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Eleanor Morgan | Columbia Journal | Spring 2019 | 12 minutes (2,015words)
My first animal love was the slug. As a child, I would stroke them from head to tail and enjoy seeing their tentacles retract and their black ridges respond with a quiver. If slugs were on a path, I would move them to the side so no one stepped on them. They were so vulnerable, like internal organs without a skin (what a sensation if you stepped on them in your bare feet). In the morning, slow, glossy trails appeared round the frame of the front door and occasionally disappeared under it — evidence that one of them had squeezed its body into the house at night. The slugs had left dry, gluey paths; I preferred their fresh, sticky residue.
I am still attracted to sticky bodies and materials. I have made drawings and sculptures with spider silk, embraced the stinging tentacles of a giant green sea anemone, and forged diamonds from the decaying creatures of the River Thames. In all of these processes, stickiness is more than a property of a material or a method of making: it is a way to think through desirable and undesirable attachments, or what the philosopher Christine Battersby describes as the “sticky boundary” between our self and another. The original meaning of “stick” is to stab — to pierce another, to rupture the skin. It is a visceral and viscous connection that leaves bodies and objects changed, a reminder that the edges of forms are mutable, open to invasion. It is in the sticky sweetness of a glazed doughnut along with the oozing puss of a wound. It is found in our bodily secretions and in the joy of peeling glue from our fingertips.
Stickiness is how we share the world with others, human and beyond. Moments of connection are unavoidable and frequently messy. In “Sticky lives,” the geographer Franklin Ginn examines the awkward relationship between slugs and gardeners and how their shared desire for the same plants causes conflict, disgust, and guilt (some gardeners dissolve the slugs in salt but cannot bear to look at the gooey results). Ginn argues that rather than focusing on our close connection to other animals, we should recognize these hostile or reluctant gatherings as emphasizing the distance between species — our strangeness to each other. As Ginn writes, “being willing to recognize and be open to the vulnerability of non-human others and, perhaps, to be transformed by that recognition […] might offer one way to meet the challenge of respecting and living with unwanted others.” In my art and writing, exploring the strange and varied ways that other animals make things is how I acknowledge my limited, human-scale understanding of our shared world.
Last summer, I began a tour of stickiness. I wanted to know how the human uses of stickiness linked with those of other animals. I visited laboratories that are researching the glues produced by sea anemones and barnacles. These animals are classed as “biofoulers” in that they readily stick themselves to the underside of boats, damaging hulls and slowing down shipping. For the animals, hitching a ride across the oceans enables them to colonize new areas. I met with a professor of adhesion, who is using the water-repellent lotus leaf as inspiration to create non-sticky materials. In the British Museum, a conservator showed me examples of bad stickiness, drawings that had been repaired with sticky tape so that they were stained with a dark brown residue. Each person had their own definition of and use for stickiness, and as I continued my search the sense grew that all forms of making and living were sticky. For some, stickiness was compacted or melted materials; for others it was about the attraction or repulsion of water. My tour expanded and became unmanageable. To help guide my search, I imagined a sound — the crackle of stickiness when you pull apart glued objects. This is what I would listen out for, a joining together of disparate things that could be taken apart but not without affecting all the bodies involved. I thought of the funny, monstrous, perverse world you can create and recreate by sticking, what the filmmaker Derek Jarman describes as “the surprise collisions of a collage.” I needed to start my research closer to home. Here, I eventually found animals whose lives depend on creating such sticky collisions.
Near my house is a shallow stream crossed by slippery stone bridges. In winter, I shuffled down the bank in my rubber boots and waded slowly through the water, head down looking for flat rocks. If I was lucky, the underside of a rock revealed numerous centimeter-long caddisfly cases stuck to its surface. These are small, shrimp-like creatures with six legs, jaws, and a fan of small hairs at their end and are usually of interest only to fishermen who use them as bait. Caddisfly larvae gather detritus from their surroundings and glue these particles together with sticky threads of silk to form protective cases around their bodies. Each species creates a different shape: smooth trumpets of tiny stones, spiralling stacks of wood, or hollow mounds of sand. Some species collect snail shells with the living snails still in them so that they form towers of creatures, an assemblage of eyes, tentacles, and calcium cases moving across a riverbed.
The form and materials of these cases are dependent on both the species of caddisfly and what it finds in its surroundings. French artist Hubert Duprat makes use of this aspect of the larvae’s building behavior by putting them in tanks with gold leaf and precious stones. The larvae collect and glue these fragments together around their bodies to create miniature jeweled domes and tubes. While the materials may be different and more glamorous, the larvae cases are the same shape and form as those made from rocks and sticks.
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A larva spins the sticky silk from an opening in the tip of its mouth. It then moves its head back and forth, weaving the threads to bind together surrounding particles, gluing its case from the inside. It grabs on to the back of the tube using an anal claw and propels itself forwards with its front legs, searching for prey and ready to retreat back into its cone if threatened. As the larva grows, it will build up the case by adding new material to the front and carefully trimming the back end to keep it portable. After a year underwater, the larva will pupate into an adult caddisfly. In its terrestrial form, it will live no longer than a month.
I began to make drawings of the cases. Not quite illustrations but following and describing the forms and direction of the particles in their sticky collision. I drew on old prints that had been lying in my studio unfinished. Square relief prints of flat pink and black. There was something about reusing and remaking with what was at hand that seemed closer to the way that the cases were made. Only when I had the chance to see the cases under a microscope did the careful structure of glued threads reveal itself. Some were single ribbons of silk, while others appeared as thick, creamy blocks bonding stone to stone. They resembled anatomy diagrams of soft discs between the hard bones of a spine.
Caddisfly silk is a protein, similar to those produced by silkworms. But what makes its silk so extraordinary is that it can retain its stickiness underwater. Along with some other silk-producing aquatic animals, such as mussels and sea cucumbers, caddisfly have evolved to produce a material that no human has been able to create. Instead, our sticky materials such as tapes and glues lose their adhesion in water. Materials scientists are now researching the structure and production of aquatic silks in an attempt to create a sticky material that could be used as medical sutures inside our bodies. It seems that biological stickiness can function and link across species.
All organisms, including humans, can become glue. You can feel this potential in the stickiness of your blood or in the residue of raw meat. When I was growing up, and the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, we could smell the local glue factory. It was hidden behind trees, and it disguised itself beside a sewage farm; but shit doesn’t smell as bad as glue. Rachel Carson describes growing up near Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, where from her house she could see the smoke rising from the American Glue factory and the horses lined up outside. It was the smell that stuck — a stench so rancid that the inhabitants of the town could not sit outside.
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Before the invention of synthetic plastic-based glues in the early 20th century, all glues were organic, made from resins, tar, starches, or animal parts. Different animals, and different parts of the animal, were boiled and dried to create specific adhesives. In a 1905 publication on glue production, the author details the stickiest parts of an animal, like a shopping list of materials: “Among the glue-yielding tissues, the following are the most important: Cellular tissue, the corium, tendons or sinews, the middle membrane of the vasa lymphatica and veins, the ossein or organic matter of bones, hartshorn, cartilage, the air bladders of many kinds of fishes.” The glue made from a fish’s bladder was known as isinglass and is still used in brewing beer and in the conservation of damaged parchments. Wood glue was made from the skin and tendons of horses and cows, while the skin of rabbits was used to create a fine glue for gilding.
These glues continue to be produced for cooking, craft, and conservation work. Animals are still used as a material resource for human uses. But the shift over the last two decades towards bioinspired materials has required people to look more closely at the making practices of other species. The secret to the sticky threads of caddisfly larvae is not just in its chemical structure but the way that as a living organism it is able to create and spin sticky, waterproof silk from its body.
But it is too easy to fall into the trap of only looking at animal processes that are useful to humans. It may highlight the value of other species, but it keeps everything at the human scale — always asking, what can they do for us? I need to remember the importance of strangeness and the indifferent or reluctant gatherings that occur between bodies.
Alongside my drawings of caddisfly cases, I began to stick things to myself. I can’t secrete glue from my head, so I had to use sticky tape. I gathered whatever was around me and formed my own protective shells, partly camouflaged in the same material as my environment. It seemed comforting to make myself invisible in this way, using only what came to hand. The heat was a surprise, how quickly my case became warm, and soon I started to feel dizzy. I encased myself in the studio, my bedroom, in garden compost, and in my office. Each location offered different materials: cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, duvets, clothes, sticks, leaves (and the creatures that came with them), student timetables, computer cables, and pens. Making in this way changed the spaces. My office, a cold, white room of institutional university furniture and pin boards, became a place where things were made. The room, and my place within it, could be transformed by acting like a larva.
Bodies and the environment in which they make alter each other. In spite of their small size, caddisfly larvae gather in such significant numbers that their sticky assemblages may affect the flow of rivers. Their cases slow down the particles in riverbeds, reducing the corrosion of banks and as such may prevent flooding. We tend to think of landscapes being formed by geological events or human activity. Yet the building habits of caddisfly larvae over millions of years has contributed to the formation of our shared landscape. Our world and theirs meet in this awkward, sticky gathering of bodies making and remaking.
Eleanor Morgan is an artist and writer living in the UK. She uses printmaking, sculpture, video, and drawing to explore materials and processes of making across species. Her book Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads explores the history of the human uses of spider silk, from a garden shed in Sussex to the jungle islands of the South Pacific.
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