalmus rhombus, is a flatfish with a typically ugly head. As the book notes: “In their early stages, they resemble conventional species. But during their development the head shape distorts so that, although they lie and swim on their sides, both eyes are on top” (pg. 257).
The rays aren’t distorted like that: they lie on their bellies, not on their sides, so their eyes don’t look distorted. Evolution has taken two different routes to the same ecological niche, the sea-floor. Camouflage is useful there, so both rays and flatfish have beautiful patterns: specklings, mottlings and spots. Other fish are colourful, but British fish can’t match the rainbow variety of fish in the tropics. Nor can British birds. The kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, is a rare exception and it “favours fresh waters”, except in winter (pg. 328). Truly coastal birds can be hard to tell apart: the knot, Calidris canutus, and the Sanderling, Calidris alba, are not as distinctive as their common names. Nor are the whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, and the curlew, Numenius arquata. Both have long down-curved beaks and streaked, “grey-brown plumage” (pg. 342). But the whimbrel is smaller and rarer.
The gulls and terns can also be hard to tell apart, as can the skuas that prey on and parasitize them. “Skua”, which comes from Old Norse skúfr, is a good name for a gangster-like bird. I prefer “gull” in what is probably its original form, the Welsh gŵylan. The French mouette, for small gulls, and goéland, for large ones, are also good, and some French bird-names are used in English: avocet, plover and guillemot, for example. “Plover” is from Latin pluvia, “rain”, but the reference is “unexplained”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reference of “ruff” might seem to be obvious: the male ruff, Philomachus pugnax, has a ruff of feathers in the breeding season, like a kind of gladiatorial costume: its scientific name literally means “the pugnacious lover-of-fighting”. But the female of this species is called a reeve, so perhaps ruffs have nothing to do with ruffs: the feminine form, “apparently made … by a vowel change (cf. fox vixen) suggests that [ruff] is an older word and separate” (OED).
This book uses “ruff” for both sexes: it doesn’t have space to chase etymology and give more than brief details of the hundreds of species it covers. The final species are the mammals and the final mammals are the ones that have returned to the sea: whales, dolphins and seals. After them comes a brief section on “The Strandline”:
A beach marks the zone where land meets sea. It is also where detached and floating matter is washed up and deposited by the tides, typically in well-defined lines. During periods of spring tides, debris is pushed to the top of the shore. But with approaching neap tides, tide extremes diminish and the high-tide mark drops; the result is a series of different strandlines on the shore. The strandline is a great place for the marine naturalist to explore and find unexpected delights washed up from the depths. But it is also home to a range of specialised animals that exploit the rich supply of organic matter created by decomposing seaweeds and marine creatures. (pg. 368)
Those specialised animals – sand-hoppers, kelp-flies and so on – have been covered earlier in the book, so this section covers things like skeletons, skulls, fossils and egg-cases – the “sea wash balls” laid by whelks and the “mermaid’s purses” laid by rays. Then there are “sea-beans”, tree-seeds that may have “drifted across the Atlantic from the Caribbean or Central America”. At first glance, seaweeds also seem to make a come-back in this section. Not so: a bryozoan branches like a plant but is “actually a colonial animal that lives just offshore attached to shells and stones”. Bryzoans are often washed ashore after storms. One of the commonest is hornwrack, Flustra foliacea, of which “fresh specimens smell like lemon” (pg. 254). When I first noticed that for myself, I thought I was having an olfactory hallucination. That’s the sea for you: always changing, always surprising. This book captures its complexity in 384 well-designed pages full of eye- and brain-candy.
Books about marine life need to be big, like this one, because the sea is a big place and has been occupied for far longer than the land. You’ll learn here that some land creatures have even returned to it, like the ancestors of cetaceans (whales et al), sirenians (dugongs and manatees), and sea-snakes. The saltiness of human blood means that we each carry around a miniature ocean of our own, symbol of our own marine ancestry. The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Marine Fish and Sea Creatures is an excellent guide to the remainers and the returners of our ancient home. It isn’t a proper scientific encyclopedia, but you can get a good sense of the richness and variety of marine life here, from jellyfish to electric rays by way of the deep-water sea-cucumber, Irpa abyssicola, and the very strange tripod fish, Bathypterois grallator.
That scientific name literally means “the deep-wing stilt-walker”, because the tripod fish lives very deep, up to 3·5km down, and props itself up on extended fin-rays to save energy on swimming. Its tiny prey float towards to it on the current: it isn’t an active hunter. It’s also hermaphroditic, so that each fish can fertilize its own eggs if, thanks to depth and darkness, it doesn’t find a mate. Unlike many other deep-sea fish, however, it isn’t particularly ugly or grotesque and wouldn’t easily find place in an H.P. Lovecraft story. Vampyroteuthis infernalis, or “the vampire squid from hell”, definitely would. It looks rather like an animated umbrella, with dark webs between its tentacles and huge, light-thirsty eyes.
Elsewhere there’s proof that the sea contains not just abysmal ugliness but sublime beauty too, from cone shells (Conus spp.) and jewel “anemones” (Corynactis viridis) (really a form of coral, the book notes) to gorgeous fish like the copperband butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus) and the Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus). And the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) is beautiful too, despite the “toxin in its saliva estimated to be 10,000 times more deadly than cyanide”. There isn’t enough here about plankton, which can be strange, ugly, and beautiful, but plankton could fill several encyclopedias, and this one does incorporate some more recent scientific discoveries, including the marine life that doesn’t depend ultimately on sunlight, however deep down dark it lives. The giant beardworm, Riftia pachyptila, lives in symbiosis with sulphide-digesting bacteria at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. It’s not part of the sun-chain and might have homologues beneath the ice-cap of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Life needs liquid, so far as we can see, and certainly on earth it had to get its start there. This book is an excellent introduction to the great biological cradle that is the sea and would be an ideal gift for a budding marine biologist or scientifically inclined sailer or fisherman.