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Catastrophic cascade

From the LabLit short story series

H. Dominic Stiles 18 December 2016

The page of a sketchbook, with a skilfully drawn butterfly, is propped up on the desk, but there are no people to be found here. It is doubtful this material will survive the owner

The letterbox squeaks and two letters drop onto the mat. But they will never be read by the recipient. They join others in an untidy pile of junk mail and Christmas cards.

The front gate, left unshut by the postman's haste, taps against the gatepost: cheap untreated pine, with blistered peeling paint, its corners conceal tiny white egg sacks that will burst open with arachnid activity when the days lengthen into spring.

The softwood underneath is damp. Had we sufficient magnification we might observe that microcelium from some indeterminate species of Asterostroma is pushing ever deeper, breaking and softening the cells, their starry structures studding the lignin like tiny caltrops around a castle gate. The hyphae secrete cellulase, sucking back the sugars resulting from their enzymatic activity, to put on new growth, and send out fruiting bodies that will spread spores and start again the cycle.

By the gate an unruly rosemary sways, touched by a cool breeze under the diffuse grey light. In November, the mild autumn had tricked the plant into sending out unseasonal flowers, but they are insufficient for the one awakened humble bee, Bombus pascuorum, as the cottage's owner would have precisely identified it.

In the leaf litter beneath, a solitary dunnock in her anonymous plumage busies herself, seeking out seeds and invertebrates, snatching at a soil-dwelling centipede that has just grabbed a pea weevil wintering in the detritus.

Common whitlow grass creeps up from the cracks in the paving and – small as it is – it towers over a young woodlouse, infected with a parasite that has affected its brain so that it offers itself up on a plate for a woodlouse spider.

In the front room of the cottage, a female clothes moth has found her way down the chimney, and laid her eggs on the mat in front of the fire. The moth's body now lies in a corner of the room where it has dropped from the jaws of a cellar spider, who hangs motionless guarding the ball of eggs that seems bigger than her body.

The study is in the back of the house. The shelves are neat, every book placed in an order meaningful to the owner. Journals are different – they sit in jumbles in a few piles, most recent on top. A filing cabinet drawer is partly open, and where some notes and maps used to be there is a space. There are jars with labels, and a shelf covered with skulls of birds and mammals. The page of a sketchbook, with a skilfully drawn butterfly, is propped up on the desk, but there are no people to be found here. It is doubtful this material will survive the owner.

Beyond the tangle of overgrown grass and dead flower stalks in the back garden, there lies a pond. Leaves have fallen into it from the hedge, where elms still survive by suckering before they reach the size when forming bark brings beetle-attack. In the field beyond, a wind-hovering kestrel hangs and dives down after a vole. The vole will survive this time, but the field will not, and in a year or two developers will have moved in.

But all that is far, far away in a distant land.

The ecologist lies at the edge of the forest, head hanging back into a stream amidst a scatter of collecting jars and torn notebooks. She is bleeding out from a small puncture wound on her breast. Her hair has come lose and wafts in the water as if posed for a pre-Raphaelite painter. Her grey eyes stare up into the cloudless cerulean blue sky, showing a surprise that only decay will remove.

It may be weeks or months before she is found, by which time which time sarcophagid flies and beetles will have transformed her flesh first into myriads of the crawling and flying, and they in turn morphed into the insectivores, both mammal and bird, while her bones are subsumed into the soil among the blind burrowing things.

Her university may found a scholarship in her name, and a couple of her papers will perhaps continue to be influential for a number of years. Yet her field notes are gone, and her photographs of numerous previously unidentified species will be lost when, abandoned, the stolen camera's battery dies. In turn those species will be lost forever in a catastrophic cascade when the forest is felled for a palm oil plantation.

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I was inspired to write this by two things. Firstly, by the science writer Richard Conniff’s The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists, which contains too many tragic stories of naturalists who have died in the course of their work. Well done to him for caring. The second inspiration was the late great Bill Hamilton’s essay, "My intended burial and why", (Hamilton, W. D., 2000 Ethology Ecology and Evolution 12 111-122) where he describes how he would like to be laid out in the forest and consumed by beetles: “They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. […] So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.” The whole thing is well worth a read.

The title is a play on ‘trophic cascade', only my ‘predator’ is the ecologist and the cascade is the loss of all that which she cannot name, and the proliferation of houses and palms that follows.

Other articles by H. Dominic Stiles