Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Welcome To Weirdsville: Fear Itself

Livescience just posted 5 Killer Creatures: Surprisingly Deadly Animals - so I thought I might as well chip in with my own take on the subject: my article "Fear Itself" which is in Welcome To Weirdsville.

As the archetypal bumper-sticker proclaims: "Being Paranoid Doesn't Mean that They Aren't Out to Get You." In the world of the paranoiac, the world is nothing but a teetering rock slide: impending destruction always hovering just a moment away. Their world is one full of traps, deceptions, plots, conspiracies, and death where everyone is literally out to get you.

Some have suggested that a daily tablespoon full of this viewpoint can actually be a survival trait: In our capricious and elaborate world a certain degree of suspicion and caution will allow us to live to be frightened another day. Others suggest that this view is nothing less that narcissism stretched to a penultimate degree - that we are so special, so unique, that the universe and it's all-present Men in Black (with Black Helicopter and Satellite Brain-Ray Beam gift set) have no choice but to squish us flat.

But the real terror is lurking just beyond that. As anyone who has studied nature can attest, the world and all its creatures (great as well as small) really are out to get us.

Some of their attacks are easy to defend against. Into daily battle we go, armed to the teeth with antibiotics and the unshakable knowledge that:

  • if we cross against DON'T WALK we'll be turned into chunky salsa
  • milk the consistency of raw cement is not good
  • playing on the freeway is bad
  • sticking our fingers into electrical sockets is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thrill
With those bits of arcane law filling our grey matter, we in know how to survive to see tomorrow. Yet there are creatures on this globe that can snuff us out like a cheap candle in a stiff wind.

I don't mean the cartoon ferocity of the lion, tiger, or bear (or my) who proclaim their dangerous potential with a growl, roar, or screech. These critters lurk in dark silence, ready to strike with either the barest of warnings or none at all, and with absolutely fatal venom.

Some you've heard about, and so sit there and scoff. Yeah, big deal: rattlesnake, cobra, black widow - either you can hear them coming, avoid going to India, or simply not stick your hands into dark places. "Ha!" I write at your smug, assumed knowledge of nasty things. "Ha!" I write at your ignorance of the real terrors that are lurking out there, ready to strike. Rattlesnake, cobra, and black widow are nothing but annoyances: fatal only to the truly stupid or very sick.Dangerous, sure, but deadly to only Darwin Award winners.

But there are others, nasty little things as viscous and deadly as they are quiet and unassuming. Say, for instance, you happen to be happily walking through the low surf merrily picking up and discarding shells, looking for just the right one to decorate your desk back at the office. With no warning at all, however, you feel a sharp sting from one of those pretty shells, a sting that quickly flares into a crawling agony. With that quick sting, the cone snail's barbed spear has insidiously injected you with one of the most potent neurotoxins in existence.Nerves short-circuited by this infinitesimally small amount of juice, in seconds the agony of where the stinger struck has faded into a heavy numbness. A relief, perhaps, but then it spreads and moments later the paralysis has seized the entire limb. Then the breathing troubles start ... and then, simply, your heart stops beating. Yes, there are antivenoms available, but, frankly, with something that can kill in less than four minutes you'd have to carry it in your back pocket to survive. It wasn't just for their fondness for these pretty shells that lead the CIA to develop a weapon using this venom to dispatch enemies. 

We'll be back to the ocean in a few paragraphs, but for the next dangerous denizen we have to visit the steaming Amazon. Now I know what you're thinking, "Gee, what would I be doing out there in the jungle primeval?" To that I say that you're not paying attention to the lesson: it isn't so much that these things are where they are, but that they exist to begin with, and carry their lethality in such innocent packages.

That frog over there, for instance, that tiny, brilliantly colored tree frog. Doesn't he look like some kind of Faberge ornament, there against that shocking vermilion leaf? Wouldn't such a natural jewel look just gorgeous in a terrarium back home?

Pick him and you could be dead in a matter of minutes. One second frolicking in the undergrowth, the next spasming and foaming on the jungle floor. No stinger, no bite, no venom: just the shimmering slime covering his brilliant body. The natives in these here parts capture these poison arrow frogs (carefully) and coat their blowgun darts with that slime - and knock full grown monkey's out of the trees with a single strike.

Back in the windswept sea, sharks announce their presence with a steady da-dum, da-dum, da-dum of background music; rattlesnakes ... well, they rattle; lions, and tigers, and bears (oh, my) as said roar and bellow. These dangers are loud, almost comical: they parade their danger. But as paranoiacs know, these are nothing but part of the grand deception: they make us believe that everything fatal comes with sirens of intent, or brilliant warning labels. The real monsters are more devious than that; they lurk on the other side of invisibility, never make a sound, a kill you faster than the sounding of that first note in a shark's theme song.

Cone shells can be avoided, and brilliant frogs warn of their fatality, but this last terror does not roar or display its danger at all. Let's take one final swim, shall we, this time off the coast of Australia? Incredible blue waters, shimmering sandy beaches, shrimps on the barbie... Skin divers rave about the Australian coast … those, that is, who never let their guard down for an instant.

Paddling in the crystal sea, enjoying the cool waters, the warm sun, it's easy to miss this monster, especially as it's almost as clear as the ocean. Chironex fleckeri doesn't sound terrifying, does it? Chironex fleckeri: a tiny jellyfish found off the coast of Australia and southeastern Asia. Only about sixteen inches long, this jelly's tentacles carry thousands of nematocysts, microscopic stingers activated not by ill-will but by a simple brush against shell, or skin. Do this and they fire, injecting anyone and anything with the most powerful neurotoxin known. Stories abound of swimmers leaping from the cool Australian seas, skin blistered and torn from thousands of these tiny stingers, the venom scalding their bodies and plunging them into agonizing shock. The sting of a chironex fleckeri, also called the sea wasp, has been described by experts as horrifying torment.

Luckily it doesn't last long. Take that to heart dear, innocent reader, as you dog paddle through the ocean, walk on the beach, or trek through the forest: safe in your ignorance that the world doesn't hide terrifying, hideous deaths. The hideous agony of sea wasp's sting doesn't last long.

Not long at all. In fact, the burning pain is over in just about the time it will take you to read this last paragraph (and you don't have to be a phenomenally slow reader), not even enough time to reach shore and call for help. Maybe as the venom works itself into your system, causing your nervous system to collapse, you'll realize that paranoiacs are right: that there really are dangerous things out there, things that'll kill you by pure reflex, by just crossing their paths. Thirty seconds isn't a long time, not long at all. But sometimes life, and death, lessons can come in very short periods.

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