04 May 2007

Literary Titan, Asher E. (huh?) Treat

The greatest story ever told was penned by a man who not only never won a literary prize, but who would not have been invited to dinner anywhere it counts.

To be sure you have never read it, unless you also fall into the category of people whom other people think of rather like pet skunks.

For I am sure Asher E. Treat was a rotten dinner guest, and never occupied himself with who slandered whom or who was cheating on . . . and he probably knew not a single Hemingway anecdote.

But with the certainty of a fanatic and the purity of rainwater in the Himalayas, he wrote, "At whatever point one picks up the story of the moth ear mite, he is almost sure to be fascinated by what he sees."

And he proceeds to tell you all about it, leaving no milestone unturned in the tumultuous life of a creature that you host in the thousands in each ear, with the society in your left and your right being as alien as you would feel wandering in a strange land where everyone was busy and you could not understand one word.

Not only does Mr. Treat go into minutiae about minutiae. He makes the saga into a page-turner with an exactitude of word and attention to detail that is poetic, even about even more unpromising subjects than his protagonist:

"The fecal matter is hygroscopic, swelling and softening in moist air, reversibly shrinking, darkening, and hardening when the atmosphere is dry. One wonders how this affects the microclimate of the colony . . . ."

And by gum, one does wonder! What makes his writing so compelling? Partly his enthusiasm and certainty that we will fall under the spell, too. But bores often think themselves fascinators. Treat's charm wells from his complete honesty of reporting. We know there is no spin or set of preconceived notions packaged neatly as a report of scientific "findings."

No—here is science as it once was, and always still is amongst the great. The science of the initially clueless, with a mind open to surprises, hungry for revelations though not willing to invent them, not for any reason. Dedication such as is only practiced amongst those whose back is bent, both figuratively, and in his case I am sure, literally, though most likely, he never noticed it. No more than a prospector who can't stop panning.

The clincher to the charm of his story, and his science, is the fact that his subjects are not objects. He has an unembarrassed passionate relationship with these tiny subjects. He loves them and clutches them to his curiosity as an old prospector does that gold nugget he will never sell. And so as he learns, he reveals, with the skill of Poe.

"Since the previous summer I had been examining the ears of almost every kind of tympanate moth that came to my collecting light. On the night of 5 July, 1952, I found a 'volunteer' that had somehow got into the attic of the country house where we spent our summers; it was flying about the lamp on my laboratory table. I had finished work for the night but couldn't resist the temptation to inspect the ears of one more moth."

It is rare to find writing that contains information that you know you didn't know, but which also has the ability to make you laugh, and cry. But the beauty of a dedicated life of unprejudiced inquiry combined with a never-to-be-dulled brilliance of aha! (as they say in haiku) about the natural world, makes the life of Mr. Treat nothing less than that of a prospector who becomes a wealthy man. But he is a philanthropist here, because in writing his great story, we can share his wealth.

For us, the readers, his tale is nothing less than unforgettable, for it is his humility that finally does what only the greatest literature can. When you least expect it, the words reach out from the depths of his story, and clutch your heart with a truth so profound, it's simple:

"The magic of the microscope is not that it makes little creatures larger, but that it makes a large one smaller. We are too big for our world. The microscope takes us down from our proud and lonely immensity and makes us, for a time, fellow citizens with the great majority of living things. It lets us share with them the strange and beautiful world where a meter amounts to a mile and yesterday was years ago. Let us shrink to the height of a moth ear mite. . . ."

So there we have it. Plot, motivation, drama, an open mind endlessly discovering and revealing surprises—and an author being true to truth, and himself. What else could be more the essence of greatness in science, literature, and . . . come to think of it, life itself?

Book hunt:

Mites of Moths and Butterflies by Asher E. Treat, Cornell University Press, 1975.

The quotes above are excerpted from this book, as the chapter entitled "An Earful of Mites" in Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance from a Hidden World, edited by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz, John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

"Literary Titan: Asher E. (huh?) Treat" copyright Anna Tambour, was originally published in the sadly RIP online magazine, Public Scrutiny: The Mississippi Review, May 2002, and is reprinted here since this tribute no longer appears online.


Anonymous said...

Yes, a fine writer.

Is it childish of us to marvel at the intricacies of the world? To save up our seeings and send them out to others?

Not really.

It beats sending out our misunderstandings.

"I think, if someone 'can't communicate', they should just shut up!"
- Tom Lehrer,
on characters in 1960's plays, I think, ever bemoaning their inability to "communicate".

[today's equivalents: to 'interface', to 'give feedback', to 'interact' ??
are we people or machines?
piffle!!! dead words]


Anonymous said...

He was my biology teacher in 1958, an absolutely charming man writing in beautiful letters on a huge chalkboard in a spacious, sunny, tiered classroom in Shepherd Hall. Charming, precise, and beautiful all at the same time . . .

Albert B. Solomon