The armies of Yersinia pestis destroyed more than fifty million human beings during the fourteenth century alone – more than the combined hordes of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun many times over. Like them, they also came from the East. How many more were massacred on the way is unknowable. Two thirds of the population of Europe would succumb to their ravages during that century, and as they had done for centuries before, human beings would continue to die on a massive scale for centuries to come.
Yersinia pestis is the bacterium of Plague, a microscopic, ultra-efficient adversary that waits; biding its time, sending out sorties, waiting on chance. It is a parasite, a life form that co-opts the energies of another. It knows to do this. It also knows it must recruit an intermediary to gain access to the organism it needs. This is strategy, a deliberately contrived sequence of actions to affect a specific outcome; an awareness of intention evinced by a life form all but invisible to us.
A Flea is also a parasite – a bloodsucker – for Yersinia pestis, the perfect assault vehicle and Trojan horse. By infiltrating and blocking the flea’s digestive tract, the bacteria make it impossible for it to feed without regurgitating its meal back into the host. The Reflux of one organism thereby becomes the bridgehead for invasion by a second – into the blood stream of a third. In the fourteenth century, that third happened to be Marmots – the Groundhogs of Mongolia.
Marmots would not be the cause of Plague per se, fleas aren’t picky, one mammal, one rodent, is as good as another. Rats are a particular favorite since they are so ubiquitous. Rats, have latched onto the biggest, most successful parasite of them all, a mammal riding upon the back of another that has spread its own version of intention to every corner of the earth.
If not for the forced symbiosis, i.e. parasitism, of ape upon horse, human Culture would not exist as we know it. Conceivably, since they first encountered them, humans have overpowered horses and put them to work; agriculture, transportation, exploration and conquest would not have happened without them. The worldwide spread of Culture, therefore, like the worldwide spread of Plague is also the effect of one life form appropriating another to its own ends. Culture has arguably destroyed a greater diversity of planetary organisms than all the other forms of parasitism combined. Does it constitute a disease?
The China Silk Road commandeered by the militaristic horse culture of the Khans, provided the perfect on-ramp for Yersinia pestis from Asia into Europe. It wouldn’t be the first time. Justinian’s Plague in the fifth century wiped out twenty-five to fifty million, men, women and children over time, and it was also ‘Made In China’. In each case, when the path ran out, everyone climbed onto ships – humans, horses, rats, fleas, and Yersinia – one big happy family; a traveling Petri dish in which Culture was literally the medium.
A human being is a formidable emplacement, a hive of mutually dependent intentions determined to resist at all cost, anything and everything that would attempt to undermine it. But it is no match for Plague. Plague is an invasion force whose victory is almost assured. It has never been here before, but it knows what to do. It swarms into the labyrinth of ducts, knowing how to avoid macrophages, the body’s defensive cells, knowing how to defuse the waves of phagocytes and amoebic protozoans marshaled against it. It knows how to jam the signaling of the cytokine defenses, and knows how to seek out the Lymph nodes. Once there, it knows it has won. It has realized the high ground of intention.
Its objective secured, Plague will proliferate exponentially, doubling its population every one and a half hours. In a week or so, it will have established an incontestable empire of billions. Eventually, however, it will deplete the environment that sustains it. Colony and colonizers will collapse irrevocably.
Life feeds on life, and we are no exception. Homo sapiens even colonize themselves in the same ongoing process of increase and dissolution. It is a process informed by the most profound sense of knowing, an awareness outside of time, ahead of time, that organizes matter into ‘being’ within it. It is the anticipation of future that propels the sperm to its objective and compels the egg to move to meet it. (A human ‘being’ is conscious of itself long before it thinks.) It is the same awareness of intention that compels us to speak.
Language is the basis of Culture, and Culture is the strategy by which human beings colonize and increase. Like the strategy of Plague it must also adapt to circumstances that are never the same. In that regard we are surely equal. We may think that language – the means for articulating that idea – makes us somehow superior, but when confronted by Yersinia pestis we are invariably contradicted.
One strain of Culture spread to the Americas in the 1500s, but eventually Plague caught up with it. Setting out from China once again, it swept through India and Pakistan in 1896, killing over twelve million, and from there took ship to Hawaii killing a few more. In 1900 it arrived in San Francisco where – for the sake of appearances – the governor declared it a ‘safe city’ and cancelled the quarantine of the Chinatown district where the outbreak had occurred. Over a hundred died as a result. It was finally sent packing when the great earthquake fire of 1906, swept the city and ‘conveniently’ burned Chinatown to the ground. Twenty years later it showed up in Los Angeles.
Yersinia pestis is still reported in the United States, and California is still a popular hide out – along with Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. California ground squirrels, and prairie dogs are prominent vectors and campgrounds were closed on their account as recently as 2015.
Yersinia pestis also likes cats. Housecats. Cats harboring plague can infect people through bites, scratches, coughs, or sneezes – and of course – fleas. A cat flea jumps an average horizontal distance of eight inches, and an average height of five inches. With the best intention, it can jump as far as nineteen inches and as a high as eight.
“Here kitty kitty.”
Malcolm Mc Neill
MALCOLM MC NEILL’s collection of 40 essays, REFLUX+ was published in 2018.