Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ox Bells and Fireflies

It’s the sort of title you'd expect on a volume of verse, and therefore doubly appropriate as many of the 21 pieces are filled with lyrical prose and tagged with similar names:

Wicks and Cups
Fireflies and Freedom
Drop Mail and Diplomats
Soft Soap and Drawknives
Plow, Scythe, and Peavey
Wildcats, Tetrazzini, and Bee Beer

They present an idealized picture of farming and village life in the Annapolis Valley when oxen were still being used to plough fields.

Together they make up a nostalgic album of memories related in a way that is often dreamy and impressionistic:

The ground has been ribboned into dark furrows. They lie like brothers side by side, the earth's rich secrets exposed willingly to the sun.

In several pieces the language is a little less poetic in order to accommodate the more traditional shape of a story, while others move into Leacock territory with folksy accounts of how people act at election time or on wedding nights.

The affectionate parade of rustic characters includes a woman "violently allergic to horse farts" and another who "sounds like a bee under a cup." One tardy fellow was "always behind, like a boar's nuts," while another "ate fried bullfrogs to deepen his voice," and a third "said 'Good Morning' to any cow he passed."

Sex is "a blend of comedy and sheet lightning." Oxen "rise like prophecies" and plant "their great slow feet like sorrows." A pig has "moneylender eyes" and hens rustle "their cuneiform feet in the straw."

There are also moments of grief and misfortune, but they only serve to bind people closer together, as in the wonderful opening story, "Seven Crows a Secret," in which a young boy observes how the death of a neighbour brings out a touching tenderness in his parents.

The author, Ernest Buckler, referred to the book as a "fictional memoir." It was published in 1968.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Parasite Rex

Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

It's a disturbing fact that the body of any creature, including our own, is potential habitat. We are a house and the mice want in. Or as the prologue puts it: "a vein is a river."

The life cycle of a parasite can be ingenious, complex, and gruesome, and the book provides some startling examples. Among the 16 pages of b&w photos you'll find one of a crustacean that has devoured the tongue of a fish and taken its place. But what makes this book remarkable is that it goes beyond such sensational examples and addresses broader issues.

Parasites, it seems, have been practising their trade since the dawn of life, and any ecosystem without them is likely to be unhealthy. Parasites may even have been responsible for the development of sex and language.

Then there are social parasites, like the cuckoo. Ultimately we ourselves may be seen as parasites -- with the planet our host.

Behaviour Modification

One of the truly shocking aspects of parasitism is the ability of some organisms to alter the behaviour of their host. Toxoplasma causes rats to be less wary of cats, the parasite’s final host.

Ants that have ingested lancet flukes leave their sisters and spend the night at the top of a blade of grass, the better to be consumed by a grazing mammal.

Sacculina, a parasitic barnacle, penetrates a crab’s leg joint, sends out "roots" through the crab’s entire body, and emerges as a sac on its ventral surface. The crab loses its ability to reproduce, becoming "genetically speaking, a zombie: one of the undead serving a master."

...parasites such as Sacculina...control their hosts, becoming in effect their new brain, and turning them into new creatures. It is as if the host itself is simply a puppet, and the parasite is the hand inside.

Makes one think of Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, and the movie Alien, doesn’t it? The author mentions them too.

Carl Zimmer

I enjoyed Parasite Rex so much that I immediately went out and bought two more of Zimmer’s books. Check out his website, which contains numerous articles he has written, as well as Chapter 1 from this book.

You can also find a link to his blog on Discover’s website, and there a link to a a photo gallery of scientific tattoos, the basis for a cool book coming out this fall called Science Ink.

Zimmer has had a tapeworm named after him.

A Few More Quotes

It’s time to put the parasite alongside the lion.

Castration is a strategy that any number of parasites have hit on independently...

Parasites have been a dominant force, perhaps the dominant force, in the evolution of life.

There are more human intestinal worms than humans.