Somewhere or another I remember reading that the most perfect faces are simply those that are the most average: eyes just the right distance apart, cheekbones just the right height, mouth neither too big nor too small, and so forth. With certain caveats, I might be willing to accept this. But I’m also thinking, how sad if our attempts to describe beauty begin and end with such perfection. We may become so unaccustomed to real beauty that we not only overlook it, but are repelled by it. How many truly striking women only come into their own during their college years, having been largely shunned by their classmates all during high school? How many people can really feel comfortable in a wild setting without succumbing to the urge to straighten things up a bit – get rid of some of the downed limbs and rotting logs, remove an unsightly snag, eradicate that clump of rank weeds? Yet with a little bit of ecological education, such messy elements may be prized – to such an extent that a forest seems immature and incomplete without them.
The other day I was lured outside for a brief mid-afternoon walk by the clear sky and calls of newly arrived scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. I slung binoculars around my neck, but found myself instead crouching for half an hour beside an ant-lion’s trap in the middle of the trail, waiting in vain for an ant to stray into it and get “stoned” to death – a drama I’ve never actually witnessed. I dropped little pieces of detritus into the trap, but only once did the larva’s head come close enough to the surface for me to catch a glimpse of it in the strong sunlight. So I started looking for ants to drop, lure or chase into it.
Again my efforts were a flop. Small ants are hard to catch, impossible to herd – and boy, do they move fast! One did bumble into the ant-lion’s trap while I watched, but it had no trouble scaling the other side – in fact, it didn’t even slow down! I began to suspect that this was the sort of thing that only worked as it was supposed to once in a very rare while. But later, when I checked on the web, I decided that maybe I just found a lazy or recently satiated ant-lion. According to The Antlion Pit: A Doodlebug Anthology, “Antlions are fascinating creatures whose behavior can easily be observed in the wild without ever touching or capturing them. An ant tossed into the pit will stir the antlion into action immediately. If direct involvement in an ant’s death presents you with moral (or other) problems, use an alternate method: a puff of air or a slender blade of grass dangled into the pit can sometimes provoke a sand-flicking response.”
Actually, my fascination with ant-lions stems from the knowledge that their adult form is an ethereal insect closely related to a lacewing. For me, the beauty of the lacewing derives as much from the contrast with its pre-adult “ugly” nature as from the grace and perfection of its adult form.
The thing that really struck me, though, once I began looking at the forest floor with a hunter’s eyes, was just how many tiny creatures were moving around. And most of them were ants, of at least three different species. That didn’t really surprise me; E.O. Wilson notes in Journey to the Ants that ants outnumber all other animals. Without them, says Wilson, “the earth would rot” and most animal species would go extinct. Still, even knowing all this, I was amazed. The earth is a goddamn ant farm!
A miniscule jumping spider added to the interest of this landscape-in-miniature. So quickly did she move from one spot to another, it was as if she had mastered the art of teleportation – an impression reinforced by the lack of any apparent mechanism for this amazing feat. I saw nothing comparable to a grasshopper’s outsized rear legs.
When people talk about creepy-crawlies, I think, they demonstrate perhaps to an exaggerated degree an unease that most of us feel about the lack of any absolute differentiation between the living, crawling surfaces of the world and the surfaces of our own bodies. This co-terminality is more than mere homology – a fact of which the inhabitants of more tick- and chigger-infested parts of the globe need little reminding. When one goes to the tropics, of course, the number of lifeforms waiting to parasitize human flesh, from exotic molds to all manner of mosquito-borne viruses, becomes truly staggering. Years ago, my mother returned from a visit to the Peruvian rainforest with a strange, red lump on her arm that weeped pus and wouldn’t go away. Then one day when she was in the shower, she let out a shriek that brought us all running. Something had just stuck its ugly little head out of a hole in the middle of the lump! A human botfly larva! Fortunately, she hadn’t seen the movie Alien, and fortunately my dad is very patient with a pair of long-nosed tweezers and managed to pull the thing out. (We learned later that the approved method of removal is to tie a slab of raw meat over the spot. Trying to evict the larva by force is chancy, because if part of it remains behind it will rot, with potentially unpleasant consequences.)
Here in the over-sanitized North, we forget what it must’ve been like for our ancestors, whose hirsute bodies (in the case of my ancestors, at any rate) would’ve been more or less constantly in motion with fleas and one or both species of human lice. Without such direct experience, who nowadays can really read as it was meant to be read Robert Burns’ poem “To A Louse”, or John Donne’s “The Flea”?
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Our gross-out reaction undoubtedly gets in the way of enjoying the bawdy humor – just as it prevents us from truly appreciating what such creepy-crawlies meant to the 18th-century haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, perhaps the most entomologically minded poet of all time.
For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.
(translated by Robert Haas)
Of course, a complete consideration of human-body-as-habitat must look well beyond the assorted ecto- and endoparasites. As Lewis Thomas memorably stated in the title essay to his bestselling essay collection The Lives of a Cell (Viking, 1974), “A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. . . . We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.”
To pick a less radical example, our intestinal flora are still more-or-less discrete organisms without which digestion would be impossible. This example in particular makes me think of Rabelais, as interpreted by Bakhtin. As I’ve written here in the past, for Rabelais – as for most premoderns – the idealized human body was in constant flux, full of grotesque hollows and protrusions, interpenetrated by – and only very imperfectly differentiated from – the world’s own, grotesque body. Bakhtin maintains that our conception of a smooth and finished body is no older than the 18th century. “The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)
Experimental pathologist Marc Lappé, author of The Body’s Edge: Our Cultural Obsession with Skin (Henry Holt, 1996), seems to agree that the older conception of the body was more accurate. “The view of the skin as a barrier against pathogens, pollutants and radiation is a modern one, and a wrong-headed one at that,” Lappé writes. “Many primitive [sic] cultures regarded the skin as a naturally permeable system and respected its integrity by limiting their disinfection efforts to occasional scrubbings. . . . [By contrast,] modern medical practitioners mistakenly believe that the skin must be kept ‘clean’ and germ-free as a defense against disease. Through the overzealous use of disinfectants, the skin is stripped of its naturally protective microorganisms. This unfortunate practice has led to nursery epidemics of antibiotic-resistant staph and streptococcal skin infections and overgrowth of yeast organisms.”
“Naturally protective microorganisms”? Say what?
“Our skin is host to a veritable entourage of microorganisms during its short life,” says Lappé. “As many as twenty million bacteria and fungi and numerous parasites and arthropods inhabit every square inch of our skin. We are not born so colonized, but rather acquire this ecological microcosm in stages. . . . After birth, the sterile skin is seeded constantly by individual bacteria and fungi, including various staphylococci, corynebacteria, streptococci, and occasional coliforms. These interlopers land on the skin much as invaders would colonize a vacant planet: tentatively and with many failures. But certain bacteria are ‘intended’ to thrive on the skin and are remarkably successful in expanding from their initial land sites rapidly.” (Emphasis added)
This brings the discussion back almost to where it started, given that the condition of our skins – especially the skin of our faces – is widely used as an index of beauty. Although human beings are uniquely expressive and uniquely attuned to the expressions on other’s faces, we ignore at our peril the role of culture and individual preference in shaping these conceptions. “Beauty is only skin-deep,” says the redneck proverb, “but ugly goes all the way to the bone.” But if beauty is understood only as a sort of golden mean, and all the individuating marks and scars and wrinkles, all the skewed and off-color points of interest must be airbrushed away, I say: make mine ugly!
I’ll let our panhandling sage have the last word on this topic today . . .