by David Carlin
There is nothing more thing-y than a speculation, and nothing more speculative than any ordinary thing . . .
It used to be possible to believe that apples were forever, and you were the apple of my eye, and every year would bring the season of apple blossom. Now nothing seems so certain anymore…
When I hear the word bacteria, I reach for my penicillin.
It was a year earlier; I was somewhere in the U.S. In fact, I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my friend Nicole lives, for a writing conference, at an after-hours clinic. The doctor, or cost-effective quasi-doctor, took out a biro and traced the outline of a puffy continent of microbes across the top of my foot.
“If it starts creeping above this line, that’s when you need to worry,” he said. “If you see red lines snaking up your ankle, get yourself to the hospital quicksmart. They’ll put you on a drip. Turn over.”
He shoved a syringe full of antibiotics into my backside.
“Okay, wait 15 minutes to make sure you don’t react, and then you’re free to go.”
He flicked his rubber gloves off.
Free to go hand over my credit card to the woman at the front counter is what he means. Free to go back to the conference to peer discreetly at the battle line drawn across my foot, listening to helpful stories from acclaimed science writers and former medicos about how so and so’s leg had to be amputated, or whoever-else had picked up something in New Guinea and died of what I’ve got: that being, cellulitis.
From a tiny irritation between my toes caused by chafing in the Manila heat en route from Melbourne, matters had abruptly escalated up here on the high plains. The raised red blob of skin on my foot was apparently the sign of a host of microorganisms massing and multiplying rapidly—as they do, apparently, through binary fission, no sex required. Except I was the host, they the unwelcome guests. Unless comprehensively doused in antibiotic poison, they would, having established their beachhead, fan out through the skin and blood cells of my body in a manic hunger, eating me alive from the inside. True crime.
“You don’t want to find yourself in that hospital,” remarked the taxi driver in his Arizonan drawl, as he waited peaceably for another two-mile freight train to pass by. “They got superbugs in there like you wouldn’t believe. I know people gone in there, come out with something ten times worse.” The boomgate rose. He shook his head. “Don’t pay their staff enough.”
I’m thinking, please take me home to Australia before I die. We have universal healthcare, if nothing else.
One of the five basic shapes bacteria come in is the comma. But don’t assume this means they will pause midsentence to digress before they kill you. One such comma-shaped bacterium is vibrio cholera, feared everywhere and with good reason. Another shape popular with bacteria is the rod. Elongation, according to my research, is associated with swimming. Rod-shaped bacilli love to swim. Beyond this, they have been known to form differing arrangements of which the best-named is the palisades. Here, the rods line up like Mahjong tiles or a picket fence made by a drunk. But if a palisade implies a defensive wall, like the well-meaning biro line across my foot, you only have to click through a textbook page or two to discover bacteria organized for murder. “El Garatillo” (the strangler), aka diptheria (corynebacterium diphtheriae), is the most infamous of these non-pacific palisades. Diptheria bacteria colonize the throat and produce a toxin that attacks tissue willy-nilly: heart, muscle, nerves, kidneys, liver.
Whichever way you turn, bacteria lead to fantasies of evil. And yet, don’t forget, bacteria put the tang in yogurt. Bacteria put the sour in sourdough. Bacteria are tireless recyclers. These are the well-meaning, progressively inclined microbes we can make alliance with.
I wonder: why do things go viral on the internet but never go bacterial? One meme has it that the average human body contains ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells, so to be human is actually to be 90% bacterial. New research suggests it is more like half and half. We are roughly half human and half microbial. Still, half a cake is half a cake, and if you leave any cake out long enough, in the end the bacteria will take over. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and bacteria all the way.
Bacteria have been around on Earth for 3.5 billion years, which is about 17,500 times longer than humans. They’ve survived all five of the previous Great Extinctions and will almost certainly survive the current one as well. Really, they mean no harm, and no good either—as Darwin said, meaning and intention don’t enter into evolution. They are just doing what they do. There wouldn’t seem to be a form of life less worthy of our care and empathy. But that’s probably what all of the other species on Earth would say of us, right? Except for, maybe, cats and dogs. And rats. And pigeons. Cockroaches. Goldfish? All of which, I’m willing to bet, are approximately 50% bacteria.
There is an email I’m not opening. I’m just not. I will when I’m feeling strong enough. It’s not anything in particular or dramatic. But there’s a small chance that it might be.
There was a boy I used to avoid in high school, back when I was growing up in Perth, before the America’s Cup, before Alan Bond got famous. I’d stolen one of this boy’s cigarettes. I didn’t smoke, but I was young enough to think I might begin to smoke, and old enough to know it’d be cool to swipe one. It was at a school camp. The box of cigarettes was there, beside his bed in the dorm. How did he even know it was me? For six months afterward, maybe a year, I avoided him in the playground. He spun it out, the threat, and I used to dream about him coming around the corner of a brick wall in the distance, seeing me.
The internet is totally crazy. There is something called alektorophobia: the fear of chickens. Chicken squared. But there is also cucurbitophobia (fear of pumpkins) and ideophobia, the morbid fear of new ideas and thoughts. Sharon Elizabeth, the star of American Pie, suffers from a fear of chickens, according to many sources, whereas for Jake Gyllenhaal, the problem is ostriches. Katie Holmes “freaks out” about raccoons.
Do you have an anxiety disorder? Test your fear level. What do you fear? Share your phobias with visitors on this site, read their stories, and connect with them. While you are here you might also like “One Cup Of This Before Bedtime Burns Belly Fat Like Crazy!” and “50 Unique Women You Won’t Believe Exist.”
I click. I’m afraid I do.
“15 Rare Images Of Things You Had No Idea Existed.”
I have come to a world in which Everything Is In Title Print. There are so many things to click. A bag of money. A smoking gun. A smiling couple sitting on the bonnet of a luxury car. Kim Jong Un applauding. These are only a few of the things tagged Bizarre, Unique, and/or Women.
The chicken is an actual animal. It is related to a real-life bird still found in various real-life locations in India and Southeast Asia called the red junglefowl. A beautiful, elegant creature. But chickens, like so many other living organisms, have long since been domesticated by human beings, and now to a level of unsurpassed mad-scientist industrial efficiency. It wasn’t until the 1950s that human chicken production and consumption went into full flightlessness, courtesy of chicken-feed additives that made sunlight an optional extra for keeping chickens alive long enough to grow them dinner-sized. Henceforth the birds could be cooped up in mega-sheds doused in cleansing ammonia, their bodies and metabolisms reimagined as single-purpose biological machines for converting corn and soybeans into protein. Cheaply cheeping if they must. Artificially enhanced breasts, more white flesh, from cute hatchling to Crunchified Chicken in seven weeks. Seven weeks! Yes, but six weeks would be worth billions! And yet chicken seems so sweet and innocent on the palate, don’t you think? This is white meat, not that crazy, hairy-chested red meat.
They say the reason humans first captured chickens alive might not have been for eating either flesh or eggs, but to watch them fight for sport. If a chicken is a wimp, a cock is the king of the playground. Cocks are the tumescent fantasy-appendages of every male, after all. Show me your rooster, big boy! From plump breasts to virile cocks, it is as if the chicken has been force-fed with every artificially-flavor-enhanced, 11 different-herbs-and-spices metaphor of human sex and power. Computer games feature chicken-kicking competitions, chicken-punching mini-games, and macho chickens you can fight with. But in a common and ironic cock-up, if you look closely you will notice that the toughest macho chickens in the business are rendered exquisitely as hens.
Being chicken is particularly an anxiety of men.
Down by the marketplace of our local urban community environment park in inner city Melbourne, where I go once a week to splurge on handmade groceries, if I arrive before they open in the morning there’s nothing much else to do but wait over on the far side by the chickens. Ten minutes with the chickens is a long time. They ignore me and do chicken things, of which easiest to notice is pecking at the seeds their humans must have scattered. The little door to their coop is open, but most of them seem to enjoy taking in the morning sunshine. Their fenced domain extends down the hillside, with gates opening onto other unseen spaces they can wander into as they wish.
There must be a hundred individuals in this plump of fowl, each making its own path and its own decisions about where to peck and where to look and who to follow and who to stay away from, and each one finding different things to tread on and feeling the wind blowing across its feather in a different way, presumably, depending on who it’s standing next to or which bush it is underneath. If I’m going to eat chicken, which I might or might not, but if I’m going to eat chicken, let it be one of these, let it be something special to save up for, let it be sacrificed with full honors.
And yes, I’ll open the email.
The world is on fire, and some people want to live forever. Maybe everybody, on a given day, wants to live forever. Although that’s clearly not true: I can think of too many who, on a given day, came to a different conclusion.
Our backyard in Melbourne is a veritable rabbit cemetery. Our children, Esther and Louis, were spared the full horror of the crime scene that time the dogs got in, but Esther was a big one for making crosses out of old bits of wood we found in the shed— nailing them together in the simplest of hardware acts, applying some varnish and some decorations. RIP, she would write. I suppose we taught her that crosses and RIP were how you responded when something that you cared about had died. Even if you didn’t believe in Jesus or God.
Once we had shoveled the dirt on top of the shoeboxed rabbits and planted the lacquer-dry wooden emblem at the head, like pretend grave-diggers, we put the tools back in the shed and went on with the next thing and never once gave those rabbits another thought. At least I didn’t. Certainly not to their decomposing bodies in their decomposing cardboard coffins. It is not considered normal or healthy to watch things decompose. It is viewed as morbid. Even serial killers, so far as I’m aware, would prefer to chop up their victims’ bodies and put them in the freezer or bury them under the house, rather than sit at the kitchen table, breathing in the stench, as maggots metamorphose into blowflies and liquids pool in Rothko hues. Or whatever.
Decomposition could also mean to unwrite a book. To sing an opera back to nothing. To edit is to compose by decomposing. Every composite requires an opposite. Two taps forward, one finger on delete. Besides, it all depends which way you look at it and who you are. My decomposing body would be inspiration for whole legions of thankful creatures in the soil. Even ink and paper might be better off digested. Not so much my laptop—that will take a million years to decompose, give or take.
They say that peat is helping to slow runaway global warming. The organic remains of plants and animals release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they decompose, thanks to the industry of fungi, microbes, flies, beetles, crows, vultures, foxes, and so on. But in a peatland, normal rules of decay do not apply. Regular processes of decomposition are suspended in a watery goo. The creatures that would attack your everyday serial-killed body or your beloved rabbit and munch it into oblivion can’t breathe underwater in such places: there’s not enough oxygen. Decomposition slows and slooooooooowwws. Think of a long lugubrious, rippling note played by a Lewis Carroll walrus on a deep bassoon.
A peatland can be called a quag, a bog, a mire, a fen, a morass, a slough, a sump. Typically, these waterlogged domains have been cast as gloomy, uncanny places where nothing grows and bodies float to the surface, or don’t. For centuries, they’ve been drained to make land useful for agriculture and dwelling. Now it seems it might have been better to leave well alone. Peatlands trap vast amounts of carbon that plants have captured from the air through photosynthesis across millennia. They are much more efficient carbon banks than forests, for example.
To say that we are mired, then, in planet-sized problems, is misleading. What we need above all else is mires. The impulse to drain the swamp is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.
Slooooooooow, sounds the walrus, as if unmaking opera.
I make a mental note to from now on better appreciate peatlands, and their subtle arts of un-decomposition. All things are in motion, cycling through beginnings after endings, but it is beautiful if they get bogged down here and there.
There is nothing more thing-y than a speculation, and nothing more speculative than any ordinary thing—this could be the seen as the premise of my piece here. Bacteria, chicken, even decomposition: all of these are not only things in their own right but also, as I approach them, inevitably jangled with metaphor, entangled with atmospheres, freighted with fantasies. This trio of miniature essays is extracted from a larger alphabetical set Nicole Walker and I have written to make the book The After-Normal (Rose Metal Press, 2019). Essays that look aslant and try to feel out what is happening. Each essay brings a new object into view, something big or small that insists somehow to be taken note of and responded to.
David Carlin’s books include Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), and the forthcoming The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (written with Nicole Walker) for Rose Metal Press (2019), and 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (written with MECO Network, 2018) for Open Humanities Press. David’s essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary and short films have won awards and featured at numerous international festivals. He co-edited with Francesca Rendle-Short an anthology of new Asian and Australian writing, The Near and the Far (2016); also, with Laurene Vaughan, Performing Digital (2015), about the Circus Oz Living Archive project he led. David is a Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT University, Australia, where he co-directs WrICE and non/fictionLab.