Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner

Man and Fish
by
Christian Kammerer

 

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............Man's relation to the sea and its inhabitants has always been an ambivalent one. For many peoples, the sea was a terrifying expanse well beyond day-to-day contact, and this is reflected in their recorded lore. For example, the ancient Babylonians personified the salt waters of the Earth as the dragon Tiamat, a force of chaos that had to be slain before the livable globe could be created. For others, the ocean represented a vast storehouse of goods-fish for eating, salt for seasoning, dye for clothing, etc. Yet the element of danger was always present. Even the most skilled of seafaring cultures, such as the Vikings, recognized the produce and peril of their surroundings. At the same time the sea giant Aegir could warmly extend meals of smoked salmon and tankards of mead, his wife Ran netted drowning sailors, pulling them to a grim final resting place beneath the chill north seas. This dualistic view of the ocean has continued through later periods, infusing literature, poetry, and popular accounts of the deep. And few symbols of the waters have been so widely exploited as the fish. Their synonymy with water is not so much tied to their physiology as their ubiquity (after all, there are a great many gilled organisms who have never appeared beyond the zoological literature.) Fish are far and away the most common and diverse vertebrate on the planet, and can be found in just about any body of water, from the deepest ocean trench to the highest mountain stream.
My own fascination with fish and fishy writings dates back as far as I can remember, as part of an overarching interest in natural history that led to many forced outings to rivers and museums (I like to think that my parents have finally recovered from two decades of being dragged from exhibit to exhibit by the cuff of their shirts, but the verdict is still out.) This interest has snowballed over time, and today I work at the Division of Fishes at the Field Museum of Natural History, devoting my time to the study of ichthyology. My book collections have mirrored this development, so one can find a tattered copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish giving way over the years to Fieldiana Zoology Series: A Revision of the Alepisauroid Family Scopelarchidae (Pisces: Myctophiformes). By necessity I maintain a sizable amount of the technical literature on fishes, and although these are engrossing in the utmost, increasingly I have found that the mind cannot dwell on fin counts and quantitative analyses of gill function alone. The human element of our understanding of fishes, as reviewed in the preceding paragraph, must be had. To this end, I have turned to reading and collecting books that deal with a non-technical approach to our finny friends and foes-fish lit, fish legend, and various personal accounts of encounters with marine life. This collection began at about the same time as my "research collection", although since this was back in elementary school, the lines between popular and scientific accounts were considerably more blurred. Indeed, several of the books I consider today to be "pop natural history accounts", such as Search for a Living Fossil, started life in the "research book" category. A number of my most treasured books date from this early period, and there was some sense of collecting already established, but only in the past few years have I developed a focused pursuit of man-fish books. The limits of this collection are constantly in a state of flux-as has already been mentioned the difference between a technical account and a popular account of technical matters is often a judgement call. Also somewhat variable is the amount of fishy content required to "make" the collection: thus I include the Bible for the story of Jonah, as though it is but a tiny fraction of the entire work, as the seminal encounter between man and the might of the marine world it really must be included. Also included are certain books on myth and fantastic creatures that deal predominately with sea monsters, but may contain a smattering of chapters on terrestrial beasties.
Although fishy writings cannot properly be called a genre in and of themselves, within my collection there are definitely some discernable "subgenres." The first of these is admittedly underrepresented on my shelves at the present time, and consists of tales about mermaids and other human-fish hybrids. Perhaps the most intimate example of man-fish interaction, here again the dualistic nature of the sea is seen. On the one hand (or should that be fin?) mermaids can be beautiful gifts of the waters, a boon to the lonely sailor. All too often, however, they are portrayed as deadly seductresses dragging unwitting, entranced landfolk to a watery grave. (The siren probably exemplifies this class of predatory mermaid; although they were originally portrayed as bird-women in Greek myth, over time they have been completely fused with mermaids.) The second subgenre in my collection severely strains the zoological concept of "fish", but I feel it fits in perfectly with the larger theme of the ocean as a repository of unknown monsters waiting to menace mankind. The subject of this subgenre is the giant squid (Architeuthis dux), also known as the devilfish or kraken. A more apt symbol of chaos and the unknown can scarcely be imagined: to quote Melville, "a vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth", lined with suckers and a chimerical, snapping beak. The image of the giant squid has captivated the human mind like few other creatures, due in large part to its adamant refusal to be understood by modern science. To this day no one has seen it alive in its natural environment, and even the most basic elements of its biology are largely unknown. This elusive status has served as the springboard for many literary flights of fancy, almost invariably as an antagonist.
Although the release of books on fish-human interactions is irregular at best, I imagine my collection expanding considerably in the years to come. As mentioned above, the intriguing merfolk subgenre, on which much has been written, is pitifully represented as of this writing. Also high on my want list are the great medieval and Renaissance accounts of sea life, from the classic bestiaries to the travelogues of the likes of Olaus Magnus and Bishop Erik Pontoppidan, the fathers of post-Viking Scandinavian sea monster sightings. Finally, I have noticed a rise of late in historical accounts on fish as goods and their role in influencing human culture. I'm saving up for a book by Inga Saffron (2002) entitled Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy. I hope to make it the companion piece to my copy of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. With any luck, more such books will appear in the future, as the tides of my ichthyo-bibliophilia show no signs of receding.

 


Mr. Kammerer won the 4th-year Honorable Mention in 2003
for the collection described in the preceding essay.

A sample of his bibliography follows.


 

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY


Fish Novels
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1981 (original 1851).
Condition: Fair, paperback
In my opinion, the definitive book about man's interaction with the sea and its fauna. Yes, the title character is a mammal by our standards, but Melville argues at length for classifying it as "the great fishe." It covers all the bases of fish books: whaling as oceanic bounty, symbolist presentations of the might of the sea, fish as the ultimate power of the divine, and even a giant squid for good measure. Melville's sections on cetology are a marvel to behold, and are actually better than some contemporaneous "scientific" accounts on the subject. My copy of the novel is an unassuming paperback, with dog-eared edges, yellowed pages, and some creasing of the spine. Nevertheless it is one of the most prized elements of my collection, as it was one of the earlier items of the collection I acquired and really got me in to marine literature. Most of the novels in my collection are paperbacks that are prone to transport in book-unfriendly situations. I try to take the greatest care in preserving them, but the lure of bringing along The Compleat Angler on a fishing trip or Jaws on a day at the beach is too great, and some damage is inevitable. Moby-Dick accompanied me on my first major research trip last September, a month-long voyage studying hydrothermal vents 300 miles off the coast of Oregon. It returned with some abyssal tube worm smudges on the cover, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. New York: Collier Books, 1980 (original 1952.)
Condition: Middling (yellowed pages, creased cover, highlighter marks in text), paperback
Arguably my favorite novel about battling an actual fish. Santiago's prolonged struggle with an enormous marlin, finally claiming victory over the beast, his "brother", is one of the finest descriptions of human vs. nature I've read. Made all the better by having the fishes win out in the end, in the form of the destruction of the marlin corpse by frenzied sharks. My mom bought this copy for me long ago at a garage sale.

Jaws, by Peter Benchley. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1991 (original 1974.)
Condition: Excellent, paperback
The progenitor of the modern marine suspense novel, of which there is a surprising number (see Meg below). The characterizations owe much to Melville and Verne, but the likes of Brody and Quint have become classic fish lit figures in their own right. This novel is notable not just as a description of man's fear of fish, but also as having actively influenced this fear. Following the publication of the book, and especially the release of Steven Spielberg's movie, anti-shark sentiments and the need to "stay out of the water" skyrocketed in America.

White Shark, by Peter Benchley. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Condition: Excellent, paperback

Meg, by Steve Alten. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Condition: Good, paperback
Pure schlock, this most prominent of the "Jaws-inspired novels" (that's an overly generous description) concerns attacks by living representatives of the enormous fossil shark Carcharocles megalodon. A guilty pleasure.

The Compleat Angler, by Izaak Walton. New York: The Modern Library, 1998 (original 1653.)
Condition: Excellent, paperback
Not really a novel, Walton's book is at the same time fishing manual, philosophical dialogue, and collection of 17th century English poetry. Perfect for quiet contemplation when one tires of perpetual assault by sea monsters. I've fancied this book for some time, but only in the past year broke down and bought it.

The Black Pearl, by Scott O'Dell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967.
Condition: Fair, paperback
A thin, Newberry-winning novel for "young adults" the likes of which were required for my book reports in 5th grade. Notable for its quite literal connection between ocean's bounty and terror-the titular gem is guarded by a giant ray named "Manta Diablo." (The manta ray is often known as "devilfish", an appellation also granted to the giant squid, octopus, and gray whale and a linguistic example of just how many mostly-harmless sea creatures have been built into feared leviathans by human imagination.)

Gould's Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
Condition: As new, paperback
My most recent acquisition. I very rarely impulse buy, preferring instead to test the waters (if you'll excuse the pun) by a trip to the library. But, with a cover claim that, "Gould's Book of Fish is a novel about fish the way Moby-Dick is a novel about whales", I just couldn't resist. (It isn't, by the way, but is still a good read.)

Giant Squid
The Search for the Giant Squid, by Richard Ellis. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.
Condition: Very good, hardcover with dust jacket in place
A fine popular account of all aspects of Architeuthis, from biology to legend to literature to film. Ellis is well-known as an illustrator of marine life, but has proven to be a capable historian as well. Especially valuable are tables of every recorded giant squid stranding and an entire section on the role of the giant squid in science fiction.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. New York: Bantam Books, 1981 (original 1870).
Condition: Excellent, paperback
The most famous part of this novel, the battle between Captain Nemo and the giant squid, is actually only a few pages long. Nevertheless, it is concerned throughout with the mysteries of the deep, and its prescient description of submarine travel earns it a spot in any assortment of books about man's interaction with fish. It also stands out as one of the earliest works to feature an attacking "sea monster" (hypothesized in the book to be a giant narwhal) that turns out to be a man-made creation, blurring the lines between the roles of man and nature.

The Toilers of the Sea, by Victor Hugo. New York: Signet Classics, 2000.
Condition: Excellent, paperback
The most underrated of Hugo's major works and my personal favorite. The life and loves of Channel Island fisherman Gilliatt at times linger in day-to-day struggles, but it seems Hugo couldn't resist throwing in a real sea monster in the form of a giant octopus. This beast is introduced in one of the most damning descriptions of an organism ever put to paper, that questions the very goodness of God for creating such an execrable organism. It also features on of the best quotes on the aquatic unknown, "not a breast would dare give suck, not a heart would dare to love, not a spirit would dare take flight, if one meditated on the sinister shapes patiently lying in ambush in the abyss."

Beast, by Peter Benchley. New York: Random House, 1991.
Condition: Good, hardcover (no dust jacket)
When Benchley wanted to follow up the great white shark with a sea monster even more terrifying, there could be only one choice: our old friend Architeuthis. Ian Fleming made a similar decision in having a giant squid as the ultimate death trap for James Bond in the original Dr. No.

Monsters and Merpeople
Creatures from Elsewhere, edited by Peter Brooksmith. London: Orbis Publishing, 1984.
Condition: Fair (some creasing on covers, dog-eared edges), paperback
A general work on the search for fantastic creatures in the modern age, with lengthy sections on mermaids, sea serpents, lake monsters, and amphibious creatures.

Monsters of the Sea: The history, natural history, and mythology of the ocean's most fantastic creatures, by Richard Ellis. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Condition: Good, paperback

The Best of H. P. Lovecraft, works by H. P. Lovecraft with an introduction by Robert Bloch. New York: Del Rey Books, 1982 (original 1962, compilation of short stories published in the 1920s and 30s.)
Condition: Excellent, paperback
Almost all of Lovecraft's stories deal with humans encountering nameless horrors beyond our understanding, and as such, it should come as no surprise that he used the ocean as the source of many of them. Top among these is "The Shadow over Innsmouth", which can be counted as the end of the continuum of "good mermaid to bad." Here the seduction of beauty has given way to the seduction of power, with a town of New Englanders allowing their young to breed with a race of fish-like "Deep Ones" in exchange for magic and immortality. The subsequent fish-hybrids are incredibly repugnant beings, but nonetheless are said to "dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever." This compilation of Lovecraft stories also includes what may be his most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is nominally a giant space alien, but his inspiration is decidedly terrestrial-the image of a titanic cephalopod rising from Cyclopean ruins in the depths of the ocean, after eons of sleep, is of course Architeuthis once more, and is lifted directly from Tennyson's "The Kraken."

Popular Accounts, Historical Accounts, and Other
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. New York: Walker and Co., 1997.
Condition: Excellent, hardcover with dust jacket in place
The title may be ridiculous but the book itself is solid historical analysis of the cod-fishing industry and its effect on exploration in the New World, colonialism, and modern fishing laws. This may be my most valued book because it was left to me by my late grandfather, a navigator in the Merchant Marines who instilled in me much of my love of the sea and its creatures.

Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks, by Richard G. Fernicola, MD. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.
Condition: Excellent, paperback

Deep Atlantic: Life, Death, and Exploration in the Abyss, by Richard Ellis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Condition: Very good, hardcover with dust jacket in place

Silent World, by Jacques-Yves Cousteau with Frederic Dumas and James Dugan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.
Condition: Middling (yellowed pages), hardcover (originally a paperback, this a rebound copy I obtained at a library sale.)
Cousteau was quite possibly the most important popularizer of marine research in the last century, and Silent World is typical of his style, spinning tales of the seas as magical, alien landscapes. At times his works suggests not as much studying as communing with aquatic life: Chapter One is entitled "Menfish."

Catholic Family Edition of the Holy Bible. New York: John J. Crawley & Co., Inc., 1953.
Condition: Very good, hardcover with cardboard holding case

Fish in Nutrition, edited by Eirik Heen and Rudolf Kreuzer. London: Fishing News (Books) Ltd., 1962.
Condition: Good, hardcover
Somewhat of a cheat, as this is decidedly a technical work, but as it focuses solely on the use of fish for human consumption, I felt it appropriate to group it in this collection rather than with my books dealing with pure fish biology.

Ray Troll's Shocking Fish Tales, by Ray Troll and Brad Matsen. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1993.
Condition: Very good, paperback
Somewhat of a modern, illustrated Compleat Angler-cum-On the Road, this book and its companion piece, Planet Ocean, provide an intriguing and oft-hilarious view on fishing, natural history, and where the twain meet. These volumes include many of the paintings seen on Ray Troll's t-shirts, such as "Out of the Ooze and Born to Cruise" (about fish evolving into amphibians) and "Spawn 'Til You Die", that are required wearing for all ichthyologists and paleontologists.

Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea, and Dancing to the Fossil Record, by Brad Matsen and Ray Troll. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1994.
Condition: Very good, hardcover with dust jacket in place

Search for a Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth, by Eleanor Lowenton Clymer. Holt, Reinhardt, and Winston. 1963.
Condition: Fair (yellowed pages), paperback