November 20, 2012 11:18:08 AM
As if there were not already a extraordinary range of strange animals in the world, the bestiaries of the medieval times included such creatures as barnacle geese growing on trees. In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges brought out The Book of Imaginary Beings, which chronicled animals imagined in Gilgamesh and in the works of Kafka. When Caspar Henderson was looking through Borges's book, he realized that there are many real animals that are stranger than fictional ones. He isn't a biologist; he is a journalist and editor, but he realized he wanted to go exploring to find out more about the very strange creatures that evolution has come up with. He has brought out The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary (Granta; to be published in America by the University of Chicago Press in April). This is a handsome book, with lots of whimsical illustrations; it is an abecedarium, with 27 chapters (the letter X which is often shortchanged in such books, here gets an extra chapter) from axolotl to zebra fish. Each chapter starts with an illuminated letter, incorporating something within the chapter. It is full of surprises, and Henderson's enthusiasm and wonder are infectious.
Take that first chapter on the axolotl, whose name we Americans who are old enough first encountered as one of Harvey Kurtzman's non sequitur running gags in Mad Magazine. The weird word refers to a weird little animal, a salamander with pink skin, arms with fingers and legs with toes, gills that branch out from its neck, and an oversized spheroid head with a fixed, placid smile. Henderson writes, "Axolotls have this advantage over many other species in a human-dominated world: many people find them cute." They are popular for the home aquarium trade. It is lucky that they can thrive in glass pools, because the Mexican lakes from which they come are increasingly being drained or polluted. (A distressing number of the animals on these pages are listed as "critically endangered." Almost always, the problem is global warming or some sort of encroachment by humans. Henderson reminds us that in 2008, geologists agreed to call the current age the Anthropocene, to acknowledge that humans are the biggest influence on Earth's systems.) There is a digression (Henderson's prose is clear and it agreeably wanders off into instructive and entertaining byways) about how salamanders were long thought to be impervious to fire. A medieval bestiary says, "The salamander lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out flames." Few would question such an assertion at the time, especially since it had a second from St. Augustine, who said that a salamander not being consumed by flame was a good example to show how a soul could be burned in hell forever without being consumed. That's all baloney, but Henderson reports that axolotls do have a surprising ability, if not to regenerate themselves from flames, then to regenerate an arm or leg after an amputation, and even an eye or parts of the brain. If we learn better how the axolotl does it, human amputees might benefit.
We do not have to worry about the conservation status of the waterbear, which gets its chapter way toward the end of the book. Waterbears are tiny, about the size of a period at the end of a sentence. "Under a microscope it looks something like a roly-poly teddy bear - if a teddy bear were to have claws, red eyes, and two extra pairs of legs." (To me it also looks like a wrinkly Shar-Pei pup.) These animals are survivors. There are 750 different species of them, and they can live in hot springs or on ice shelves. They do fine in outer space, too. An experiment in 2007 sent some of them into space for ten days without any protection. They endured the vacuum, extreme high and low temperatures, and cosmic rays. Some of them died from direct solar radiation, but many survived. No other multicellular organism comes close to this sort of resilience. Waterbears also have a nifty long-term survival trick. If times get tough, a waterbear can shed almost all its internal water, harden its membranes, and go into a dormant state until things get better. Some have been waked up after 120 years. Thinking about how waterbears can survive in outer space allows the main digression in this chapter, about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and if it exists, the possible reasons why that life so stubbornly refuses to get in touch with us.
The digressions about these strange animals often lead to essays about some aspect of humanity. In the chapter on the honey badger (and yes, Henderson does make the referral, "For a less technical description, find the video 'The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger' on the web."), we learn about how the little bird the honeyguide is able to guide a badger, or a human, to a hive. The honeyguide wants the beeswax, but can't break into the hive by itself, so it recruits helpers in this way. It may have been the first of partnerships between humans and animals. The Japanese macaque is famous for enjoying hot springs in cold weather, but we learn that only the top of the troop gets to luxuriate in the pools. Macaques lower in the hierarchy are cold and miserable. Henderson here gets to reflect upon Machiavelli, and upon Social Darwinism, and upon the simple utility of science "because it requires complete honesty and the constant search for better ways not to fool ourselves." We don't like viruses, but in a long digression in the chapter on iridogorgia pourtalesii (a spiraling type of sea fan), Henderson uses the spiral theme to reflect upon DNA and on viruses, which he shows have shaped our evolution and that of every other animal we know about. In the chapter on worms, he tells us, "When you get beyond the yuck factor, a whole world of delights - and frights - opens up. From arrow worms to spoon worms, and from peanut worms to penis worms, every human can benefit from contemplating the riot, the carnival, the salmagundi of worms." This is his attitude not just to worms, of course, but to all the animals mentioned here.
I don't do e-books, partly because I am simply stodgy, but partly because I like a well-produced book as a physical object. This one is simply gorgeous; I don't know how an e-version would look and I don't want to know, but I will tell you in all prejudice to get the print version. Its text and its many pictures are supplemented with red ink. There are no footnotes as such, but marginal notes printed in red, with the text so annotated in red as well. The ample margins are also a playground for little illustrations or decorations. The book harks back to bestiaries of old, with lots of whimsical illustrations, frontispieces for every chapter, and illuminated capitals. It is a fine vessel for bringing a message of celebration of biological diversity and weirdness.