Gerald’s Blog: Ode to a True Survivalist

If only humans were part burbot.  With our current medical knowledge, we might live forever if we were fortunate enough to have appropriate additions of burbot DNA.  And I have little doubt that burbot DNA infusions would be a sure-fire way of toughening up the human species.  One would, of course, have to exercise due precaution in the dosing:  too much infusing might not only disqualify one from the category of “human,” but could also contribute to deleterious effects such as growing barbels where once there were beards, or preferring to mate in the darkest, muddiest, coldest confines.  Hmm, come to think of it, based on some visible human behaviour and phenotypes, perhaps there have already been some surreptitious burbot-to-human genetic transplantations …

You see, burbot do not like to die.  Obviously, they are tough, thriving in the coldest of silty waters, enduring months of minimal food, living under ice in the darkest of conditions, only then to survive the relentless grinding of house-sized ice floes and spring floods, protected only by a slimy skin and a solitary barbel.  Clearly, the burbot is the quintessential survivalist.

You can bonk a burbot with a wooden mallet till its eyes bulge.  You can dislocate its neck and break its back.  You can stick a knife into its heart.  Then, hours later, there might still be a twitch of the tail.  Or, a slow contraction of the excised heart.  I have even felt the contraction of a fresh fillet in my hands, minutes after its removal from the skeleton.

As a child in Newfoundland, my mother would pay the boys 10 cents per eel. They caught them under our wharf and would deliver her a bucket of slithering, reptilian-like creatures, much to Mom’s delight.  It was a win-win arrangement:  the money was well appreciated by those kids in rural Newfoundland in the 60’s where fishing was one of the main forms of recreation for youth, and mom, although she liked to eat eel, certainly did not like swimming with the teeming hoards that seemed to reside under our wharf!

I have emotionless memories of mom dumping the eels in a sink-full of water, grabbing one at a time, chopping off their heads, cutting them into inch-long segments, and squeezing out the offal.  She would matter-of-factly place the offal and gasping-mouthed heads back in the bucket so they could later be fed to the remaining eels under the wharf.  A reward for their troubles, I suppose.  Perhaps a deposit, expecting growth with interest.

She would then wash the segments more thoroughly and toss them into the hot buttered frying pan.  During the entire operation, the eel pieces would be squirming.  They would be wriggling in the sink, flailing on the chopping board, twisting in her hands and twitching in the pan.  And through all this my mom might be dispassionately talking about the weather or asking us questions about school.  Any exclamation or indication of alarm from us was met with the same pragmatic response, “My mother used to always say that eels don’t die till after sundown.”

And that was that.  She grew up on a farm.

She was equally dispassionate about boiling live lobsters.  We ate a lot of lobster, since at that time in rural Newfoundland there was minimal commercial market for lobster and much of it was used for garden fertilizer and bait for marketable fish.  My mom seemed to have endless seasonal access to lobster.  As they were plopped head-first into the pot of boiling water, lid held tight against the thrashing tail, the usual stoic utterances could be heard as we waited for the silence.  “Reflexes.” “Nerves.”  “Death throes.”   My dad, on the other hand, was more skeptical about the humanity of this, preferring to err on the side of caution by bonking each lobster behind the eyes immediately before pot insertion.   Later, he developed the technique of “hypnotizing” the lobsters by balancing them on their heads and stroking their backs until they found their equilibrium.  On lobster night, one would have to tread carefully in our kitchen because at any one time there might be a half-dozen lobsters on the floor, all asleep on their heads, tails arched backwards, oblivious to what was awaiting them.

So, the fundamental question is whether or not this can somehow be translated into a debate about the definition of life, consciousness, pain perception and morality.  Or is it just impossible to extrapolate our sensibilities to other animals?  Obviously, it sits best with all of us to assume that pain perception and the definition of life is somehow inferior in those species that we eat.  It is our way of remaining carnivorous.  It helps with our relentless expansionistic existence, where the needs of any other species are deemed less important. Truth be dammed.

How can it be that humans are so fragile when compared to many other species?  And even more puzzling is our lack of humility in the midst of this knowledge.  For instance, a quick internet search suggests that the “zombie bug” or tree weta, is capable of surviving after being completely frozen; the lung fish can recover after months without air or moisture; the decapitated head of a snake will still strike at prey; the frog can continue to hop without its head; the headless male fruit fly is an effective courter (apparently because he is easily outwitted by the female!).

We have much to learn and there is much to marvel at.  The question is whether we choose to continue on the path of convenience or whether we embrace the uniqueness of living organisms, learning as much as we can along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll still eat burbot.  I admire the resilience of their reptilian brain and I am increasingly humbled in its presence.  And maybe, if I eat enough, some of that burbot fortitude might just rub off!


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