Seven-Year Sleepers by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

For many generations past that problematical animal, the toad-in-a-hole
(literal, not culinary) has been one of the most familiar and
interesting personages of contemporary folk-lore and popular natural
history. From time to time he turns up afresh, with his own wonted
perennial vigour, on paper at least, in company with the great
sea-serpent, the big gooseberry, the shower of frogs, the two-headed
calf, and all the other common objects of the country or the seaside in
the silly season. No extraordinary natural phenomenon on earth was ever
better vouched for–in the fashion rendered familiar to us by the
Tichborne claimant–that is to say, no other could ever get a larger
number of unprejudiced witnesses to swear positively and unreservedly in
its favour. Unfortunately, however, swearing alone no longer settles
causes off-hand, as if by show of hands, ‘the Ayes have it,’ after the
fashion prevalent in the good old days when the whole Hundred used to
testify that of its certain knowledge John Nokes did not commit such and
such a murder; whereupon John Nokes was forthwith acquitted accordingly.
Nowadays, both justice and science have become more exacting; they
insist upon the unpleasant and discourteous habit of cross-examining
their witnesses (as if they doubted them, forsooth!), instead of
accepting the witnesses’ own simple assertion that it’s all right, and
there’s no need for making a fuss about it. Did you yourself see the
block of stone in which the toad is said to have been found, before the
toad himself was actually extracted? Did you examine it all round to
make quite sure there was no hole, or crack, or passage in it anywhere?
Did you satisfy yourself after the toad was released from his close
quarters that no such hole, or crack, or passage had been dexterously
closed up, with intent to deceive, by plaster, cement, or other
artificial composition? Did you ever offer the workmen who found it a
nominal reward–say five shillings–for the first perfectly unanswerable
specimen of a genuine unadulterated antediluvian toad? Have you got the
toad now present, and can you produce him here in court (on writ of
habeas corpus or otherwise), together with all the fragments of the
stone or tree from which he was extracted? These are the disagreeable,
prying, inquisitorial, I may even say insulting, questions with which a
modern man of science is ready to assail the truthful and reputable
gentlemen who venture to assert their discovery, in these degenerate
days, of the ancient and unsophisticated toad-in-a-hole.

Now, the worst of it is that the gentlemen in question, being unfamiliar
with what is technically described as scientific methods of
investigation, are very apt to lose their temper when thus
cross-questioned, and to reply, after the fashion usually attributed to
the female mind, with another question, whether the scientific person
wishes to accuse them of downright lying. And as nothing on earth could
be further from the scientific person’s mind than such an imputation, he
is usually fain in the end to give up the social pursuit of postprandial
natural history (the subject generally crops up about the same time as
the after-dinner coffee), and to let the prehistoric toad go on his own
triumphant way, unheeded.

As a matter of fact, nobody ever makes larger allowances for other
people, in the estimate of their veracity, than the scientific
inquirer. Knowing himself, by painful experience, how extremely
difficult a matter it is to make perfectly sure you have observed
anything on earth quite correctly, and have eliminated all possible
chances of error, he acquires the fixed habit of doubting about one-half
of whatever his fellow-creatures tell him in ordinary conversation,
without for a single moment venturing to suspect them of deliberate
untruthfulness. Children and servants, if they find that anything they
have been told is erroneous, immediately jump at the conclusion that the
person who told them meant deliberately to deceive them; in their own
simple and categorical fashion they answer plumply, ‘That’s a lie.’ But
the man of science is only too well acquainted in his own person with
the exceeding difficulty of ever getting at the exact truth. He has
spent hours of toil, himself, in watching and observing the behaviour of
some plant, or animal, or gas, or metal; and after repeated experiments,
carefully designed to exclude all possibility of mistake, so far as he
can foresee it, he at last believes he has really settled some moot
point, and triumphantly publishes his final conclusions in a scientific
journal. Ten to one, the very next number of that same journal contains
a dozen supercilious letters from a dozen learned and high-salaried
professors, each pointing out a dozen distinct and separate precautions
which the painstaking observer neglected to take, and any one of which
would be quite sufficient to vitiate the whole body of his observations.
There might have been germs in the tube in which he boiled the water
(germs are very fashionable just at present); or some of the germs might
have survived and rather enjoyed the boiling; or they might have adhered
to the under surface of the cork; or the mixture might have been
tampered with during the experimenter’s temporary absence by his son,
aged ten years (scientific observers have no right, apparently, to have
sons of ten years old, except perhaps for purposes of psychological
research); and so forth, ad infinitum. And the worst of it all is that
the unhappy experimenter is bound himself to admit that every one of the
objections is perfectly valid, and that he very likely never really saw
what with perfect confidence he thought and said he had seen.

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This being an unbelieving age, then, when even the book of Deuteronomy
is ‘critically examined,’ let us see how much can really be said for and
against our old friend, the toad-in-a-hole; and first let us begin with
the antecedent probability, or otherwise, of any animal being able to
live in a more or less torpid condition, without air or food, for any
considerable period of time together.

A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to
England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular
mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to
individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was
really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum,
to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important
fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of
cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, ‘Helix
desertorum
, March 25, 1846.’ Being a snail of a retiring and contented
disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps
in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself
up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to
sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist
takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from
foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted
before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton
of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh
and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its
native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed
away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident
which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most
extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was
casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly
discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a
living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The
Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall
say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful
snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head
cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and
began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four
eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid
condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,
deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert
snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for
his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. Waterhouse; and a
woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and
adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. Woodward’s ‘Manual of
the Mollusca,’ to witness if I lie.

I mention this curious instance first, because it is the best
authenticated case on record (so far as my knowledge goes) of any animal
existing in a state of suspended animation for any long period of time
together. But there are other cases of encysted or immured animals
which, though less striking as regards the length of time during which
torpidity has been observed, are much more closely analogous to the real
or mythical conditions of the toad-in-a-hole. That curious West African
mud-fish, the Lepidosiren (familiar to all readers of evolutionary
literature as one of the most singular existing links between fish and
amphibians), lives among the shallow pools and broads of the Gambia,
which are dried up during the greater part of the tropical summer. To
provide against this annual contingency, the mud-fish retires into the
soft clay at the bottom of the pools, where it forms itself a sort of
nest, and there hibernates, or rather aestivates, for months together, in
a torpid condition. The surrounding mud then hardens into a dry ball;
and these balls are dug out of the soil of the rice-fields by the
natives, with the fish inside them, by which means many specimens of
lepidosiren have been sent alive to Europe, embedded in their natural
covering. Here the strange fish is chiefly prized as a zoological
curiosity for aquariums, because of its possessing gills and lungs
together, to fit it for its double existence; but the unsophisticated
West Africans grub it up on their own account as a delicacy, regardless
of its claims to scientific consideration as the earliest known ancestor
of all existing terrestrial animals. Now, the torpid state of the
mud-fish in his hardened ball of clay closely resembles the real or
supposed condition of the toad-in-a-hole; but with one important
exception. The mud-fish leaves a small canal or pipe open in his cell at
either end to admit the air for breathing, though he breathes (as I
shall proceed to explain) in a very slight degree during his aestivation;
whereas every proper toad-in-a-hole ought by all accounts to live
entirely without either feeding or breathing in any way. However, this
is a mere detail; and indeed, if toads-in-a-hole do really exist at all,
we must in all probability ultimately admit that they breathe to some
extent, though perhaps very slightly, during their long immurement.

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And this leads us on to consider what in reality hibernation is.
Everybody knows nowadays, I suppose, that there is a very close analogy
between an animal and a steam-engine. Food is the fuel that makes the
animal engine go; and this food acts almost exactly as coal does in the
artificial machine. But coal alone will not drive an engine; a free
draught of open air is also required in order to produce combustion.
Just in like manner the food we eat cannot be utilised to drive our
muscles and other organs unless it is supplied with oxygen from the air
to burn it slowly inside our bodies. This oxygen is taken into the
system, in all higher animals, by means of lungs or gills. Now, when we
are working at all hard, we require a great deal of oxygen, as most of
us have familiarly discovered (especially if we are somewhat stout) in
the act of climbing hills or running to catch a train. But when we are
doing very little work indeed, as in our sleeping hours, during which
muscular movement is suspended, and only the general organic life
continues, we breathe much more slowly and at longer intervals. However,
there is this important difference (generally speaking) between an
animal and a steam-engine. You can let the engine run short of coals and
come to a dead standstill, without impairing its future possibilities of
similar motion; you have only to get fresh coals, after weeks or months
of inaction, and light up a fresh fire, when your engine will
immediately begin to work again, exactly the same as before. But if an
animal organism once fairly runs down, either from want of food or any
other cause–in short, if it dies–it very seldom comes to life again.

I say ‘very seldom’ on purpose, because there are a few cases among the
extreme lower animals where a water-haunting creature can be taken out
of the water and can be thoroughly dried and desiccated, or even kept
for an apparently unlimited period wrapped up in paper or on the slide
of a microscope; and yet, the moment a drop of water is placed on top of
it, it begins to move and live again exactly as before. This sort of
thorough-going suspended animation is the kind we ought to expect from
any well-constituted and proper-minded toad-in-a-hole. Whether anything
like it ever really occurs in the higher ranks of animal life, however,
is a different question; but there can be no doubt that to some slight
extent a body to all intents and purposes quite dead (physically
speaking) by long immersion in water–a drowned man, for example–may
really be resuscitated by heat and stimulants, applied immediately,
provided no part of the working organism has been seriously injured or
decomposed. Such people may be said to be pro tem. functionally,
though not structurally, dead. The heart has practically ceased to beat,
the lungs have ceased to breathe, and physical life in the body is
temporarily extinct. The fire, in short, has gone out. But if only it
can be lighted again before any serious change in the system takes
place, all may still go on precisely as of old.

Many animals, however, find it convenient to assume a state of less
complete suspended animation during certain special periods of the year,
according to the circumstances of their peculiar climate and mode of
life. Among the very highest animals, the most familiar example of this
sort of semi-torpidity is to be found among the bears and the dormice.
The common European brown bear is a carnivore by descent, who has become
a vegetarian in practice, though whether from conscientious scruples or
mere practical considerations of expediency, does not appear. He feeds
chiefly on roots, berries, fruits, vegetables, and honey, all of which
he finds it comparatively difficult to procure during winter weather.
Accordingly, as everyone knows, he eats immoderately in the summer
season, till he has grown fat enough to supply bear’s grease to all
Christendom. Then he hunts himself out a hollow tree or rock-shelter,
curls himself up quietly to sleep, and snores away the whole livelong
winter. During this period of hibernation, the action of the heart is
reduced to a minimum, and the bear breathes but very slowly. Still, he
does breathe, and his heart does beat; and in performing those
indispensable functions, all his store of accumulated fat is gradually
used up, so that he wakes in spring as thin as a lath and as hungry as a
hunter. The machine has been working at very low pressure all the
winter: but it has been working for all that, and the continuity of
its action has never once for a moment been interrupted. This is the
central principle of all hibernation; it consists essentially of a very
long and profound sleep, during which all muscular motion, except that
of the heart and lungs, is completely suspended, while even these last
are reduced to the very smallest amount compatible with the final
restoration of full animal activity.

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Thus, even among warm-blooded animals like the bears and dormice,
hibernation actually occurs to a very considerable degree; but it is far
more common and more complete among cold-blooded creatures, whose bodies
do not need to be kept heated to the same degree, and with whom,
accordingly, hibernation becomes almost a complete torpor, the breathing
and the action of the heart being still further reduced to very nearly
zero. Mollusks in particular, like oysters and mussels, lead very
monotonous and uneventful lives, only varied as a rule by the welcome
change of being cut out of their shells and eaten alive; and their
powers of living without food under adverse circumstances are really
very remarkable. Freshwater snails and mussels, in cold weather, bury
themselves in the mud of ponds or rivers; and land-snails hide
themselves in the ground or under moss and leaves. The heart then
ceases perceptibly to beat, but respiration continues in a very faint
degree. The common garden snail closes the mouth of his shell when he
wants to hibernate, with a slimy covering; but he leaves a very small
hole in it somewhere, so as to allow a little air to get in, and keep up
his breathing to a slight amount. My experience has been, however, that
a great many snails go to sleep in this way, and never wake up again.
Either they get frozen to death, or else the respiration falls so low
that it never picks itself up properly when spring returns. In warm
climates, it is during the summer that mollusks and other mud-haunting
creatures go to sleep; and when they get well plastered round with clay,
they almost approach in tenacity of life the mildest recorded specimens
of the toad-in-a-hole.

For example, take the following cases, which I extract, with needful
simplifications, from Dr. Woodward.

‘In June 1850, a living pond mussel, which had been more than a year out
of water, was sent to Mr. Gray, from Australia. The big pond snails of
the tropics have been found alive in logs of mahogany imported from
Honduras; and M. Caillaud carried some from Egypt to Paris, packed in
sawdust. Indeed, it isn’t easy to ascertain the limit of their
endurance; for Mr. Laidlay, having placed a number in a drawer for this
very purpose, found them alive after five years’ torpidity, although
in the warm climate of Calcutta. The pretty snails called cyclostomas,
which have a lid to their shells, are well known to survive
imprisonments of many months; but in the ordinary open-mouthed
land-snails such cases are even more remarkable. Several of the enormous
tropical snails often used to decorate cottage mantelpieces, brought by
Lieutenant Greaves from Valparaiso, revived after being packed, some for
thirteen, others for twenty months. In 1849, Mr. Pickering received
from Mr. Wollaston a basketful of Madeira snails (of twenty or thirty
different kinds), three-fourths of which proved to be alive, after
several months’ confinement, including a sea voyage. Mr. Wollaston has
himself recorded the fact that specimens of two Madeira snails survived
a fast and imprisonment in pill-boxes of two years and a half duration,
and that large numbers of a small species, brought to England at the
same time, were all living after being inclosed in a dry bag for a
year and a half.’

Whether the snails themselves liked their long deprivation of food and
moisture we are not informed; their personal tastes and inclinations
were very little consulted in the matter; but as they and their
ancestors for many generations must have been accustomed to similar long
fasts during tropical droughts, in all likelihood they did not much mind
it.

The real question, then, about the historical toad-in-a-hole narrows
itself down in the end merely to this–how long is it credible that a
cold-blooded creature might sustain life in a torpid or hibernating
condition, without food, and with a very small quantity of fresh air,
supplied (let us say) from time to time through an almost imperceptible
fissure? It is well known that reptiles and amphibians are particularly
tenacious of life, and that some turtles in particular will live for
months, or even for years, without tasting food. The common Greek
tortoise, hawked on barrows about the streets of London and bought by a
confiding British public under the mistaken impression that its chief
fare consists of slugs and cockroaches (it is really far more likely to
feed upon its purchaser’s choicest seakale and asparagus), buries itself
in the ground at the first approach of winter, and snoozes away five
months of the year in a most comfortable and dignified torpidity. A
snake at the Zoo has even been known to live eighteen months in a
voluntary fast, refusing all the most tempting offers of birds and
rabbits, merely out of pique at her forcible confinement in a strange
cage. As this was a lady snake, however, it is possible that she only
went on living out of feminine obstinacy, so that this case really
counts for very little.

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Toads themselves are well known to possess all the qualities of mind and
body which go to make up the career of a successful and enduring
anchorite. At the best of times they eat seldom and sparingly, while a
forty days’ fast, like Dr. Tanner’s, would seem to them but an ordinary
incident in their everyday existence. In the winter they hibernate by
burying themselves in the mud, or by getting down cracks in the ground.
It is also undoubtedly true that they creep into holes wherever they can
find one, and that in these holes they lie torpid for a considerable
period. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that they
cannot live for more than a certain fixed and relatively short time
entirely without food or air. Dr. Buckland tried a number of experiments
upon toads in this manner–experiments wholly unnecessary, considering
the trivial nature of the point at issue–and his conclusion was that no
toad could get beyond two years without feeding or breathing. There can
be very little doubt that in this conclusion he was practically correct,
and that the real fine old crusted antediluvian toad-in-a-hole is really
a snare and a delusion.

That, however, does not wholly settle the question about such toads,
because, even though they may not be all that their admirers claim for
them, they may yet possess a very respectable antiquity of their own,
and may be very far from the category of mere vulgar cheats and
impostors. Because a toad is not as old as Methuselah, it need not
follow that he may not be as old as Old Parr; because he does not date
back to the Flood, it need not follow that he cannot remember Queen
Elizabeth. There are some toads-in-a-hole, indeed, which, however we may
account for the origin of their legend, are on the very face of it
utterly incredible. For example, there is the favourite and immensely
popular toad who was extracted from a perfectly closed hole in a marble
mantelpiece. The implication of the legend clearly is that the toad was
coeval with the marble. But marble is limestone, altered in texture by
pressure and heat, till it has assumed a crystalline structure. In other
words we are asked to believe that that toad lived through an amount of
fiery heat sufficient to burn him up into fine powder, and yet remains
to tell the tale. Such a toad as this obviously deserves no credit. His
discoverers may have believed in him themselves, but they will hardly
get other people to do so.

Still, there are a great many ways in which it is quite conceivable that
toads might get into holes in rocks or trees so as to give rise to the
common stories about them, and might even manage to live there for a
considerable time with very small quantities of food or air. It must be
remembered that from the very nature of the conditions the hole can
never be properly examined and inspected until after it has been split
open and the toad has been extracted from it. Now, if you split open a
tree or a rock, and find a toad inside it, with a cavity which he
exactly fills, it is extremely difficult to say whether there was or was
not a fissure before you broke the thing to pieces with your hatchet or
pickaxe. A very small fissure indeed would be quite sufficient to
account for the whole delusion; for if the toad could get a little air
to breathe slowly during his torpid period, and could find a few dead
flies or worms among the water that trickled scantily into his hole, he
could manage to drag out a peaceful and monotonous existence almost
indefinitely. Here are a few possible cases, any one of which will
quite suffice to give rise to at least as good a toad-in-the-hole as
ninety-nine out of a hundred published instances.

An adult toad buries himself in the mud by a dry pond, and gets coated
with a hard solid coat of sun-baked clay. His nodule is broken open with
a spade, and the toad himself is found inside, almost exactly filling
the space within the cavity. He has only been there for a few months at
the outside; but the clay is as hard as a stone, and to the bucolic mind
looks as if it might have been there ever since the Deluge. Good blue
lias clay, which dries as solid as limestone, would perform this trick
to perfection; and the toad might easily be relegated accordingly to the
secondary ages of geology. Observe, however, that the actual toads so
found are not the geological toads we should naturally expect under such
remarkable circumstances, but the common everyday toads of modern
England. This shows a want of accurate scientific knowledge on the part
of the toads which is truly lamentable. A toad who really wished to
qualify himself for the post ought at least to avoid presenting himself
before a critical eye in the foolish guise of an embodied anachronism.
He reminds one of the Roman mother in a popular burlesque, who suspects
her son of smoking, and vehemently declares that she smells tobacco,
but, after a moment, recollects the historical proprieties, and mutters
to herself, apologetically, ‘No, not tobacco; that’s not yet invented.’
A would-be silurian or triassic toad ought, in like manner, to remember
that in the ages to whose honours he aspires his own amphibian kind was
not yet developed. He ought rather to come out in the character of a
ceratodus or a labyrinthodon.

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Again, another adult toad crawls into the hollow of a tree, and there
hibernates. The bark partially closes over the slit by which he entered,
but leaves a little crack by which air can enter freely. The grubs in
the bark and other insects supply him from time to time with a frugal
repast. There is no good reason why, under such circumstances, a placid
and contented toad might not manage to prolong his existence for several
consecutive seasons.

Once more, the spawn of toads is very small, as regards the size of the
individual eggs, compared with the size of the full-grown animal.
Nothing would be easier than for a piece of spawn or a tiny tadpole to
be washed into some hole in a mine or cave, where there was sufficient
water for its developement, and where the trickling drops brought down
minute objects of food, enough to keep up its simple existence. A toad
brought up under such peculiar circumstances might pass almost its
entire life in a state of torpidity, and yet might grow and thrive in
its own sleepy vegetative fashion.

In short, while it would be difficult in any given case to prove to a
certainty either that the particular toad-in-a-hole had or had not
access to air and food, the ordinary conditions of toad life are exactly
those under which the delusive appearance of venerable antiquity would
be almost certain frequently to arise. The toad is a nocturnal animal;
it lives through the daytime in dark and damp places; it shows a decided
liking for crannies and crevices; it is wonderfully tenacious of life;
it possesses the power of hibernation; it can live on extremely small
quantities of food for very long periods of time together; it buries
itself in mud or clay; it passes the early part of its life as a
water-haunting tadpole; and last, not least, it can swell out its body
to nearly double its natural size by inflating itself, which fully
accounts for the stories of toads being taken out of holes every bit as
big as themselves. Considering all these things, it would be wonderful
indeed if toads were not often found in places and conditions which
would naturally give rise to the familiar myth. Throw in a little
allowance for human credulity, human exaggeration, and human love of the
marvellous, and you have all the elements of a very excellent
toad-in-the-hole in the highest ideal perfection.

At the same time I think it quite possible that some toads, under
natural circumstances, do really remain in a torpid or semi-torpid
condition for a period far exceeding the twenty-four months allowed as
the maximum in Dr. Buckland’s unpleasant experiments. If the amount of
air supplied through a crack or through the texture of the stone were
exactly sufficient for keeping the animal alive in the very slightest
fashion–the engine working at the lowest possible pressure, short of
absolute cessation–I see no reason on earth why a toad might not remain
dormant, in a moist place, with perhaps a very occasional worm or grub
for breakfast, for at least as long a time as the desert snail slept
comfortably in the British Museum. Altogether, while it is impossible to
believe the stories about toads that have been buried in a mine for
whole centuries, and still more impossible to believe in their being
disentombed from marble mantelpieces or very ancient geological
formations, it is quite conceivable that some toads-in-a-hole may really
be far from mere vulgar impostors, and may have passed the traditional
seven years of the Indian philosophers in solitary meditation on the
syllable Om, or on the equally significant Ko-ax, Ko-ax of the
irreverent Attic dramatist. “Certainly not a centenarian, but perhaps a
good seven-year sleeper for all that,” is the final verdict which the
court is disposed to return, after due consideration of all the
probabilities in re the toad-in-a-hole.

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