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22 september 2013

Leech, by Robert G.W. Kirk and Neil Pemberton for the Reaktion Animal series, is so bizarre that you reckon at times these guys are just making stuff up. If there were ever proof needed that science fiction can't possibly imagine anything as outlandish as the natural history of earth, the leech and its relations with human beings would fit the bill.

The existence of the "natural leech" is bad enough, what with its triangular mouth and its propensity for sucking a bellyful of blood out of you before you know it's attached. But at least leeches fit into a niche in nature that is populated by enough familiar creatures that they make some sense to us. There are worms in apples and worms in dogs and cats; why not worms on people (or even in people, as is a leech's wont)?

I first became acquainted with leeches in streams in (where else?) New Jersey when I was a kid. They were sluglike and rather inert. If they got on you, it didn't hurt much, and you could pull them off while doing an impression of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

But the leeches in Leech are exotic and multifarious, including agile swimmers and leapers, and aesthetic too: there are lovely striped varieties, including the famous Hirudo medicinalis, the physician's leech. And of course, that's where it starts to get weird, or started to, hundreds of years ago. Why should a repulsive little worm be medicinal – and so medicinal that it became metonymic for the whole medical profession?

Kirk and Pemberton tell the story of how the leech went from an adjunct to superstition (in eras when bloodletting was a panacea) to an adjunct to high-tech microsurgery (in the 21st century, there is nothing like a leech to keep blood flowing into reattached body parts). And that's still not nearly the weirdest part of the book. Nor are the many horror films, from grindhouse to arthouse, that imagine bizarro leech monsters; nor are the various performance artists who get naked in front of audiences and bestick themselves with hungry leeches.

No, the parts of Leech that convinced me I was living on a strange planet have to do with leech farming and leech technology. In hirudoculture, vast areas of countryside are devoted to raising leeches – or were, in leech-obsessed 19th-century France, where ignorance and knowhow overlapped for a few frantic decades. Leech farmers flooded lowland fields, stocked them (I guess) with leech hatchlings, and then to harvest the bounty, slashed the sides and legs of horses and stood them in the swamps till they were covered with plump little suckers.

Hirudoculture in practice sounds like an extremely messy business, but surreal engravings printed in Leech show elegantly geometrical leech-ponds, all very Gallic (and a few of them still in operation today). Controlled leech harvests were certainly an improvement on pre-industrial methods of leech gathering, which consisted of sending peons into natural swamps with their trouser legs rolled up. It was one of these unfortunates who kept trying to tell the poet Wordsworth how he earned a living:

And said, that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
Lewis Carroll read Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" and apparently thought that the poet had gone quite mad. He compared leech-gathering to the most insane occupations he could imagine. In "The White Knight's Song," Carroll's aged, aged man is quite the entrepreneur:
He said, "I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night."
I'm glad that at least somebody back in the day thought that leech-gathering was as nuts as I do; but it was evidently an actual trade, to judge from the illustrations that Kirk and Pemberton reproduce:

Meanwhile, Victorian high-tech leechcraft was even stranger. A medico impossibly named George Merryweather noticed that his leeches would clamber up and down the walls of their leechjars as the weather changed. He designed a mechanism called the Tempest Prognosticator, which held twelve leeches whose calisthenics set telegraph reports into motion, predicting the weather. I would ascribe the Prognosticator to steampunk nightmares except that Kirk and Pemberton print a picture of that, too. We might all be getting leech-powered weather forecasts to this day if somebody else hadn't simply invented the barometer.

Kirk and Pemberton end with a peroration that cites Nietzsche and argues for better hirudo-human relations. I'm down with that, as long as I don't have to lie down with the leeches.

Kirk, Robert G.W., and Neil Pemberton. Leech. London: Reaktion, 2013.