Rocks with Guts

I’ve just read a book about freshwater mussel conservation.  While I’m sure I could just as well have read a similar book about frogs or bats or sedges, I’m pleased to report that Sarah Gascho Landis’ Immersion is a fairly decent example of the genre.  And mussels may just be especially weird, hence the quote in the title of this post.

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Some freshwater mussels (U. S. Fish and Wildlife)

I’m a bit of an amateur naturalist, but I’ve barely paid attention to mussels.  Perhaps nondescript shells don’t seem very remarkable when they turn up on the banks of a slow moving but seemingly healthy river.  Or maybe studying them in situ doesn’t seem worth the effort.  Landis has some good stories about that, searching for mussels in rivers choked with (sometimes full) beer bottles, dead cats, or simply a big snag that seems determined to drown someone.  What I find interesting, though, is the mollusks’ ability to hide and turn up in the strangest places or under the worst circumstances.  I still remember finding a huge black crawdad crawling through the grass on a rain soaked roadside.  Mussels have a similar ability to push the boundaries of their aquatic habitat and run up against our terrestrial ways.  I’m fascinated by the idea of hundred year old bivalves in the deep eddies of tiny, rocky creeks far up in the mountains.  There are even mussels that live in ponds!

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A mussel displays her lure.  (U. S. Fish and Wildlife)

How do they do it?  Fish, mostly.  Landis is apparently mesmerized by the mussel reproductive cycle, and it is pretty amazing.  Mussels don’t come together to mate; female mussels must capture free floating sperm from the water.  Once they have nursed a brood of baby mussels, many mussels rely on a fish to host the babies, and then release them elsewhere.  Lampmussels deploy an astounding minnow shaped lure to bring in a predatory fish and then reward them with gillsful of mussel larvae.  Some mussels have evolved the ability to defeat the immune response only of specific fish; overall, it’s a specialized and vulnerable reproductive strategy.  Fish, mussels, and thousands of tiny streams throughout the piedmont region of the American southeast have somehow combined to produce a hotspot of unrivaled biodiversity, including some three hundred mussels species.  I wish Landis had tried to say a little more about the long term evolution of the group; it seems like it would be a fascinating story.

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The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a massively disruptive 200 mile link between the Tennessee and Mobile Rivers

Lately mussels have taken a tremendous amount of abuse.  Droughts, water pollution, and the complete restructuring of watersheds are taking an even greater toll than the freshwater pearl and button crazes of the late nineteenth century.  Of the three hundred or more species of lampmussels, snuffboxes, pigtoes, pistolgrips, etc., dozens are federally listed.  Landis has a few heartening stories of mussels rebounding in habitats that were completely dried or polluted to death.  Often these successes came through a lot of hard scientific work (a mussel hatchery sounds like a daunting engineering project) and enforcement of environmental law.  Overall, though, the outlook does not seem good.  There are different ways of looking at this.  Landis presents the case that mussels are a convenient measure of the overall peril of water pollution.  She also writes movingly in a more personal register of the intrinsic value of biodiversity.  She says that learning to see mussels is like discovering a hidden library.  Even if I never see more than a handful of these species, I know that I want to live in a world that boasts of these strange “rocks with guts”.

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Larry McMurtry’s Names

I spent a couple of commutes highlighting the names of all the characters in The Last Picture Show.  I’ve gotten used to reading on the Kindle app for my phone, and this is one of the advantages.  It’s a slightly dubious advantage of city life that my commute is too short to get down to serious reading.  I think I’ve mentioned McMurtry in passing as not serious enough for me to blog about, but maybe I’m just embarrassed by titles like Lonesome DoveThe Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.

The Last Picture Show is my favorite.  It’s hard to summarize.  There are two young men, just out of high school in a small Texas town in the early fifties.  There’s a girlfriend who’s out of their league, and an ailing father figure who runs the pool hall.  It’s a whole catalogue of perversity and violence, from nude swimming to bestiality and from fisticuffs to broken bottles and maimings, along with an appalling amount of drunk driving.  According to Wikipedia, the raunchy high school/college sex comedy genre begins with Animal House in 1978, but this is obviously wrong.  In 1971, The Last Picture Show won two Oscars and a bunch of nominations.  Porky’s and American Pie are sad shadows of McMurtry’s apotheosized potboiler.

In a recent issue of the New York Review, there’s a brief appreciation by Ian Frazier of McMurtry and The Last Picture Show.  I learned that three of McMurtry’s novels have been released as Thalia: A Texas Trilogy.  Surprisingly to me, the other two are the also-filmed Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne.  I hadn’t realized that there were more Thalia books beside the sequels to Picture Show, at least one of which I had read and found wanting.  Frazier remarks on the pleasure of reading these novels, despite their basic sadness.  He’s right that the sadness is partly a result of the fate of small town America, though I would maybe stop short of tying a novel like this to a political point.  He’s also right that the pleasure comes from the perfect dialogue.

I think I would be extending Frazier’s point (and not simply ripping it off, but I don’t have the magazine in front of me to make sure) in remarking that there is a kind of perfect super dialogue as well with which McMurtry effortlessly recounts the town’s minor scandals and introduces his huge cast.  Why do I conflate dialogue with narration?  I wonder if I’m just being sloppy, but it seems to me that in this super dialogue, he inhabits the voices of his characters to achieve superb ironic effect.  This accounts for the great pleasure I took in simply gathering the names of the characters: Sonny, Billy, Sam the Lion, Coach Popper, Duane, Joe Bob Blanton, Frank Fartley, Abilene, Charlene Duggs, Jacy Farrow, Gene Farrow, Lois Farrow “the only woman in Thalia who drank and made no bones about it”, Lester Marlow, Miss Mosey, Frank Crawford, Genevieve Morgan, Dan Morgan, “busted up in a rig accident”, John Cecil, Agnes Bean, Leroy Malone, Ruth Popper, “the home economics teacher, a frail little man named Mr. Wean”, Wilbur Tim, Bobby Sheen, Jackie Lee French (“Is your name really French or is that just something you like to do?”), Annie-Annie, Sandy, the Bunne brothers, Junior Mosey, “an obliging little girl named Winnie Snips”, to name a few.