Through the looking glass

Of animalcules and megafauna

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Close up of the head of a Gray/Grey Whale, Eschrichtius robustus, featuring the eye; Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico

AMONG THE FEW small objects I keep on my desk is a kinetic picture made of sand and water pressed between two panes of glass. A little larger than a postcard, it is the sort of kitsch thing that gets sold off a trestle table at a market: an eye-catcher. A toy, really. I’ve had it for years. The sand is candy pink, black and white. I believe the liquid is water – though, now I consider it, it could equally be a colourless, viscous oil; mineral oil, perhaps. The picture’s mount allows it to be flipped over in the way of an hourglass, after which the silt trickles down, eventually heaping in marbled hillocks along the bottom edge.

When my attention wanders, it wanders there. The seconds pass unhurried. This is, foremost, the reason I keep the picture nearby: to snowfall the empty time between thoughts. I like it best of all when, for the first few minutes after the frame is turned, the sand piles up in the top third, snagged on underlining clusters of pinhead bubbles. I sometimes find that the image’s composition recalls certain Chinese landscape paintings from the Song Dynasty: say, those made by Ma Yuan and his contemporary, Xia Gui. My mind goes to dark, arcane mountains afloat mid-air, their peaks swimming out of the mist, and high winds brushing off long, inky scrolls of topsoil to wreath the clouds. Then it all percolates downwards, grain by grain.

I can easily imagine a miniature double of myself trampling those settled, swirly dunes, thigh muscles ticking with exertion. Some days what I want, more than anything, is that feeling at the terminus of a blazing afternoon, when the sun has lashed down on the beach for hours and now each footprint breaks the searing surface to find a cooler strata below. Behind falls the night, setting indigo into each depression. The sound of unseen waves. And then? Do I descend the final crest in bounds? Is there, beyond, a silver, shimmering sea?

To live inside any picture as if it were a house, a habitat, an entire realm intact, is a plot point of many kids’ books and of fables. Think of Wu Daozi, servant to Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, who painted murals so lavish and detailed he was said to be able to step into them and leave our world behind. A maritime painting of a golden ship hung in a guest bedroom transforms into a portal to Narnia in CS Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). The trope is played for horror in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983). Who could forget poor Erica, trapped as a child by witchy malevolence inside a picture of a farmhouse and forced to live into her dotage there, motionless but ageing?

I get a little thrill when I find this trick in literary novels for adults. John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van (2014) has it, subtly. With a grace that eschews mercy, it is what Raven Leilani grants her protagonist at the end of Luster (2020): liberation and toil, in painting. Why am I drawn to these sorts of events in stories? People passing into artworks. Art as a bridge from one iteration of life to the next. Characters carrying on through pictures to discover some enigmatic ‘other side’. Perhaps it is because these scenes hint at an anxiety that, for me, lies at the centre of writing. What is the right way to represent something, anything, without yourself climbing inside it?

ANTONIE VAN LEEUWENHOEK (1632–1723) – innovator of the microscope, and sometimes called the ‘father of microbiology’ – saw himself in greater detail than anyone else of his era, magnified upon a slide. Across the span of his lifetime, van Leeuwenhoekfashioned some 500 different microscopes equipped with lenses of methodically ground glass. He sought to unveil, below the field of the ordinarily visible, a kingdom of infinitesimal beings and organic structures – an objective that was all the more remarkable as a leap of scientific imagination for the fact that few people had yet even guessed at, let alone witnessed, the existence of ‘the microscopic’. Louis Pasteur’s investigations into germ theory lay some 200 years into the future. In Delft, van Leeuwenhoek turned to his own body for specimens. He magnified scrapings from between his teeth (the ‘batter’ of plaque) as well as the fluid of his ejaculations, his tears, his spit and blood. Anything he could unfasten from himself and emulsify or pinion, he wanted to examine closely. In his stool he watched the parasite giardia moving its tiny ‘paws’. ‘Animalcules’: this was van Leeuwenhoek’s word for what he recognised as a hitherto undiscovered panoply of ‘little animals’ – those organisms we know today as protozoans, nematodes, rotifers and foraminifera. He identified many more nearby earthlings than did the more famous naturalists who were, at that time, reporting back from the New World on plants and wildlife Europeans regarded as exotic.

He also trained his microscopes on sand. Sand was plentiful in van Leeuwenhoek’s home laboratory because he used it to scour and contour his microscope lenses. If you’ve ever idly examined a fingertip of grit at the beach, then you’re very likely already familiar with sand’s lolly-shop aspect. How it is never uniformly pale yellow and spherical, but presents in a vast array of colours and shapes. Quartz white, toffee, copper, chartreuse, honeycomb, red. Oblong and conical or ridged. When van Leeuwenhoek put sand under his handmade microscope, he saw how myriad it was, and – because he could also observe each granule in three dimensions – how facetted, how cubist. He would not have used that term, but that, indeed, was what he made out: forms with corners.

At what point did van Leeuwenhoek decide to enter the microscope slide in miniature? And not just to meander as a homunculus among the multicoloured boulders, but to go inside a speck of sand, as one might enter a glasshouse or a gazebo? For there he is, depicted in one of his scientific illustrations: a single grain of sand has been rendered transparent, and inside we see two miniscule figures in robes, on their knees. Van Leewenhoek, perhaps, and the second person could be the draughtsman who drew the sand (following, to the word, van Leewenhoek’s instructions). The two people have their arms raised up towards the cathedral-like roof of the granule’s inner structure. Their posture is one of worship, or of being overawed. In van Leeuwenhoek’s day the natural world was drenched in canonical spirit: specifically, in the monotheistic traditions of Christianity to which van Leeuwenhoek subscribed (he was a Calvinist). He saw the godly in every dot. Should we judge it hubris or humility, then, when he projects these human figures into a grain of sand, there seemingly to pray and genuflect? For van Leeuwenhoek, is what inhabits nature – in its most foundational dimensions – humankind, or something infinitely more inscrutable, unseeable and sacred?

I HAPPENED ACROSS van Leeuwenhoek’s early experiments with microscopes in the course of researching my book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale (2020). But the part of his story that first piqued my curiosity was not van Leeuwenhoek’s enquires into animalcules, nor the depiction of the petite chapel inside the sand granule – rather, I was drawn in by his fascination for whale eyes.

Van Leeuwenhoek had been eager to dissect many different animals’ organs of sight in order to better understand the biological basis for vision. This knowledge, he believed, would aid in improving his microscopes. If he came to grips with how eyes worked, he might then be able to mechanically simulate a more piercing, magnifying focus by crafting better lenses. Biomimicry, of a type. He sought whale eyes specifically because of their size. Van Leeuwenhoek supposed that the bigger the eye, the larger the anatomical sub-structures within it – such was the case when it came to other organs, such as the heart. The more massive the animal, the larger its heart (and within that heart, bigger chambers, wider arteries). Whale eyes promised to showcase the internal composition of eyes as a generality; van Leeuwenhoek imagined they were, in effect, an enlargement of our own. Structures that might otherwise lie below the threshold of human perception in the smaller eyeballs of smaller creatures (even in human cadavers) were expected to be evident in these huge eyeballs. On this basis, van Leeuwenhoek anticipated gaining more insight into how vision functioned and applying those findings to his microscopy. So whale eyeballs, the biggest eyes, would equip him to see even further into the secret world of the small.

Or so went this ill-fated hypothesis. In 1704 van Leeuwenhoek finally received two sperm whale eyes (one each from two different whales, of varying sizes) from a ship’s captain whaling in seas around Greenland. The eyeballs came bottled in liquor and packed in sawdust to prevent decay. They proved not so big as van Leeuwenhoek had expected: whales’ eyes are not much larger than those of oxen, in fact. Neither were they round like a human eye, but elliptical and slightly pinched out (van Leeuwenhoek guessed that hauling the whales up by their tails had strained their eyeballs and altered the shape). He removed the ‘crystalline humour’ – the lens behind the cornea – from the smaller eye and scrutinised the other, first as a whole, then by slicing along its equator. But he found no new inspiration for developing a superior microscope. Instead, van Leeuwenhoek recorded that, despite the whale’s great size, its ‘particles of blood’ were ‘no larger than in any other fish, no bigger than a pin’. The fibrous matter of the whale’s crystalline humour, which looked like ‘exceedingly fine scales’, was no thicker than that of a year-old perch (though it was notably textured, not with branching structures as in fishes, but with circumvolutions like whirlpools or cowlicks atop a baby’s head). Ultimately, on an elemental level, the componentry of a whale – what we now call its cells – turned out no larger than those of other animals.

When I read about this history, I thought of it as a powerful parable. Van Leeuwenhoek had attempted to see further, to see more deeply into nature, through the apparatuses of nature – using the sensory equipment of dead whales. He did so not to sensitise himself to the world as it is apprehended by other species (van Leeuwenhoek harboured no illusion that whales saw their undersea world magnified in greater detail by virtue of having large eyes), but to uncover a part of it that, though invisible in the everyday, enhanced his feeling for the wonder of creation. He was predisposed to witness, inside nature, evidence of his own religiosity, to see his beliefs shone back to him. Concatenating the violence of hunting and killing a whale, then removing its eyes for vivisection, was a second-order iniquity: that of recruiting each and every iota of nature to testify to the hierarchical order of man above all other animals, as divined in the heavens. Van Leeuwenhoek could form no mental model to respect the lifeforce of a whale; he could not conceive of a whale as a historically unique being, with memory, cognisance and an entitlement to bodily integrity. A whale, to him, was a storehouse of specimens.

In my own book, Fathoms, I struggled with a similar dilemma. How to preserve (but not romanticise) a living whale’s mysterious otherness, its vibrancy and autonomy, at the same time as make space for the gut-clenching reality that some whales now held within them debris that had originated in our terrestrial world. Plastic pollution in their stomachs and agrochemicals in their blubber. Arrowheads wedged into scar tissue from unsuccessful raids waged long ago by our kind on theirs. It seemed an insoluble problem. To view whales only from the outside elided the evidence of human trespass within; it let us off the hook. To go into whales – to write in such a way as to decompose them – seemed perverse and vaguely violent, if what I intended to do was explore what it meant to encounter whales in the lee of an environmental movement that elevated them to the status of charismatic megafauna. In the end, I sought to make the book an exploration of this tension, and the troubling sorts of accountability that emerge from holding one perspective at the cost of the other.

A whale is not an artwork to be imaginatively inhabited, of course, and though there are many fictions in which people are swallowed by whales, and have their beliefs transmuted therein, projecting ourselves onto the natural world can also betray the arrogance that leads us to view animals as resources to be plundered. As the year comes to a close, I have been thinking again of van Leeuwenhoek, his microscopes, those two whale eyes bobbing in bottles of brandy. I have been reconsidering the temple in the grain of sand, and idly turning the kinetic picture too, considering that sand slid under the microscope today consists of so many fragments of microplastics and synthetic jetsam, weathered down to a crumble by the heat of the sun and the action of the sea. If there is, indeed, a right way to represent something without trapping yourself inside it, I have not yet discovered it.

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