A journey through the wormhole.
Music featured in this episode:
“Prepared Piano,” by Jack Ladd
“If,” by Islands
The 1950s and 60s were the golden age of bug disaster movies. Earth was under attack from all manner of insects. In the 1954 film Them! giant ants attack Los Angeles. In 1955’s Tarantula a giant spider terrorizes the Arizona desert. In 1957, it was giant grasshoppers, a mutant praying mantis, and wasps. The next year, London was beset by insects and a giant spider crashed a high school dance in Texas.
From the plague of locusts in Exodus to the fleas of the Bubonic Plague, our history and culture furnish ample evidence of horrifying insects. Even today, movies like Eight Legged Freaks, Black Swarm, and The Hive play on our horror of spiders, wasps, and ants, respectively.
If these stories emerge from and speak to a central fear, it’s that insects destroy. We see termites eat our floorboards. We see flies spoil our food and ants punish our lack of vigilance about crumbs.
Insects are footsoldiers in nature's campaign to unmake our civilization.
Joelle Wickens: The reality of this object is that it's probably had several different campaigns of being eaten by pests.
This military metaphor, the "campaign," is museum-industry standard for talking about insect damage. Conservators talk about campaigns of damage in the life of an artwork, and about museums’ opposing campaigns of conservation. It's a war indeed.
But what if it’s not? I want to argue that bugs are vitally important to us. And I thought I’d start by looking at the other side of insect damage, which isn’t always entirely bad. Even destructive traces tell an unexpected, unseen story.
Joelle W: And so, what I did was fold back the quilt so that you can see.
This is Dr. Joelle Wickens, Preventive Conservation Team Head at the Winterthur Collection in Delaware. She showed me a quilt that her student Emily Schuetz Stryker investigated. The top of the quilt is green. The underside is a blue and white pinstripe with very specific insect damage. Insects ate the blue stripes but not the white ones.
Joelle W: The more you look, the more you see that the blue has disappeared but the white is very complete.
Sometimes this damage is so precise that tiny white crossthreads continue through where the blue stripes have disappeared.
Joelle W: It would take some effort for a bug to eat around the white and only eat the blue. And so Emily was trying to figure out why.
I think of this quilt like the four-pound jar of jellybeans I once found at a friend's house. He didn’t like the pink jellybeans, so he’d reduced the huge tub to an inch of only pink jellybeans, leaving clear material evidence of his preference.
In science, this is called a trace fossil: rather than the body of an animal, we have indirect evidence of life. Burrows, nests, eggshells, toothmarks. The footprint of a dinosaur, or the fossilized concavity in which a sea star once rested on an ocean floor.
Trace fossils tell us many things about these invisible animals, including their preferences. So, Emily wondered, why? Why did these insects prefer eating the blue? If we know that, she figured, we’ll know what they want to eat next.
She determined that the insects were probably after indigo, a plant dye rich in nitrogen. Also, Emily pointed out, the dyeing might have softened the wool. Bearing this preference in mind, Emily suggested that conservators monitor blue things more and other things less. Red, for instance. Insects usually don't like red.
Essentially, Emily proposed that conservators must see their collections through bug eyes. These tiny organisms see our stuff as food, and as we know, some flavors are better than others.
I spoke with Joelle, Emily’s thesis advisor, because Emily died shortly after finishing her Master’s thesis. But Emily's questions live on: the next step, Joelle told me, is creating surrogate objects solely for the purpose of consumption. Experimenters will feed these objects to colonies of bugs, and in this facsimile of the ravages of age, still clearer patterns will emerge, bringing museums closer to the insect's-eye view of the world.
PG: Do you ever look at objects in your own life and think, this is what they will come for first?
Joelle W: Yeah, yeah, I do, I do, and actually, it can be kind of overwhelming. Or you can say, you know, for most things, life is life, and there’s no reason to save everything for the next 500 years, and so I’m going to enjoy this thing, and, yes, it’ll wear out, but that’s okay.
Just down the road from Winterthur, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, I met Curator of Birds Dr. Jean Woods in the lobby. From there, Jean took me down a side stairwell and through an outdoor loading bay to a concrete chamber museum guests never see: the bug room. There's no access without exiting the museum.
Jean Woods: So this is—here, if you’re recording, let me turn the fan off.
PG: So we've entered the bug room and it smells a bit like rotting flesh.
Jean W: Not surprisingly. I knew it would smell, that’s why I had the ventilation fan on. So here’s something I put in last Friday. It’s a Caspian Tern. You can see the beetles.
Jean held a tupperware bin containing a half-decomposed bird skeleton swarming with flesh-eating beetles.
Jean W: And they’re just crawling around, dining away!
So, if one of these beetles gets inside the museum, it's an infestation. The museum's pest control procedures kick in, to protect their highly sensitive specimens. But out here in the bug room, Jean does her best to make sure these beetles do what they do best: strip the flesh from dead animals. Out here, the bugs clean the scientific specimens the museum wishes to preserve. Once the skeleton is mostly clean, it goes into a jar. The bug room has hundreds of jars, little shipments of bones.
PG: Is that a duck? With that large bill?
Jean W: Yeah, that’s a duck. I think that’s probably a Shoveler. Which has a particularly ducky, large duck bill.
We headed back into the museum to see the final stage.
Jean W: Okay, so the collections are all the way on the top floor of the museum here. So this is the first floor, that’s all the exhibit floor.
PG: Where all the people who have no idea that you have a room full of—a bird in a box being eaten by bugs.
Jean W: Exactly.
PG: A hundred yards away.
Jean W: But, you know, most big museums have a room like this somewhere, somewhere in the bowels of the museum.
I phoned around the other day. Museums with bug rooms include London's Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Chicago's Field Museum, Philadelphia's Carnegie Museum, and the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology. The room is called a dermestarium. The practice apparently began in nineteenth century France.
Using the bugs, humans can clean the smallest interior reaches of even the most tortuously twisted mollusk shell. The tradeoff is that conservators like Jean must be acutely aware of their colony's needs and capabilities. In a mirror image of conservators fighting pests, Jean feeds them. If she’s leaving town, she has to plan their meals well in advance.
Jean W: You know, whenever I’m preparing chicken and I’m trimming fat or stuff off, then I’ll just save it all.
PG: It seems kind of nice that you’re thinking of them when you’re carving up a bird at home. They’re in your heart when you’re not here.
Jean W: Yeah. Yeah.
Jean took me into a cavernous bird room, with rows upon rows of specimen cabinets disappearing into the dark. Each contained shelves packed with little white boxes bearing an eerie resemblance to Lego kits in their size and their rattling, granular sound.
Jean W: I’ll get the box open. So this is all the bones of a single bird.
It was a perfect, white pile of bones, much, much smaller than I had imagined.
Jean W: So here's the Caspian Tern. Which is the one we were looking at downstairs.
PG: So how many of these have gone through the bug room?
Jean W: Well, so there’s 11,000—give or take, that’s rounded—skeletons in our collection. Some fraction of them were prepared elsewhere, but I would have to say probably eight or nine thousand have probably been through the room downstairs.
We were surrounded by the bugs' slow, enormous production. Yet a single living bug inside this facility would be cause for alarm, for an anti-pest campaign.
Jean W: So it is a little bit of a love-hate. I guess it sort of depends whether I’m in the bug room, and then I love them, and if I’m up here, then I hate them.
When it comes to love-hate relationships I don't think it gets more complex than a study by Dr. Blair Hedges of Temple University. Blair discovers new species of reptiles and amphibians in the Caribbean. Out of historical interest, he started collecting old maps of the region from the age of discovery. But some of his maps contained little white spots. This is not unheard of: they're marks left by wormholes.
Blair Hedges: Now, you see wormholes in wood, in furniture, the actual holes. To be clear, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about printed wormholes.
A woodblock print is a subtractive art form. The artist cuts grooves into a block of wood, delineating a map, for example. The artist then spreads ink across the block. When the artist presses paper against the inked surface, the cuts in the wood leave white lines, transferring the carved image onto the page. But if there's a wormhole in the woodblock, that hole will leave a corresponding white absence in the print.
BH: White spots where there should be black.
But in Blair's hands, what might have been mere damage became something else. Blair noticed that prints from certain cities bore perfect white circles, while other cities' prints tended to bear little white ellipses.
BH: It’s noticeable to the human eye.
The larger holes tended to appear in prints from southern cities, but the picture was unclear, so on weekends, and on his own dime, Blair began investigating. He examined prints from all over Europe, traveling to American rare books libraries and then to France, Germany, and the Netherlands, measuring these tiny signs of insect damage. He measured over 3000 holes and put together a map of Europe showing every city's average hole size.
BH: And actually, I couldn't find a single city where they occurred together. Which is very odd.
Blair found a clean line across Europe. It begins midway up the coast of France, then travels northeast, passing above Paris, before falling south, running along below Germany, above Switzerland, Italy, and Slovenia.
Blair's theory is that the two hole sizes come from two different furniture beetles. The small holes come from a beetle called Anobium punctatum. The larger holes come from Oligomerus ptilinoides.
BH: Probably! That’s the trouble, you know. We don’t actually see them in the art objects. You see the evidence of them. Trace fossils.
Bug bites, never the bugs themselves. Blair thinks these holes represent two different ways of chewing through wood: the northern beetle will head right for the surface, whereas the southern beetle follows the tree rings to pop out at a 45-degree angle, making that elongated, oval shape.
In the twentieth century Blair’s line disappears: increased trade meant the two bugs entered each other’s zones. But from 1462 to 1899 Blair's line is perfect. If we know how to read this line, we can learn a lot.
A small hole means Ireland, England, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Austria, and most of Germany. A large hole means Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Italy.
Say you have a print of unknown origin. This is particularly common in American collections: it'll just say, "Europe." A few wormhole measurements determine whether the print came from northern or southern Europe. With a French print, these measurements determine which part of France.
Or say you have a whole book of unknown origin. If it contains prints, a few wormholes can point to its origin; or it can reveal much more. Blair examined the Materia Medica, a botanical book with hundreds of prints, and found evidence of prints from the north and south mixed together.
BH: So what it told us was that the actual woodblocks were moved back and forth. The blocks were carved in Italy, I believe, and they were moved to Germany, and back to the south again. They went back and forth over 200 years.
And then there's the thing that really gets me. There’s the inverse, the story from the bug's-eye-view. Blair's weekend work reveals that a document like the Materia Medica is also an epic of two species competing for half a millennium, millions of lives lived largely outside the human frame of reference.
BH: It’s probably one of the best fossil records known to science. The work of art that’s dated precisely, you know, April 23, 1504, you know? Something like that. And you see a hole in it, and you know this organism lived before that date.
I can’t help but find this side of the story moving. You have only to roll over a log to see this other world churning forward all around us. It’s full of insect makers, unfamiliar to us but not completely alien. I've read that ants bury their dead, covering the bodies with earth and stopping up the passage leading to the funeral chamber. Bees also have funeral proceedings, with designated undertakers removing their dead from the hive. Here, in these prints, the insects have entered our history, leaving material traces of their history. The evidence sits in plain sight, invisible to historians only as long as a hole remains just a hole.
PG: One thing that fascinates me about all this is that, in a way, there’s a, [like, a] tradeoff. Because you end up with these holes in artworks, which everyone would probably say is unfortunate. But from those holes you end up with a body of knowledge about things that we probably would have had a very hard time determining. And I wonder how you think about that, because it’s sad but it’s also—I mean, it’s also kind of awesome.
BH: From that perspective of biology, this is great, but I think if I were an art historian, I would say, get rid of those vermin, get rid of the insects, and we don’t want ’em because they’re destroying our works of art. Does one outweigh the other? I don’t know.
I don’t either. But the fact is, insect history does outweigh human history in duration, population, and biomass. It might be impossible to sustain such a removed view of human endeavors that the exchange seems worth it, it might be downright irresponsible, but the role of insect lives in world history is at least food for thought.
Until I began researching insect damage, I'd never really considered the wormhole. It's an insect metaphor used for a theoretical astrophysical phenomenon. As I understand it, a wormhole joins two disparate points, as if someone had folded the plane of reality on itself, and then a worm had eaten a hole straight through both sheets, just like a wormhole in a book. Unfold the sheet, or open the book, and you see two separate holes that nevertheless represent the trajectory of one single worm.
In the literal example of a book, this absence might feel like a defeat. But if wormholes suggest anything to the optimist in me, it's that, through this hole, we might see another world.
Next time on Cellar Door, the objects insects make: the material culture of insects.
October 25, 2016