• Photograph of diatoms collected in Russia and arranged on a microscope slide in 1952 by A.L. Brigger
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
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.
In the Christian religion, the resurrection follows the virgin birth. In the rock-graves at Heysham, the virgin birth follows the resurrection. Or rather: the virgin-births follow the resurrections. There are many of both. The rock-graves at Heysham* are carved in solid rock near the remains of St Patrick’s chapel, an ancient ruin overlooking Morecambe Bay on the coast of Lancashire in England. You may have seen them before, because they appear on the cover of a compilation album by the heavy-metal band Black Sabbath, where they’re filled with ice and look suitably dark and sinister. But the graves are sometimes full of life and activity. In spring, as the rainwater filling them begins to warm, there are resurrections – dozens of them. Tiny crustaceans (a group of animals that includes crabs, shrimps and woodlice) hatch from eggs that have over-wintered in the sediment on the floors of the graves. Some of the crustaceans are called water-fleas, others are called seed-shrimps. Water-fleas, whose scientific name is Daphnia, hop through the water with jerks of their antennae, sieving it for fresh-water plankton. Seed-shrimps, or ostracods, are enclosed in tiny double-sided shells through which their legs protrude. They trundle over the stone sides of the graves, scraping off algae and catching even smaller and simpler animals like rotifers and protozoa.
Water-fleas are famous for parthenogenesis, or their ability to produce offspring without sex. Those that hatch first in spring are female and give birth without mating with any males. A single water-flea in a jar of stagnant water soon becomes a swarm. It’s only later in the year that males are born and the water-fleas mate to produce winter eggs, which sink to the floor of the graves and lie there through the cold weather. The eggs of water-fleas and ostracods can also survive desiccation, or drying-up, and can be blown on the wind to new sites. That is probably how these crustaceans arrived in the rock-graves, which they must have occupied for centuries, through the coldest winters and the hottest summers, dying and being reborn again and again. When a human being or large animal dies, chemical changes in the body make the muscles rigid and wood-like. The scientific term for this is rigor mortis, or the “stiffness of death”. Rigor mortis wears off in time and the body begins to rot. The rock-graves at Heysham are an example of vigor mortis, or the “vigour of death”. Medieval human beings created the graves to bury their dead, but the bodies that were once there have been lost to history. The water-fleas and the seed-shrimps remain, tiny, overlooked and fascinating.
*Heysham is pronounced HEE-shum and is an old coastal village near the city of Lancaster, after which Lancashire is named.