Wednesday, August 29, 2012

`New Method of Destroying Thousands'

My youngest son found a dead and splendidly preserved dragonfly on the sidewalk behind the house. The wings were open and intact, and he looked like a specimen mounted with pins. When I lifted him (pertinent equipment on the second abdominal segment) he felt light as a hair (“You are made of almost nothing”), and I put him on the fence by the gate so we could admire him. He was a darner, family Aeshnidae, with shimmering blue highlights on his abdomen and head. Later, on the floor in the back seat of my car, I found him again, but it was a twin, a second dead darner, same color, same pristine condition, and I set him beside the other. 

Later still, the same son said something was wrong with one of the water oaks in the front yard. The trunk, for about six feet starting from the ground, was wreathed in white gauze, like spider’s prey hanging in a web. Barklice were the artists, visible on the bark, dark brown ovals with antennae. They are not parasites and do no harm to trees. They feed on fungi and lichens. Two days later, the cobwebby sheathe was gone, probably eaten by the barklice. 

Over the next couple of days, without looking, just paying attention, I saw in our yard three butterfly species (sulphur, zebra swallowtail and a nameless skipper), planthoppers, two species of ants, ladybugs, a wasp and uncounted mosquitoes and midges. Humankind seems paltry next to insects. In a footnote to Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle (1839), Darwin notes: “I may mention, as a common instance of one day’s (June 23rd) collecting, when I was not attending particularly to the Coleoptera [beetles], that I caught sixty-eight species of that order.” 

My enthusiasm for Dickens began to wane in 1975 when a friend introduced me to Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and London Poor, less a sociological casebook than an encyclopedia of stories drawn from the lives of mid-nineteenth-century Londoners.  In one chapter Mayhew writes of the “Catch-’em-alive” boys who earned their living in Whitechapel. It might have been written by Dickens: 

“A few of these street traders carried a side of a newspaper, black with flies, attached to a stick, waving it like a flag. The cries were `Catch 'em alive! Catch 'em alive for ½d!’ `New method of destroying thousands!’”

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