The Coleopterist–an excerpt

“This is the journal of a man—a Doctor Felix Strabo—a scientific dabbler and eccentric who happens to have been my great uncle. A peculiar man from birth, according to my grandfather—obsessed with insects. He dedicated his life to the study of the frost resistant genitalia of beetles. Apparently he was always compiling a master study of his investigations, the magnum opus that would reveal to the rest of us what these genitalia had told him. Unfortunately that will remain lost to us, as his work was cut short by his disappearance some 57 years ago. This notebook drifted up in a cod net and was sent to my grandfather four years later; the water destroyed much of it, but what remains is intriguing.

“The journal itself was nearly thrown out by my grandfather, its markings indecipherable, and assumed to have been ruined by the immersion. But a colleague of my great uncle’s was struck by the uniformity of the degradation to the text and worked to find some patterns in it. What he found was the remarkable first mystery of the journal.

“My great uncle had spent many years in the Amazon as a part of his studies, owing to the great profusion of beetles and to the deep knowledge of their variety, habits and characteristics possessed by the savages there.

“He spent many years with one tribe in particular, the Nemoami; they were a sort of beetle-worshipping group; a great part of their medicine and the bulk of their cuisine was based on beetles. They had their own language, which fascinated my great uncle nearly as much as the teeming masses of beetles. It drew from them a whole vocalization based on the clicking and skittering of the beetles. They had no written language, of course, being savage—in fact they were very angry when old Strabo proposed to help them create one and resisted it mightily.

“Their language was remarkably unstable—it had few words that ever remained the same. Most of their communications consisted of entirely new words, made up by the speaker in the process of communicating. Even when relating the speech of another person, these confused people used different words, or made up their own, or changed them around entirely. Part of the problem lay in the structure of the language itself; it had few nouns; thus they had no way to fix things, to hold them steady and define them in order to communicate clearly. Instead, they relied on a string of verbs, of descriptions of states and transitions between states. They had a great terror of time you see, and refused to attempt to override it by fixing definitions onto things. Their world was a fluid outpouring of constant newness, where a tree in one minute was no longer a tree in the next, though it may return to being a tree, or at least tree-like, in the future. Their role as speakers and observers was one of reporting, not of establishing and their notion of identity was not one of definition, but one of revelation.

“As you can imagine, this made them nearly incomprehensible to each other and an utter mystery to strangers—even if you managed to effectively translate a word or thought once, it had already changed once you had repeated it. In order to keep up with the stream of new words, it was necessary to be in conversation without interruption so that you could carry along the meaning to the new words as they emerged. This was not a problem for them—they were a small and gregarious tribe, and were used to understanding this endless flow of new meanings.

“What do we care?” said Reinhold. “Are we needing to talk to the beetles?” West regarded him evenly, then continued as if no question had been raised.

“Doctor Strabo believed that he could help them by teaching them English—just the mental energy saved from trying to understand each other would free them up tremendously for other things. At first they were amused by him—they thought he was simple-minded and were entertained greatly by the simplicity of his speech. Being used to a constant stream of new words, they learned the words of English very rapidly.

“But, as he patiently repeated them over and over and over, they became alarmed; they were afraid he would become stuck in time somehow if he did not continue to move along—that his thoughts would become fixed and his bodily functions would slow and eventually he would turn into stone.

“They mocked him at first, but gradually grew afraid for themselves, that he would spread this thickening to their own thoughts, like a disease, would moor them in the forest and turn them into stones. He thought they were terrified of learning, that their heads would fill and burst, but the simpler he tried to make the lessons, the more upset they became—and they, in turn, believed that he was starting to turn to stone in front of them, speaking fewer and fewer words, then simply single words over and over. They packed up and retreated into the rain forest, pushing him away violently and threatening him when he attempted to follow them.

“After a week or so they returned to him—to see what he looked like made of stone, no doubt. They were astonished to see him walking around, but shrank back again when he repeated the same set of words he had when they saw him last. Puzzled, he tried to speak to them in French, and they came forward again, translating it effortlessly into their own tongue—until he began to repeat himself again and they became wary. Then he switched to German and then Latin, and the little Italian that he knew, and a few words of Russian. They were delighted, and began to chatter freely again, leaping enthusiastically into whatever tongue he offered—supposing that his fever had passed and his thoughts were beginning to unlock again. Perhaps he wouldn’t turn to stone after all. As they spoke, he took notes on the sounds and sound patterns and began to understand the dynamics of their language—for there were no stable structures. The sounds formed and reformed in cascades of new meanings, and there were patterns to the cycles that he could follow if he listened without interruption.

“He began to understand at last how their language worked, if not comprehend its meaning, and he was surprised to hear in their own speech echoes of English and French—constructions and patterns that were familiar to his ear though broken and re-formed. At first he assumed they were parroting badly what he had tried to teach them, or were mocking him again to themselves, but as they cycled back again and again in different forms, he began to see how the invention built on itself, taking pieces of recent speech and blending them with new pieces and then blowing them apart again and rebuilding new words with the pieces.

“Here, here is a passage where he describes it:
It is like a dance of the mind, their speaking, and each of them speaks a kind of private language that only mingles with the othersat the edges—it seems profuse, exploding like the rain forest—it suits what they see—when new varieties of the altocanus nemoamus emerge in the space of 7 or 8 generations—within a single week—it seems foolish to attempt to shackle its identity to a single word.

“And so he ceased trying to teach them English and worked to learn their speech—he felt it was the best way to gather their understanding of the coleoptera, and eventually became convinced it was the only way to understand beetles at all.

“He devised his own written notations for it and the remainder of his journal is composed entirely in that notation. As you can imagine, it was therefore fiendishly difficult to translate, as it requires one to understand the leaps and gaps of his own mind as it creates new words for the same objects or ideas. It has been a painstaking process to reconstruct, and even then we cannot be sure we have accurately tracked the progression of his thoughts. But as I came to understand some bare hints of what it contained, I became increasingly interested in its contents.”

“Get on with it,” grumbled Reinhold.

“I was able to fill in many of the gaps in Happy Strabo’s life, and unveil for us a discovery most remarkable—the second mystery of the journal. My family had thought Strabo was safely ensconced in the research faculty of a small university hunched over his bugs—didn't keep a close eye. He was no sailor—hated to travel, and yet according to this journal, he had sailed out of Boston on a 12th of June in the sloop Blythe, outfitted for a two year solo voyage through the Canadian Arctic in search of the fossilized remains of prehistoric beetles.

“Clearly mad, he sailed north into the pack alone but—fools and children—somehow made his way north into Lancaster Sound and began exploring the inlets along the north-western coast, digging into the frozen gravel for traces of his precious genitalia even as hislittle sloop fell apart.

“As he passed north out of Lancaster Sound, he encountered a number of unusual phenomena: rapidly developing storm systems with far heavier snow than is generally found in this region; sudden, powerful currents that pulled his ship from side to side and once drove it backwards through the water despite full sails; and air and water temperatures that diverged greatly from anywhere else in the Arctic.

“Unfortunately he had little chance to explore these at any length. The storms damaged his ship badly, and he was forced to remain in the hold, pumping and patching as he drifted further and further to the north. He found himself in a bay free of pack ice but ringed by two great glaciers that calved masses of icebergs, and between them was a vast high wall of ice he called the Barrier. The bay itself was filled with dense fog and chaotic turbulence from the constant flipping of the icebergs.

“With his ship leaking steadily, his rudder and mast gone, he limped forward, looking for a stable shelf of ice so he could safely abandon. As he moved north, however, the entire Barrier disappeared—it was an epic mirage, created by a current of extremely warm water that passed down t between the glaciers. Once past the mirage, his ship ran aground, and he waded through the now-temperate waters to the shore.

He made his way along the channel, the air and water temperatures rising steadily. At the end, he found a temperate archipelago covered by trees of fantastic colors that grew from the heat of the earth rather than the Sun—a lush Garden of Eden in the heart of the Arctic—and the rest, coleopterists, is unfortunately lost. ”