How good to read Danny Heitman celebrating the pleasures of reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the epicenter of charmingly mad digressiveness, while pursuing a diverting digression of my own. It started with one of the epigraphs to Bugs (Carcanet, 2009), a collection of poems by Antony Dunn:
“If all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable...we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes...Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.”
Who expects to encounter so vivid a post-apocalyptic vision in, of all places, the Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture for 1914? The author is Nathan C. Cobb (1859-1932), a name previously unknown to me, and the loss is mine. Cobb’s life is a wonder of enterprise, intelligence and adaptability. Born in Massachusetts, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on mathematical crystallography, and went to Germany to complete his Ph.D. on nematodes in whales. Thanks to his gift for painting watercolors, he was hired by a zoological research center in Naples, Italy, and then went to Australia where he became that nation’s first plant pathologist. By the end of his career Cobb had identified and named more than one thousands species of nematodes.
Last week, while looking up something about Darwin and earthworms in the library, I noticed a title that made me laugh: An Anecdotal History of Nematology, published in 2008 in Sofia, Bulgaria. It turns out to be quite interesting, peppered with facts and interesting stories. Did you know, for example, that four out of five multicellular animals on the planet are nematodes? Or that Aristotle and Avicenna both described nematode species that are parasitic in humans? Or that Shakespeare, in a line from Love’s Labour’s Lost -- “Sowed cockle, reap’d no corn” -- may have been referring to the wheat gall nematode, Anguina tritici? Nor did I.
When I returned to the library to retrieve An Anecdotal History of Nematology, I noticed on the same shelf a volume intriguingly titled The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004) by Amy Stewart. She describes her battle with cutworms, and learns that nematodes are a gardener’s best ally against them. They enter a cutworm’s body, release bacteria that kill it, then feed off the dead cutworm and lay their eggs. She orders her first nematodes:
“I started small, ordering just five million. They arrived inside a slim sponge not much larger than a credit card. The sponge was sealed inside a plastic bag. A yellowish liquid oozed out of it. These, I took it, were the nematodes, immersed in some kind of solution. The whole package was smaller than a letter-sized envelope. All I had to do was drop the sponge in a bucket of water, wring it out, and spray the water around my garden.”
Even better, on the very next page Stewart quotes the passage by Cobb that was quoted by Dunn that I quoted above. Her comment: “It’s a creepy thought, all those invisible organisms covering us like a thin film. Even worse, one study reported about ninety thousand nematodes living in a single rotten apple.”
Speaking of Dunn, in Bugs is a poem titled “Nematode Worms,” which includes these lines: “…and all that will survive of us / is bugs -- these bugs – these parasites.” For his other epigraph, Dunn uses Psalm 91:5 from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of The Bible: “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges [Hebrew: pahad] by night.” Because of this line and the mistranslation it contains, Coverdale’s version became known as the “Bug Bible.” In Middle English, bugge means “specter” or “ghost.” The King James Bible (1611) uses “terrour”:
“Thou shalt not bee afraid for the terrour by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day.”