Saturday, January 18, 2003

The Way of All Flesh

Way back in October, while I was back in the States, I checked out from the library Midas Dekkers' The Way of All Flesh: The Romance of Ruins. I had anticipated reading it on the plane and then shipping it to Cincinnati once I was settled back in Scotland; but, because of other books that I either had to read for my thesis along with those I simply found myself reading after a quixotic career of the university library when I couldn't find something I had to read for my thesis, I ended up only sporadically perusing it over the past few months. However, on the train yesterday, as it manouevred its way like the arrow of time toward Genk, the terminus for that particular track, I decided that because life, like that 90-minute postprandial journey, is too short, and because the book was already grossly overdue, it was time to finally begin reading it in earnest. Since quickly re-reading the first 150 pages on the train, I've since not been able to put it down. Granted, the only competition for entertainment around here, upon arriving at my destination, was Belgium's version of Pop Star, Pop Idool, but that says more about the state of Belgian pop culture than the book's Dutch biologist-author (the Netherlands' "most popular writer-biologist," so says the book-flap).

In addition to recommending the delightfully genre-blurring book, I thought I'd get my weekend off to a rousing start with an inspiring quote from the book. Hope you enjoy:

"Organisms that only reproduce once in a lifetime are called semelparous. This is in contrast to human beings, who are as iteroparous as rabbits. You don't need a short life to be semelparous. However old a salmon or an eel may become, it makes only one journey to its spawning grounds, where, after depositing its eggs, it dies from exhaustion -- not just because of the long journey through the ocean and up the river, however tiring that may have been. Salmon are already no longer themselves by the time they reach the mouth of the river. The males develop thick hooked jaws and hunchbacks. After spawning, they become covered with fungus that begins to eat away at them, while inside, one organ after another starts to give way. Hormones no doubt play a part here. The same hormone system that drives the creatures to spawn also creates their death. Sex and death are faithful allies. Seventeen-year-cicadas, otherwise known as periodical cicadas (Magicicada septendecim), live chastely underground for 17 years until they emerge from their cocoons to claim in one night all the sex they were meant to have in a whole lifetime. It's a long run for a short jump, but a productive one all the same. . . . Predators that have their sights set on these cicadas should themselves have at least 17-year-cycles if they're to benefit from this mass nuptial celebration. Although eaters of 17-year-cicadas would live in greater uncertainty every 2, 4, 8, or 16 years, they would also have the chance of an unforgettable feast. Which is precisely why 17-year-cicadas don't exist. Whoever becomes available as prey at predictable moments has to take part in the struggle more frequently and in larger numbers. You can set your clocks (or thermometers) by mayflies. When, as usual, they rise up in their massive nuptial flights -- in the right temperature on the right day at the right time -- and then later cascade down again exhausted, ponds and lakes teem with fishes having the time of their lives. Some fishes have even adjusted their mating season to accomodate this. Because of this phenomenon, mayflies don't even live out their one day. A perfect symbol of ephemerality, you might say. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Mayflies live not for one but for 100 or 1,000 days. Of these, though, 99 or 999 are spent in water. As with 17-year-cicadas, their stairway of life is one high, narrow step up, with one low, very wide step down. Pity isn't appropriate here. Creatures with such long larval phases have, after all, the key to the most coveted of all secrets. Mayflies have eternal youth -- with the exception of that one hellish day." (15)

Kinda cool, huh?