Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, author and conservationist. His several books traverse anthropology, natural history and cultural geography. They include A Death Feast in Dimlahamid, This Ragged Place and The Last Great Sea: A Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean. His latest book is Waiting for the Macaws (and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions), which argues that environmentalism is inadequate to the task of accounting for the global vanishing of animals, plants and languages. Terry is the editor of Transmontanus, an imprint of New Star Books; he teaches part-time at the University of British Columbia. Below he writes about John Bleibtreu's The Parable of The Beast.
Terry Glavin on The Parable of The Beast by John Bleibtreu
Several years ago, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I was struck by a strange epiphany. I was aboard a fishing trawler called the Arctic Harvester, with a crew of amiably rambunctious and hard-drinking Newfoundlanders and a team of scientists that had chartered the boat for a joint Canada-US research initiative. I was on assignment for the newspaper I worked for.
We were about half-way between Hawaii and Canada when we found ourselves completely surrounded by a vast aggregation of little blue sailboats, each no bigger than the palm of a man's hand. It was then that I realized that everything I had done in my life that had ended up bringing me all the way out there I owed to a book that I'd read when I was 15 years old.
But first, the little boats. They're called velellas, or by-the-wind-sailors. A velella consists of several organisms that collaborate to construct from their own tiny bodies a colony, in the form of a sail, a hull and a keel. The result looks just like a child's toy sailboat, and it works just like a sailboat. Velellas also manage to gather together somehow in grand flotillas in the middle of the ocean. And then they all sail off together in the same direction.
Watching this from the bridge of the Arctic Harvester, I could suddenly see all the way back to a rainy day when I was a teenager, in the Burnaby Public Library.
I'd only just taken up the habit of spending my Saturday afternoons there. It was because I'd grown bored with our usual weekend rituals, which involved 50-cent all-day bus passes and descending on downtown Vancouver, a mob of us in torn jeans and black leather jackets and boots. Our first stop was the old Carnegie Museum at Hastings and Main, to look at the shrivelled Egyptian mummy boy. Then we'd head down to the Only Seafoods restaurant for fish and chips, or to the White Lunch for a cheeseburger. Then we'd rove the streets in packs. Maybe take in a matinee. It was all getting so old.
The library was free and out of the rain and close to home, and one Saturday I came upon a book, with an ink drawing of a rhinoceros on the cover, called The Parable of The Beast. I flipped through the pages and right away I was engrossed in an account of the strange creatures that the velellas had so vividly reminded me about out in the Pacific.
The creatures in the book were slime moulds. They're amoebae that live on the ground, in forests, and every so often they all team up to construct from themselves a big slug-like organism that crawls around for a while and then transforms itself into something that looks like an opium poppy. Then the amoebae just scatter away to become little bits of goo again.
I took the book home. Couldn't put it down.
The author was somebody called John Bleibtreu, and his point was at least partly that evolution inexorably propels life from the primitive to the complex, and in this way life itself would appear to contravene the laws of physics. The second law of thermodynamics holds that everything in the universe is slowly descending into disorder. Life did the opposite, said Bleibtreu. Or something like that. His boldest claim was that ancient insights into the natural cycles of the universe were being lost for every gain humanity made through the sciences.
I wasn't buying into it all, even if I was only 15, and even though Marshall McLuhan and Konrad Lorenz raved about Bleibtreu on the book's dust jacket. What mattered to me was the wonder and the strangeness of the world Bleibtreu described, and the astonishing, kaleidoscopic magic in his method.
In a single, clean brushstroke, Bleibtreu could connect the third eye that shows up in Buddhist art to some German scientists who discovered that a cattle tick will sit on a stick for eighteen years, waiting for a cow to walk by. Along the way he'd tell a gripping yarn about some other scientists who had discovered that a substance secreted by a gland located roughly in the middle of our brains was noticeably absent in the skulls of dead crazy people.
A few pages later, Bleibtreu was conjuring faint traces of evidence for a kind of molecular memory that would explain how certain bugs seemed to inherit an understanding of the crude laboratory 'lessons' their dead parents had learned. Then it was off to the ways fruit bats and vampire bats behave, and to the ideas of a certain grim German philosopher by the name of Nietzsche. Then, several pages later, there are birds navigating their way across the ocean by the stars, and Italian sand fleas that somehow know which direction to hop in to get to the Adriatic Sea, even when they've been carried 100 kilometres inland.
It became my habit to take The Parable of the Beast back to the library just before it became overdue, to check it out again straight away. I'd read it and read it again, trying to sort it all out. I'd leave it alone for awhile, and then come back to it. And then one day, it wasn't at the library any more. I kept my eye open for it in other libraries and in used bookstores. I watched for it for years, but it never showed up anywhere. There were times when I thought I'd imagined the whole thing.
Anyway, the damage was done. It set in slowly. It started with Jack Kerouac. Everybody loved On The Road. I couldn't see it. For me, Dharma Bums was the thing. All my friends swore by Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, but I couldn't abide it, although I delighted in Lowry's Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid. Being Canadian, I was obliged to read Margaret Atwood. There are bylaws. Not one of her novels could I finish. But her poetry - my God, what a genius. On it went like this, and I could have been content to think that it was a simple matter of being a philistine, but I suspected something else had to be wrong.
Then one day I picked up Silver Donald Cameron's The Education of Everett Richardson. It’s a kind of non-fiction novel that tells the story of how the great fishermen's union organizer Homer Stevens went all the way back east across Canada to organize fishery workers through the Maritimes and Newfoundland. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. It was great literature. It was the last straw.
By then, I'd pretty well resolved that there is no impervious membrane between culture and nature, and the real world is brutal enough, and delightful and strange and melancholy enough, without having to make things up. It was the real world I was interested in.
By the time I was out of high school it had dawned on me that, more than just reading about it, I could learn about the real world by trying to write about it, and that's how I would make my own small defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. It's what I ended up doing with my life. It's what I was doing out there on the bridge of the Arctic Harvester, on an ocean seething with little blue sailboats.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]