Archive for February 21st, 2009

Wandering in non-fiction

hyacinth_buds_CU.jpg

The hyacinths are coming! The hyacinths are coming!

In my dreams I really write well—like Colin Thubron describing an ancient vehicle, still in service: “Already its body was disintegrating, half its dashboard had gone, its radio mercifully dead, and styrofoam belched from its seats.” That’s from pg. 62 of his Shadow of the Silk Road (2006). Here’s a longer passage from that volume (pg. 124–25):

The only purpose in the silk moth’s life is to reproduce itself. During its two-week existence it never eats and cannot fly. Instead this beautiful Bombyx mori lays eggs from which larvae as thin as hairs are born: offspring so light that an ounce of eggs yields forty thousand caterpillars.

At once they start to gorge ravenously. Their only food is the white mulberry, whose pollarded skeletons line the fields of Khotan*. Peasant families exhaust days and nights feeding them, with an ancient care which no machinery can match. Sightless, almost immobile, the silkworm has been reduced by millennnia of cultivation to a helpless dependence on humans. The caterpillars are like neurotic babies. They thrive only on fresh leaves, gathered after the dew has evaporated, and served to them, at best, every half-hour. Ideally the age of the mulberry shoots should coincide with their own.

In five weeks of frenzied feasting they consume thirty thousand times their weight at birth. The munching of their jaws makes a noise like rain falling. Centuries ago the Chinese noted that the colour of their forelegs anticipated the tint ofthe silk they would sping. Abrupt changes of temperature or lapses in hygiene, any sudden noise or smell wreaks havoc with their nerves, and they may die. But after a month each silkworm has multiplied its initial weight four thousandfold, and has swollen to a bloated grub, its skin tight as a drum, with a tiny head.

Then suddenly—when moulted to creamy transparency—the caterpillar stops eating. For three days the future silk flows from its salivary glands in two colourless threads which instantly unite, and it spins these about its body with quaint, figure-of-eight weavings of its head. Even after it has sealed itself from sight inside its shroud, it may sometimes be heard, faintly spinning.

Then comes the ‘great awakening,’ as the Chinese say. Within twelve days, locked in an inner chysalis, the wings and legs of the future moth like folded on its breast. Then it stirs and bursts with dreamy brilliance into the sun.

Here in Georgia we once had, locally-speaking, a large-scale silk industry. It was in New Ebenezer (founded 1736; the nearby original Ebenezer was founded in 1734), a settlement established by Protestant Salzburgers upstream from Savannah, ca. 1740. Read more here and here.

* Khotan, also spelled Hotan, is on the southwest edge of the Taklamakan Desert in far western China.