Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  11 (1885–86), 838–43.

Sap Bewitched

William Hamilton Gibson



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [4]


Natural History, Entomology, Parasitology, Wonder, Romanticism, Nomenclature, Popularization, Ancient Authorities, History of Science, Magic, Botany, Taxonomy, Instruments, Amateurism

People mentioned:

James Rennie , Carl R Osten-Sacken

    Suggests that 'closer scrutiny' of areas of woodland uncovers a 'host of witching shapes' that have 'become suggestively familiar in the modern page of science, if not of mythologic poesy' (838), and reveals that the 'insect elf' who is the 'hero of our chapter is no myth. Entomological fervor has captured him; prosaic fingers have dissected his tiny anatomy, and cold science has impaled him, duly catalogued and labelled; and Cynips is his name—at least his family name; the less said of his further christening, the better for our pages' (838–39). Acknowledges that the 'predisposition of the oak toward the formation' of 'excrescences' of gall was 'recognized among the earliest scientists' such as Pliny, but insists that only after 'centuries of conflicting opinion' did the 'theory of insect origin gradually assert its claims, as offering [...] a logical and reasonable' explanation of the curious phenomenon. In fact, only with Jan Swammerdam 'was the puzzle fully solved, this naturalist being the first accredited eye-witness to the magic touch of the tiny fly upon the leaf'. Reflects that by now 'Many naturalists have no doubt seen the gall-fly at work', and recalls that 'Once, as a boy, lounging, though with open eyes, beneath a favorite knoll, I was permitted to observe the act very minutely', going on to describe how the gall-fly 'penetrated the pulp of the leaf [...] depositing within a tiny egg, and ejecting therewith a magic fluid, which was thenceforth to work its marvels upon the leaf, demoralizing its adjacent sap and fibre' and causing the leaf to swell, harden and change colour. (839) Observes that the 'precise nature of this strange cellular metamorphosis is still unsolved', although the 'generally accepted belief [is] that the gall is but a natural result of chemical irritation, a vegetable excrescence analogous to an inflamed tumour in the animal body' (840). Notes that these 'insect magicians' and the gall which they use to embed their larvae have 'received a generous share of attention alike from the scientist and romancer', but the precise reason why the 'spell of this fairy should invariably thus cloth the branch [...] is one of those mysteries which neither the alembic nor microscope nor philosophy has solved' (842). Advises 'my readers' that a 'true Cynips [...] may be easily observed by gathering the galls in autumn, and keeping them in a box until spring' (842–43).

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

Printed from Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: An Electronic Index, v. 4.0, The Digital Humanities Institute <http://www.sciper.org> [accessed ]