In a recent comment thread, Dale asked about the connection (if any) between my waking life and my dreams. I’ve always thought there’s a bit of an inverse relationship: the more dull one’s day-to-day existence, the more one’s subconscious mind tries to compensate with exciting dreams. Thus, my dreams are unusually eventful. I do things in them that I never do in real life, such as have sex.
It’s often said that the brain is the most important sex organ. Humans, along with our close cousins the bonobos, are among the sexiest of animals. That is to say, the females of our species do not have distinct periods of estrus, but remain more-or-less permanently receptive. Hence the importance and power of the imagination in initiating sex, and the autonomous quality of sex for humans and bonobos, its liberation from reproduction per se.
A more female-centric way of putting this would be to say that human females have a unique level of control over their sexual cycles compared with other species. This also means that women can “turn it off” for prolonged periods of time – a source of wonder and some envy to me as a male. Thus, freedom in sex includes freedom from sex.
Except, that is, for the menses. It seems that as a species we have bought our freedom from the solar calendar with an inconvenient and sometimes quite dreadful slavery to the lunar calendar. (It’s no wonder that religious systems as diverse as those of the ancient Hebrews and the Maya have sought further human liberation through the invention of arbitrary units of time with no dependence on either lunar or solar cycles.)
And all of this, of course, is still bound up with reproduction. Homo sapiens is at the extreme “K” end of the r vs. K (numbers vs. care) continuum of reproductive strategies. The scientific, reductionist explanation for human sexiness emphasizes its importance in forming and perpetuating social bonds necessary for caring for our uniquely dependent offspring. (Elephants are our closest competitors in this regard, and not surprisingly, they too form exceptionally strong social bonds, which even extend beyond death.)
The exceptionally long period of juvenile dependence may well be viewed as another factor limiting individual freedom. But there’s little doubt in my mind that the human imagination wouldn’t be nearly as powerful – and hence wouldn’t perpetuate any instinct for freedom in the first place – were it not for the demands and rewards of lengthy juvenile dependence. Sex in and of itself is actually fairly mindless.
I was reminded of this by a brief tour through the more erotically charged portions of the blogosphere last week. This was sparked by a scornful paragraph over at Blaugustine about the utter predictability of Britain’s most popular blog, Belle du Jour – the purported diary of a prostitute. Indeed, after spending a couple hours peeping in on the sexual adventures of the terminally hip, I found myself stifling a yawn. Give me a good collection of folktales or creation myths from almost any indigenous society and I can find way more bizarre shit. You know, Coyote turning into a comb to impregnate the daughter of a chief, a giant sea serpent turning into a handsome prince (or vice versa), that kind of thing.
Ah, you say, but that’s not realistic. In fact, I would argue the opposite: it’s not nearly realistic enough.
I was actually thinking along these lines yesterday, as I drew yet again on Biblical themes to exemplify the kind of myths we need in order to teach reverence for Creation. The fact is that a couple centuries of careful, scientific-minded observation have yielded far more compelling narratives. Only the wildest and woolliest dreamtime stories of Australian aborigines, and a few other gatherer-hunter peoples, come anywhere close to representing the true variety and inventiveness of Nature.
One question I would like to pose, inter alia, is whether the human imagination – including its supreme offspring, empathy – can still accomplish its fundamental tasks of providing social cohesion, effective childrearing, and (of course) lots of hot sex in the absence of meaningful connections with wild Nature? If, as I believe cultural history demonstrates, a people gradually becomes more imaginatively challenged as their society loses its vital connections with the earth, is it possible that their sex lives might suffer as well?
I’d need to become a lot better versed in the anthropological literature before I could do that question much justice. In the meantime, I’d like to use the rest of this post to review the kinds of revelations about sex that can reward a close study of Nature.
Among the most varied and interesting sexual curiosities are of course the flowering plants. Orchids that use visual and chemical stimuli to trick wasps into trying to mate with them, using them to spread their pollen (sperm) but giving the poor, inadvertent masturbators no satisfaction whatsoever – these are the true champions of Nature’s extreme sex competition.
If we are to stick with Animalia, however, almost invariably the invertebrates seem to exhibit the most bizarre variations. This makes sense: the backbone certainly constitutes a strong limiting factor on what humans can achieve. Picture, for instance, an overweight john trying to get his groove back with a too-vigorous, youthful companion (male or female) in some sleazy Mediterranean motel where the bedbugs add insult to injury.
Now switch focus and watch the bedbugs. Like human beings, they like to stuff themselves way past what would seem like a rational point, where they would still be able to escape readily from the Pinch of Doom. Bedbugs are interesting culturally and linguistically, as the first insect to be called a bug, apparently from the Welsh word for ghost or demon, the root also of bogeyman and bugbear. (“Buggery” has a separate origin, from the Bogomils, the archetypal medieval heretics – the modern word is “terrorists” – to whom all manner of unspeakable acts were attributed.)
But here’s what’s really weird: the male bedbug practices what’s known as “traumatic insemination.” He uses his large, scimitar-like penis to punch a hole in the female’s abdominal wall and ejaculate directly into her bloodstream. The sperm cells migrate through the blood to the reproductive organs, where they hang out in little bags until the female’s next blood feast, whereupon they make their way into the ovaries for their long-anticipated trysts with the eggs.
So yes, bedbuggery is a bloody mess all around. It isn’t quite as haphazard as I’ve painted it: there is one distinct spot, a small notch between abdominal segments, where the penis goes in. But not all species in the bedbug’s genus possess this feature; with at least one species the locus of insemination appears to be wholly random. And there’s no denying that bedbugs are horny little devils. Olafactory clues seem to play even less of a role with bedbugs than with humans. “Males apparently find the females merely by blundering upon them, and they will attempt to mate with a piece of cork carved in the shape of a bug,” says Howard Ensign Evans (Life on a Little-Known Planet, Dutton, 1968 – the source of all this fascinating information).
Moreover, the males of some species will apparently stick and inseminate each other if no females are available. “This seems to support the idea that [bedbugs] are able to transfer protein-rich nutrients to one another, possibly an important adaptation in an animal that sometimes has to wait long periods for a blood meal to become available,” says our entomological guide. But what’s the reductionist argument for having sex with bedbug-shaped pieces of cork, then? Whatever the nutritional advantages of fucking, it seems bleedingly obvious to me that bedbugs – like the johns and (perhaps) prostitutes with whom they often exchange bodily fluids – just happen to like sex, traumatic insemination and all.
Another curiosity of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditism. The hermaphrodite is, of course, a figure with rich mythological overtones in many cultures, and we probably can’t remind ourselves often enough that human hermaphroditism, while quite rare, is natural, giving the lie to overly dualistic notions about gender.
My favorite book of poetry on biological themes, Bio Graffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns (Norton, 1981), uses a lithograph of a snail to illustrate the very brief “To a Lonely Hermaphrodite” –
– which I have quoted here before, in a post aptly titled Confused chorus.
For those with an imperfect grasp of the Facts of Life, this might seem to raise the question, why would a hermaphrodite need to have sex with a partner at all? The short answer is, because cloning is a risky reproductive strategy, although many plants (for example) do rely heavily upon it. Another answer is that snails seek partners possibly for the same reasons we do. Assuming most members of the animal kingdom experience some kind of pleasure in the gratification of the sexual urge, it makes sense that natural selection would favor individuals most prone to experience pleasure with a partner, guaranteeing genetic diversity and hence the survival of that species.
Thus it is that horny land snails, such as the little brown jobs you can find by the thousands in any Eastern U.S. woodlot after a rain, like to pull alongside and fire little love darts into each other, after a considerable amount of fondling and foreplay. Snails are montremes: that is to say, both sets of genitals share one opening. In the words of an online handbook on snail ranching (what else would you call the raising of snails for escargots?),
During the mating season which begins in spring the snails seek each other, smell and nibble each other and then join themselves for a very long coition of several hours, side by side over the horizontal plane. They prick each other with a calcium dart and after numerous pricks with this dart the pouch containing the vagina and the penis turns in on itself.
There is a reciprocal introduction of the male organ into the female conduit and the sperm received is then stored. At this time the genital gland issues no eggs.
Once mating is completed and the two snails separate the male part is absorbed and the female part develops. The spermatozoa leave the copulative pouch and move toward the top of the genital tract in order to impregnate the eggs that are discharged by the hermaphroditic gland.
I get kind of envious reading this. Imagine being able to turn one’s sex organs inside out! (Of course, snails can do this with their eyestalks, too. Come to think of it, sea cucumbers can turn their entire bodies inside out – but that’s another story.) And sex has to better if you’re covered with slime, I’m thinking, remembering the fellow who was arrested recently in Binghamton, NY for coating every surface of his motel room, as well as his own body, with petroleum jelly (44 jars of Vaseline!).
Mollusks are an odd bunch. Not only did they independently evolve eyes and (in the case of octopi) advanced intelligence; they also include the one group of animal species I’m aware of that most closely resembles flowers in its reproductive strategies. I’m talking about the wonderfully diverse and imperiled bivalves known as freshwater mussels, which are something of an Appalachian specialty.
Mussels don’t get around much; they only have one foot and they spend a disproportionate amount of time with their mouths (gills) open, seining the water for microscopic food. The sexual part of reproduction seems fairly mundane: males release sperm into the current and trust in fate. As far as they are concerned, I suppose, they are having sex with the river itself.
The fun part begins when the female puts the fertilized zygotes out to nurse. If a freshwater mussel species relied solely on the current for reproduction, over time it would migrate downstream until it became a freshwater species no more. In order to continue to occupy their headwater niches in the Appalachians and elsewhere, mussels have to avail themselves of the unwitting services of more mobile animals: fish. Some species simply wait for an opportune moment and expel the larvae, called glochidia, trusting again in chance. If the glochidia come in contact with a suitable piscine host, they attach themselves to its gills and fins and irritate them just enough to stimulate the secretion of scar tissue, which completely covers the larvae in a kind of jerry-rigged marsupial pouch. The larvae then feed on the fluid of the host until they get big enough, at which point they drop off and find a new home as adults, crowded together in beds – as they’re called – on the beds – as they’re also called – of streams and rivers. (I’m thinking that fisher people must be rather fond of sleep. Actually, that could explain a lot.)
But some species aren’t content to trust in fate and timing alone. They literally go fishing. According to a paper I found online, these mollusks “bind numbers of glochidia into long mucus forms called conglutinates. These conglutinates may be colored to resemble worms or other food items, and infest the host’s gills when they are eaten. Recently, superconglutinates were discovered in several southern species; these superconglutinates are groups of individual conglutinates formed into a fish-like lure which is played out in the water on a strand of mucus up to 8 feet long. Some species have modified their mantles into lures resembling fishes, insects, or other food items, which often pulsate in swimming-like motions” (references removed).
What I want to know is, are some of the fish so targeted also game species, such as brook trout? Might a single fish be fooled by two different simulacra of the very same insect prey, manufactured by two very different critters, on the same day? What a uniquely frustrating life that fish must lead!
I can understand why the mollusks do what they do, but I must admit, the motives of catch-and-release fly fishermen remain a mystery to me. And as for the fish: I feel their pain. I really do.
UPDATE: I just discovered that Fred First blogged about mussel reproduction first! On June 10, he wrote about the wonderfully named orange-nacre mucket, whose lure takes the form of two minnows swimming side-by-side. His source describes the fishing line as “gelatinous.” I still prefer to think of it as mucous. Clam snot. (Not to be confused with snail slime.)