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Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

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The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

Is Beatrix Potter the greatest of all children’s writers? No, I don’t think so. But she might be the greatest of all children’s authors. She didn’t simply write: she wrote and drew, creating very clever and funny stories that almost have the quality of folk-tales or myths. C.S. Lewis said that Squirrel Nutkin (1902) “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” It was his “second experience” of the bittersweet longing that he described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

The other Potter books, although he “loved them all”, he found “merely entertaining”. Squirrel Nutkin is one of my favourites too, but I don’t find the rest “merely entertaining”. There is something epic, on a miniature scale, about Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Those are in the book that began everything, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). I was disturbed by the fate of Peter’s father – “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor” – and by the cat staring at the goldfish when I was young, so I’m almost glad that I never read The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) until I was grown-up. It’s the darkest and deathliest of Potter’s stories and I wonder if she had the German word Tod in mind when she named the eponym, as Evelyn Waugh did when he created a character called Mr. Todd for A Handful of Dust (1934).

The story was certainly meant as something new, as the opening two lines make clear:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Tommy Brock, a “short bristly fat waddling person with a grin”, is a badger and Mr. Tod, “of a wandering habit” and detectable by odour “half a mile off”, is a fox. Mr. Tod wanders through the story too: it’s Tommy Brock who’s on stage more often. His affability and his joke about “not hav[ing] a square meal for a fortnight” disarm a rabbit grandfather called Old Mr. Bouncer, who is looking after his “rabbit-baby” grandchildren while his daughter Flopsy and son-in-law Benjamin are out. Mr. Bouncer invites Tommy into the family rabbit-hole “to taste a slice of seedcake” and a glass of his “daughter Flopsy’s cowslip wine”. But he falls asleep as Tommy smokes a “cabbage leaf” cigar, only to wake and discover that both Tommy and his grandchildren have disappeared.

Tommy has carried them off in a sack. When his daughter gets back: “He was in disgrace; Flopsy wrung her ears, and slapped him.” Benjamin sets off to track Tommy, helped by the deepness of his footprints under the weight of the sack. It turns out that Tommy has carried the babies off to one of Mr. Tod’s many residences: “something between a cave, a prison, and a tumble-down pig-stye” that stands in the middle of a wood. Benjamin and his cousin Cottontail see how the “setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame”. When Benjamin peeps through a window, he sees “preparations upon the kitchen table that made him shudder”: “an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper”, plus “a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard” – “in short, preparations for one person’s supper.”

But that one person, Tommy Brock, has gone to bed in Mr. Tod’s bed “in his boots”, leaving the rabbit-babies still alive, but “shut in the oven!” There’s a sinister atmosphere in this story and it’s as close as Potter got to the Brothers Grimm. But the sinister atmosphere is part of the black humour, which gets even stronger when Mr. Tod turns up, not at all pleased to discover that Tommy has, yet again, taken over one of his homes. He decides to take revenge on the loudly snoring – and apparently deeply asleep – Tommy, but his cunning plan backfires. That’s why Benjamin is able to get his children back. He, like Flopsy and Cottontail, had appeared before in a Potter story: she created a world, not just individual stories.

Black humour had appeared before in her stories too, particularly in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding”. It’s about Tom Kitten, who has a narrow escape when he goes exploring the old house he lives in:

All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.

When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him – he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.

It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.

Opposite to him – as far away as he could sit – was an enormous rat.

“What do you mean by tumbling into my bed all covered with smuts?” said the rat, chattering his teeth.

“Please sir, the chimney wants sweeping,” said poor Tom Kitten.

“Anna Maria! Anna Maria!” squeaked the rat. There was a pattering noise and an old woman rat poked her head round a rafter.

All in a minute she rushed upon Tom Kitten, and before he knew what was happening–

He’s trussed in string and the enormous rat, Samuel Whiskers, is telling Anna Maria “to make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”. The text goes perfectly with the drawings and I can read that single line – “‘Anna Maria! Anna Maria!’ squeaked the rat.” – again and again, because it’s so simple and so funny. Tom Kitten, like the rabbit-babies in The Tale of Mr. Tod, escapes his impending doom, but he gets nearer to it than they did: he’s been rolled in dough, with only his head and tail sticking out, when the terrier John Joiner, called in by his mother to find her missing son, manages to interrupt proceedings by sawing through the floorboards under which the two rats are living.

The rats flee, although Samuel Whiskers has first remarked to Anna Maria that he doubts the pudding would have been good: “I am persuaded that the knots would have proved indigestible, whatever you may urge to the contrary.” That’s funny and formal English, not funny and simple: Potter has the same variety and delicacy of touch in her writing as she has in her drawing. There’s another good example of a funny line in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910), when the toad Mr. Jackson encounters another of Mrs. Tittlemouse’s uninvited guests:

He met Babbity round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

“I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles,” said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

“Get out, you nasty old toad!” shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

Again the line is perfectly set up and very funny. Potter’s animals are antagonistic as well as amicable. Her stories might sometimes be simply written, but they’re not saccharine or soppy. Even in the first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), there’s comi-tragedy: remember that Peter’s father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”. Potter had a sad story herself, as the biographical notes and introductions to each story describe: her parents educated her at home and kept her away from other children. She found consolation in art and animals, then the two brought her success and fame through her books.

Then they seemed to bring her a husband too: her publisher Frederick Warne proposed marriage; she accepted; and they became engaged. But he died only a few weeks later of “pernicious anaemia” and although she did eventually marry, she never had children of her own. Instead, she became perhaps the greatest of children’s authors, combining life and death, sunshine and sadness, in stories that have delighted millions of children for over a century. This collection brings all of those stories together, from the famous to the obscure, from the ones that display literary genius to the ones that aren’t so successful.

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