On Body Snatchers, Peat Bogs and Invisible Things by Regina G Beach

The bread went off, I noticed it yesterday as I was about to make toast. The last quarter of the loaf from Morrisons is speckled with grey-blue mold that’s nestled itself among the flax seeds and whole wheat. Craig asked if I couldn’t just tear away the bad bits and eat it anyway. He was having cereal; the milk upsets my stomach. No, I told him bluntly. You can’t pick away the moldy bits. For every visible speck of fungus, there are untold numbers of invisible spores buried deep and spread wide transforming the loaf from the inside out.  

Well, keep it anyway, he said, we can feed it to the ducks. Except you can’t – rather, you shouldn’t if you’re at all fond of ducks. The ducks don’t know about the miracle of mold, that it has the power to heal (hello penicillin). But it can also be deadly and causes aspergillosis, a fatal lung infection in unexpecting fowl, who, lacking scientific training, will gladly eat bread, moldy or not.  

A year ago, in the before times when the only restrictions on travel were the depths of one’s pockets and number of vacation days one accrued, Craig and I spent a week boating on the Norfolk Broads. One morning he came back from a grocery store in town with sausages, butter, eggs and a little cardboard box of duck food. I thought he was foolish to buy it, and then I discovered the joy of sprinkling the brown pellets overboard as we meandered through the water. 

Swans and ducks, their ducklings, coots and geese followed the boat. I was the Pied Piper of water fowl leading a parade through the wetlands. Once when we were moored, a huge white swan jumped onto the deck looking for food. Honking and tapping his beak on the windows he made quite a spectacle before giving up and jumping back into the water. 

To the untrained eye the Broads look like a meandering natural river but it is in fact a man-made landscape. A thousand years ago Norfolk was covered in woodlands. The timber was logged and carted away to be used in building and burned for heating until there were no woods left. In the 1100s monasteries started excavating peat and selling it to city dwellers to heat their houses, before coal or industrialization, and long before electricity.  

The turbary right to excavate peat lasted 200 years, leaving the channels deep and wide. Rising sea levels flooded the pits, the industry pivoted and 125 miles of waterways and the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey were left behind. Instead of being known as a place of piety and backbreaking labor, the broads transformed into a luxurious getaway from the Big Smoke. The railways brought people and the towns of Acle, Wroxam, and Ludham thrived on holiday maker’s big spends on boat rentals, food, and booze.  

Craig brought a crate of home-brewed ginger beer on our boat the Tropical Gem III. The recipe couldn’t be simpler, ginger, sugar, limes and champagne yeast. Fermentation is as close to alchemy as humans have got. We can’t turn lead into gold, but harnessing the transformative power of yeast to eat up the sugar and turn it into alcohol is at once magic and mayhem. 

 When we walk through the town of Great Yarmouth, it’s shoulder season and raining. The boardwalk is closed. The rides aren’t running. I try to imagine the beach covered in hundreds of sunbathing families but come up short. Between the seaside and the harbor where we’ve moored the Tropical Gem is St Nicolas Church and the attached graveyard. We cut through the church yard trying to make out names on grave markers that have withstood more than 100 drizzly British springs. We emerge on Bodysnatchers Row and among streets like Northgate and Fuller’s Hill it feels out of place. 

In the 1820s discovering how the human body worked from the inside out was all the rage in the medical community but the idea of donating one’s body to science was a foreign concept. The church told its parishioners they ought to be buried with all their parts. Germs weren’t understood, the inner-workings of bacteria, viruses and fungus chalked up to the will of the devil, the fault of the sinner or the curse of a witch.  

Surgeons were only permitted to dissect the bodies of dead criminals and there weren’t enough to go around. An enterprising Mr Thomas Vaughn had a solution. After the eulogy was said, the flowers laid and the last tears of mourners cried, he crept back to the cemetery, opened the coffins and snatched the body to be sent by train to London for a pretty price.  

At least 10 graves lie empty in St Nicholas Cemetery, nothing but dirt 6 feet under: a socially appropriate distance decreed by the Mayor of London during a plague outbreak in 1665 to keep the sickness from spreading. Before science discovered germs, intuition told us a 2-meter span would keep them at bay. 

During the plague, doctors wore masks with long noses stuffed with herbs. Said to ward off death, they also helped to mask the stench of dead bodies. In the Norfolk village of Hellesdon, a teenage boy has been roaming the streets as a plague doctor, much to the citizens’ chagrin. It’s not illegal to don a 17th century plague outfit while taking government-approved exercise outdoors, but some residents said the outfit was terrifying the kids and inappropriate. The fear of what we cannot see has magnified. When else is it more appropriate to wear a plague doctor outfit than during a global pandemic?  

We’ve swapped Black Death for Covid and even with all the science in the world, we’re still full of fear and misinformation. In this pandemic you can’t just tear away the bad bits and leave the rest. For every positive test of virus, there are untold numbers of invisible cases lingering deep and spreading wide transforming life as we know it from the inside out.


Read this while listening to ‘Bodysnatchers’ by Radiohead.

AUTHOR BIO

Regina G Beach is an American writer and former art teacher living in Bristol. She specializes in writing related to the arts, culture, travel, wellness and the unique people and places in those spheres. She is most at home on her bicycle or on her yoga mat. Read more of Regina’s writing and listen to her podcast at reginagbeach.com or following her on Instagram @saturn_returns_podcast 

WORDS FROM THE AUTHOR

I was in England in spring 2019 including the week on the Broads that inspired this piece. I moved to the UK full-time in March 2020, a mere week before Coronavirus changed entirely the ways in which we work and socialise and put all travel on hold. As someone who loves nothing more than discovering the hidden stories behind new places, the restrictions of sheltering in place hit me hard. I wanted to continue to explore my new home and had imagined weekends away, drives into the countryside and meals at new restaurants. Reminiscing about small pleasures (such as feeding the ducks) I was compelled to compare my current confines to the freedom I felt a year prior. Much of the anxiety surrounding COVID comes from the lack of concrete data and the seemingly ever-changing science. Since I couldn’t travel out of the house, I decided to travel through time and did a deep-dive into the history of pandemics, medical science and our knowledge of the microorganisms that make us sick; we don’t often think about the billions of fungus, bacteria and viruses that surround us unless they are wreaking havoc.