I have always been allergic to animals. As a child I wanted to ride a horse, and when eventually I was allowed to try, I ended up in hospital on a breathing machine. I asked to try again – like many little girls, I was as determined as I was ignorant – and was brought again to hospital, where the same doctor looked after me. He said I could try it again but he wouldn’t treat me next time.
Being near animals with hair still brings a strong reaction out of my body– my throat closes up, my eyes weep, my skin becomes so inflamed that I would like to take it off. Other creatures literally stop me breathing. There are so many of them, and only one of me. And yet I cannot stop getting involved with other species. I had been writing about animals for several years before I started my latest job, which is to write about animals on a three-year contract.
My first child was a few weeks old when I made my application for the project. I was running out of money, and somebody suggested a funding scheme. One morning before dawn, blue wintry light outside, I sat down at my computer to apply while the baby was sleeping. I was tired, and when I looked at the white screen in front of me I could see the chains of bubble-like cells which float behind my eyes. Most are just dots but there is one shaped like a spiral and a long thin one which I think of as a heron. They drifted lazily down the illuminated page. I wrote quickly, without much reflection: like my postnatal mind, the finished proposal had a kind of cosmic vibe, but it was addled. I said that I wanted to write a book about animal life. I needed to work with farmers and butchers and scientists, and to attend ecology seminars, and to spend time observing other species, and to get some hamsters. In particular, I was interested in microbes, and I needed to do a residency at a microbiological research institute in Germany. I didn’t want to write about one animal, but about all animals. I referenced Noah’s ark, Samuel Beckett, the relative sensory primacy of different species, Instagram, Periscope, John Locke, the Modernist preoccupation with human consciousness and six mass extinctions! I removed some of the exclamation marks and sent it off, believing it would go to academic peer review, but in fact it was sent to the executive board of a multinational corporation whose charitable foundation backed the scheme. I didn’t know at the time that the executives would audit the proposals, paging through the ideas of young scholars on their private jets. If I had known, perhaps I would have written a different proposal. But the board moves in mysterious ways.
A year later I was in Germany, beginning my residency at a microbiological research institute. When I rang the buzzer at the institute on my first day, a huge voice, booming out of it almost immediately, told me that I was punctual. A figure appeared at the far end of the corridor. He came towards me, walking as if he was wearing slippers, the soles of his shoes hardly coming off the floor. Tall, a little stooped, a brown beard going grey, the edges of the moustache pulled into fine points. He squeezed my hand so hard that the bone clicked. Dieter.
We went to the staff kitchen to make coffee. A tiny squirt of dense black liquid came out of the machine. Dieter asked whether I wanted sugar, milk or extra water, and I said no. ‘You are like me,’ he said. His eyes were bloodshot and his hands shook when he passed the cup. I thought: he must be a drinker.
The laboratories were new – glass, plastic, stainless steel, huge windows. Dazzling light reflected on itself. ‘I was consulted on the design,’ said Dieter, but his own office was in an older building to which the laboratories were an extension, and stepping through his door was like going back in time.
The office was a mess – dusty books, old prints of plants and butterflies tacked unframed onto the wooden wall, and a large bottle of Oust! on the windowsill. The smell of cigarettes was powerful. The potplants looked primeval – huge ferns with tightly coiled tips that were damp like green snails, and one lewd cactus, as tall as me, obscuring the view out the window. There was a computer screen, but instead of a keyboard beneath it there was a chunk of ammonite fossil the size of a small plate. Dieter leaned on the wooden window-ledge, hands laced behind his head, and from the beginning I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
I had wanted to ask about microbial life, but Dieter had other ideas. He talked about his student days: ‘I worked in the forest and slept there too.’ About wine from the Saal region: ‘They are proud of it around here – but it is very bad.’ About meat-eating: ‘I love animals but I eat meat, I’m not consequent.’ About his current student cohort: ‘They are not trained to have minds of their own. Poor chaps with pale faces full of pickles, they are never drunk, poor things. It is difficult to teach such creatures.’ About DNA: ‘One shouldn’t take it too seriously.’
Dieter’s work involved, as far as I had gathered from the institute website, the invention of Heath-Robinson-ish machines. He was a biologist, yes, but he had to be an engineer and a physicist too, connecting a particle accelerator to an adapted microscope to a specialised camera. ‘We have to invent things because the equipment does not exist to answer the questions we have.’ He looked out of the window. ‘There are very many large questions, actually. Life is too short to cope with them.’
I asked about his most recent experiments and Dieter started talking about the CIA. He had been using missile-guiding technology, recently developed by the Pentagon, to look at microbes. ‘The principle is the same, but instead of the mosque, we are using it to locate a cell.’ It took me a moment to work out what he meant.
‘The US supplier wouldn’t send our components because they believed I was working on covert missile manufacture!’ Dieter sighed. People are so touchy at the moment. Not only in the States, but also here in Germany
By way of example, Dieter tells me his daughter, not yet a teenager, recently created an explosive at school. ‘She’s at that age – you know – she is interested in these things; and it was a very, very small kind of bomb. The teachers called the police!’ Dieter’s eyes were wide with outrage.
It’s tough, I agreed, when your kid can’t try out a small bomb on her school. Dieter shrugged. ‘Democracy is so sensitive at the moment. For me no borderlines exist.’
I gently tried to reorientate the conversation. I explained that I was writing a book about animals, and that I wanted to start with the simplest units of life, microbes. I knew that it would be more sensible for me to focus on a single, larger individual – to study and to emulate a fox, a badger or a goat – but I was interested in trying to see all of us at once.
Before I could finish, Dieter chimed in with enthusiasm: some species are especially stable. That is, some organisms have a more constant genome than others, and while most soft-bodied mammals are subject to many corruptions and diseases, it would be rare to find such mutation in the body of a shrimp or a scorpion. There are certain insects which would survive a nuclear attack. Why are their genomes so stable? The human body is more sensitive to external influence. Soft flesh.
‘I like to work with shrimps because I like shrimps – I like to eat them very much.’ When Dieter conducted a study on shrimp populations from different parts of the world, he was surprised by his findings. The core microbiome – the population of microbial species which inhabits the body of each and every living shrimp – was remarkably consistent, wherever and however the shrimp lived. The shrimp experiments completely changed Dieter’s idea of what a living thing is. He now believes that every living individual is a host of organisms, ‘The microbes in your stomach are a part of your genome.’
From another position, he said, you can look at the orca whose corpse had recently washed onto rocks off the Scottish coast. She shows you the same thing: ‘Every animal is made of other animals,’ not as a conceptual construct but as a physical object. When this orca’s body was dissected, researchers found compounds of human origin in her body fat and ovaries. The presence of these contaminants in her ovaries was so powerful that she could never have borne her own calf. Particular compounds in her vessels were used in the 1970s in buildings, thermal insulators, transformer batteries and joint sealant. They still cycle through water and soil, and through the bodies of living things. Dieter repeated: ‘For me, no borderlines exist.’
Right now, we are inside every other animal. The whale’s lungs are infused with your cigarette exhalations and the dust from high-rises, and when she dies her corpse will dissolve, the poisons from her blubber dispersing in salt water, finding their way into the bellies of fish and shrimp and the veins of plants, back into the human food chain, where they are moving through your intestines right now. ‘There is a human in the belly of every whale, and a whale in the belly of every shrimp,’ said Dieter.
I asked what his microbes looked like under the microscope, and he shrugged. ‘Lines and circles,’ he said. ‘I never work with things that I can look at – everything I work with is either too small, or else too big, to see. Occasionally I am working with something that I can look at with an electron microscope, but I don’t see much.’
He suddenly held up his hands as if he was surrendering to something, and I could see that they were still shaking, just as they had been in the kitchen when he made my coffee. I realized that I had been wrong when I thought he was a drinker.
Dieter said: ‘Since I can remember, I always trembled. I could never have been a dentist! Anything that is too small for the smallest microscope, or too big for the biggest telescope . . . these are the things for me.’
I told Dieter about a friend of mine who was expecting twins, and how one embryo was receiving too much blood through the placenta, the other too little. The twin who took too much blood was growing rapidly, and its large body was more than its baby heart could support. His brother was receiving too little blood and was slowly starving of it. I had seen images of the ultrasound, the bodies curled around one another. They seemed to fit one another so well. I couldn’t work out which was the larger twin, his hunger driving relentlessly against his own interests – they looked equal to me.
Dieter nodded. ‘The body does what it does.’
I returned to Leipzig, where I was staying at the time, and dismounted at a tram stop on Karl Heine Strasse. From the window I could see my husband with our daughter asleep in the pushchair a little way down the avenue. It was Friday evening, nearly April, warm. We went to sit by the canal. The walkways are always busy – that day, there were kids skateboarding, a couple of children paddling, people throwing sticks for a happy dog, boys in tracksuits with paint canisters on the bench beside them, but mostly small groups of people with beers and bottles of wine. A water-rat appeared and the dog went for it. In the commotion, my daughter woke up, climbed out of her pushchair and went off grubbing in the dirt beneath the lowest branches of the bushes – a dank universe I had previously had an aversion to – but she liked it there, in the small urban animal’s terrain of grit, litter, glass, fag-ends, chewing-gum, seeds. She once found the broken body of a baby bird, its single claw curled in a spiral.
All along the bank there were ordinary, end-of-the-working-week conversations being held in low voices. In England, on the first warm spring Friday, the drinkers come out along the river, their voices loud. Somebody usually kicks off. Here everybody sustained a quiet courtesy in open spaces. I found it a bit scary – I was slightly too conscious of what seemed, to me, a constrained politeness, as if I should keep half an ear on the conversation on the next bench, and adjust the timbre of my own voice accordingly. It didn’t come naturally to me, this effortless public mutual respect.
On the water a duck and six tiny yellow ducklings cruised through trailing willow. I called over my daughter and pointed them out. Three mallards were drifting behind the little family, and I wondered whether one was the father, but then suddenly all three of them winged up out of the water and bore down on the mother. She pecked at them and tried to go faster, but her ducklings couldn’t keep pace. It seemed to be an attack – the male ducks seemed to be chasing the mother away from her ducklings – but I couldn’t work it out. Would adult ducks eat baby ducks? The mother flew off and under the bridge, disappeared. The male ducks gave chase. The abandoned ducklings went wild – as wild as they could – little twinkly sounds. Tiny flapping nub wings. The brick sides of the canal were too high for them. Two split off and sailed out into the middle of the water, the others hugged the banks, swimming in the direction of their mother.
The mother duck returned, high in the air above the flats that were built on the side of the canal. She swooped down to land with a splosh amid her babies, closely pursued by now by five males. The mallards pecked at the ducklings until the mother duck climbed out of the water and ran along the bank, pursued, all of them squawking. They were on the opposite bank to the canal-path and so we couldn’t get to them. A couple of people near me shouted and clapped their hands. But the duck was in trouble now. One male duck climbed on her back, and she slipped out from under him, feinted, then darted back towards her ducklings. But then another, and another, and another bore down on top of her, and two stood in her way, and you could see that they were mounting her one by one. If one fell back, another would come forward.
The two ducklings who were out in the open water could see her, and were dancing for her attention, when a large crow appeared out of nowhere, lifted one of them out of the canal and took its tiny, desperately flexing body to the bank, where the crow calmly tore it into long strings. The mother, seeing the two birds rise, actually flew up and for a few seconds was being raped in the air as her infant was eaten.
The spectacle was so obscene, so much in contrast to the little yellow pompoms we had seen only a few minutes ago, bobbling through the spring sunshine, that the human side of the bank was rippling with laughter. Appalled. Impressed. When it was over, the mother duck landed alone, some way from her ducklings. Her white shit spiralled in the dark green water. She scrambled out onto the bank a little downstream, and turned again and again in circles, preening and preening the same spot on her wing, making strange barking noises, while her young trailed behind her, dancing and peeping. She was oblivious to them. My daughter pulled at my hand – she wanted me to explain what was going on.
We had taken an Airbnb for a couple of months – a family apartment just behind the canal, sublet from a father, mother, daughter, baby son. My residency at the institute coincided with their holiday in southern Europe. Our flat was very much their home. Their den, their lair, their cosy nest. They had burrowed away in there. A child’s drawings on the fridge. Stick figures, pink flowers, captions in a young hand. Papa Liebt Mami.
In the evenings I sat in the spare room to work at the desk of the mother, Ana. I knew it was her desk because it was marked by its possessions, and I was afraid of the desk although it was nothing special or spooky (it was a glass trestle from Ikea). On the surface Ana kept her pot of pens, a small dish with erasers, shells, an old shrunken, wrinkled, softened horse chestnut; and another pot with a sewing kit in it and a handwritten receipt for the ‘Gutschein Englischkur’s’ that were hanging over the window, a stiff white embossed material. She must have made them up herself. I could imagine Ana working here in the evenings, using the matches to light the candle. I could watch her eyes travelling over the horse chestnut that her daughter had given her, as I imagined, from beneath the tree in the park on Aurelienstrasse, the tiny cockle shells from a holiday in Sicily; I could see her mending her husband’s shirt with the sewing kit. There was a large red paper lantern over the lightbulb which made the room pale pink at night. Two pairs of good scissors in the sewing kit. None of the felt-tips had lost their caps or dried up. Everything worked.
That was what frightened me: the fact that everything worked so well, how self-contained it was. There was something satisfied about it. It all existed within a world that I was able see clearly, but as through a glass panel – a snowglobe world. Complete. Of course I had seen other, more secretive things over the course of the time that I had been staying in Ana’s home – the krautertee for her urinary tract infections; the self-help books on assertiveness and the ovulation counter in the medicine shoebox. These things didn’t give me the sense of intrusion that I experienced in the workroom, where the door closed behind me and Ana and we looked down into our desk, our chestnut, our collection of useful felt-tips and sentimental shells, all bathed in our own private rosy light.
In reality, I told myself, I knew nothing about Ana or her family. I turned back to the computer, and started typing up my notes on the generations of bacteria inside a shrimp, and Dieter defending his daughter’s right to make a little bomb, and the orca’s barren body in which we all live, and the twins who didn’t know they were in the same womb. The world described by Dieter was a world made of shapeshifting matter. Outlandish, really – a world for whales or shrimp, either colossal or microscopic – it was nowhere to be found here in Ana’s workroom, where everything was just the right size. Her room was allergic to the unfamiliar matter described by Dieter. Its pink light made a forcefield of immense strength. It attracted me. In a way, in that moment, the casual arrangement of Ana’s desk seemed to have a special kind of aggression. She had given up on the innocence which Dieter chose to possess.
I thought of the ducks and crows, a few-hundred metres away, down on the canal. Ana had made up her curtains so that she and I could screen ourselves away from all that. We were positioned for discreet viewing like birdwatchers in a hide. I picked up the dry soft wrinkled chestnut and looked at how the compacted whorls on its surface – like a tiny brain – spiraled in on itself. But no, I reminded myself. This object has nothing in common with a human brain or a snail or an ammonite or a dead claw or a fern tip or duckshit in water or microbes within microbes or the way a human embryo curls up.
When I opened the curtains it was dark outside and the neighbours in the apartment on the other side of the street were able to see me, as I could see them, framed and lit up. The room was mine for the time being. I took my good scissors and pushed the pointed end slowly into my chestnut’s soft matter. It split easily. On the inside the matter was shrunken and going grey – almost wooly.
Photograph © Conor Lawless