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Grasshopper Delight

January 1, 2008 Comments off
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Butterflies in the Zoo

December 31, 2007 1 comment

So that they don’t escape
there are two doors —

one to shut behind us
before opening the next

We stand in between
checking our hair and collars

for stowaway wings
If we find a butterfly

spotted, striped, or injured,
we take its picture, cup it

within our hands, return it
to captivity

If we find nothing,
we are free to go

down the path
to the next exhibit —

elephants being hosed
from dusty ears to muddy toes

by Pablo, Miguel,
and Alejandro.

by Therese L. Broderick

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houdini

December 30, 2007 Comments off

as i sat one summer
and read

about the black-robed
judges,

the teachers, the grey-suited
administrators,

law-writers, spies
and film-makers,

the white-coated
industrial chemists

who kindly continued
in their posts

once the once-great
family firm

had been busted
for irregularities,

the wasp in the downturned
glass had vanished

through a slat
in the new garden table

to resume its feeding
on the fresh cherries.

by Alistair Noon

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The Ant Analogy

December 29, 2007 3 comments

As a child, one of my favourite books was Insect Life, a cartoon-strip introduction to insect behaviour published in 1948. The date of publication is significant, since it comes shortly after the Second World War, the style of the book being influenced by wartime propaganda publications.

This was a book that exerted a fascination on me through its strange mixture of factuality and imagination. The chapters I enjoyed most were those in which insects were allowed to appear in humanised form: bees, silkworms, spiders, termites and ants. The Colorado beetle and the common house fly received no such anthropomorphising treatment. Instead, these pests were subjected to a damning by statistics in which one individual was seen to lead a cohort of offspring, their pyramidal marching formation suggesting interminable expansion in numbers.

The insects that seemed most “at ease” as humans were the bees, the termites and the ants. Individuals belonging to these groups appeared in various human outfits: scout leaders, women factory workers, soldiers, dandies, peasants, doctors, milkmaids or princesses. What these insects were shown to have in common with man is their social way of life, the comparison clinched by the specialisation of individual members of a colony to specific roles.

The chapter on termites always unsettled me, and now, reading through it again, I see it was meant to, being introduced in the following terms: “Here is the Nazi of the insect world, living to destroy. Ruthlessly efficient, backed by infiltration and fifth column tactics undreamed of even by Hitler, a Termite sacrifices everything, life itself where necessary, for the common purposes of destruction.”

The termite chapter ends with a different analogy, one which points towards the future. The second to last frame is a picture of a termitary, darkly shadowed at sunset, its mud towers reaching skywards. Beneath the picture, a caption reads: “When the young princes and princesses have flown to their martyrdom, the openings of the gloomy prison close for another year.” The last frame is a scene of a city in the style of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, long lines of commuters disappearing into the dark entrance of buildings whose stark towers resemble the termitary. Underneath is written: “With eyes, sex and wings sacrificed to the common good, the termites in their joyless tomb provide both an example and a terrible warning of what may be man’s own destiny.”

This demonising view of the termite contrasts strongly with the next chapter about ants which are portrayed as courageous and inventive animals, despite the fact that their social mode of life is really not so far removed from the termites’. The South African naturalist Eugene Marais had a lifelong fascination for termites. Where the writer of Insect Life saw sinister machinations in the termites’ behaviour, Marais observed deep mystery. In his book The Soul of the White Ant, first published in 1928, Marais expounded his view that the termite is not a group of organisms functioning as a society, but a single colonial organism in which the individuals act as “cells,” and in which specialisation of individuals creates various different “organs” within the “body” of the termitary.

This idea of a colony so well organised, so specialised, so perfectly reproducible that the various polymorphic forms of ant or termite begin to resemble different organs of the body, starts to hint that insect societies are not really that similar to human societies after all. Individual humans are adaptable, both mentally and physically. A person whose job becomes redundant can retrain to do something else. As naturalist Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous, observed in his book Ants, published in 1930: “man does not find his tools growing upon his body; he has to make them in infinite variety.” For Huxley, the comparison of ants and men is a misleading enterprise. He begins his book by stating boldly that: “Innumerable comparisons have been made between human society and the social organisation of ant, bee, or termite… almost without exception the moral has been false.”

A few years ago, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, James M. Costa reviewed how philosophers and writers down the ages have perceived insect societies, and the lessons they have drawn for mankind. He notes how the 17th-Century English philosopher and writer of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, viewed the society of ants as providing a model of the natural law which dictates that every society requires a strong leader at its head: the queen bee or ant. He was writing at a time when England lacked exactly that: a strong ruler.

Kropotkin, on the other hand, an anarchist and early communist writing in revolutionary Russia, interpreted ant society as a successful model of socialist values in which every worker had a role and a defined place, working unanimously towards the success of society. Costa shows in his paper that the lessons insect societies hold for mankind depend very much on the eye of the beholder. The advantage for a philosopher who “goes to the ant” for his philosophy is that it will seem that what he presents to his reader is a “natural” law. For Costa, this is a dangerous aspect. For what is really a “natural” law, when interpretation is nine parts of the result?

While Huxley went out of his way to note the differences between ant and human societies, the American myrmecologist Caryl P. Haskins took the opposite approach. In his book Of Ants and Men, published in 1939, he compared the lives of insect and man in a myriad of ways ranging from the morphological to the behavioural. The danger of this approach is that we very soon start to suspect that Haskins knows much more about ants than he does about men, and what is more, that he is projecting his own cultural bias onto his interpretations.

For example, he compares the evolution of three major ant groups: the Ponerines, the Myrmicines and the Formicines to “evolution” of human society from primitives, to empire-builders and, finally, to pioneers. Of Ponerines he says: “The young are, for ants, extremely athletic, competent, and able to care for themselves, exactly as the children of primitive peoples display an early competence which belies their later deficiency.” Or: “the ease with which the entire economy of the colony may be overturned by a very slight alteration of the environment all bespeak primitiveness.” So much for Ponerines who are, eventually, dismissed as carnivorous, barbaric and always on the move looking for new prey on which to feast.

Of Myrmicines Haskins notes: “the life span of the Queen increased while the stature of the workers decreased” and “the Queen founds colonies among inhospitable regions.” Suddenly, it seems we are reading about the British Empire in miniature… But, the Myrmicines are not plastically adaptive because of their “sanguine disposition.”

Haskins reserves his highest praise for the Formicine subfamily which “excels all other ants.” He describes these ants as pushing “hard upon the edges of the (American continent’s) melting glaciers … an aggressive, sensitive band of pioneer Formicines” whose “simplicity in social life is evident” and who “rely on their own resourcefulness.” What is disturbing about these descriptions, apart from their ill-founded, ethnocentric point of view, is that observations proceed from philosophical insight. They are driven by a preconceived model.

Finally, I’d like to return to that image of the termitary I mentioned at the beginning of this article, with the setting sun behind it, and ask: is the termitary really a good analogy for today’s metropolises: the long lines of commuters filing away into their office buildings? Is the visual analogy, the societal analogy really sufficiently compelling that we should take this warning about our own future seriously?

It is a relevant question. Millions of people around the world already pass much of their waking lives in this way. Have their “eyes, sex and wings been sacrificed to the common good”? Do they spend their lives in a “joyless tomb” as the author of Insect Life suggests? Certainly, I recognise a certain physical truth in the analogy, but I also believe that there is no useful conclusion to be drawn from it simply because, and it is as simple and important as this: a human is not an ant.

Those people working in office blocks are real people, people who love and share and think and feel. It remains the case even though we are distanced from them physically, by their inaccessibility, by the media of disasters or by the disinterested cinema camera. If we look at them from afar, they may seem to be behaving like termites or ants, but when we look at them close up we see that they are as human as all the other human creatures on the planet. In this context, I think it is important to recall again the words of Julian Huxley: whenever comparison between humans and ants is made, “without exception the moral has been false.”

by Jonathan Wonham

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Leaf Cutter Ants

December 28, 2007 1 comment

Near Tulum
Yucatan peninsula
March 10, 2003

Have you ever seen a parade like this?
A six-inch highway, for two hundred yards
Precisely cleared in red forest earth,
Connecting tree and nest. Marchers
Heading home carry green flags
Ten times taller than themselves.
Those who have delivered flags
Head back to fetch another.
Unaware of one-way streets,
They collide in ordered chaos,
The Boston and New York marathons,
Running headlong though each other.
Surely the ancient Mayans saw this,
Before the rise of their pyramids,
Before they learned to raise the maize
That exploded their numbers and
Brought their elite the gift of time,
To learn Astronomy, Art and Architecture.
Can you see them, on hands and knees,
Studying the relentless little farmers?
Were these, their insect instructors,
The catalysts of a civilization?
After mastering the stars, Mayans
Invented Slavery, War and Sacrifice.
They forgot their tiny teachers.
They should have stuck to farming.
Their temples are in ruins.
The ants are still parading.

by Charles Dayton

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Fly

December 27, 2007 1 comment

Objet Trouvé

December 26, 2007 1 comment

1.
Yellow paper blackened by flies.
Vibrations indicate a breather.

2.
I’m mesmerized by objects
my neighbors throw away.

My trash is predictable.
Just once I’d love to discover something
I didn’t intend to leave on the heap,
something more intriguing than
lemon peels, coffee grounds.

3.
Where does one keep second thoughts?
Misgivings? As a girl, I found
a nest on the ground, and inside,
three cracked eggs leaking gold.
My mother’s insistent fingers
tightened on my wrist: There are things
we don’t touch because they are filthy.

4.
In my hand, the flypaper hums, holding on.

by Jayne Pupek

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Silk: A Wearer’s Guide

December 24, 2007 Comments off

A scruffy boy, I kept them in a box, and learned to watch
how they fattened on beds of green mulberry
and spun themselves to a timetable.
Now I’d wear silk in war and watch bullets bounce off my chest.
Or, as head of state at an APEC conference,
line up for a photo-shoot in garish pyjamas.
I’d burn silk to alleviate a bleeding nose.
or, constipated, eat it and add syrup.
I imagine my mother married
in a discarded D-Day parachute, though the truth is
three months pregnant she wore raw Chanel silk.
Nothing could be cooler in May.
If anything, silkworms made China.
No silk, no Madame Butterfly or boudoirs of ivory, peach and pink,
no po-co allegory, no going-away gift of ties.
Pol Pot had looms burnt, the weavers thrown to dogs,
demoted to spinning crappy peasant cotton.
Because Gandhi (the people’s choice?) chose muslin.
I too would have perished, like all worms,
had I spoken this secret lingo of weavers.
Two threads of fibroin or brins glued together in sericin
make a bave. Unable or unwilling to confess
a plain English equivalent, did they deserve execution
in black Dacron pyjamas?
Four hundred metre lengths of spun figure-of-eights,
and no worm can turn. Boiled in grege, raw or reeled,
the thicker thread for weft, the finer thread for warp.
The unspooling well-wrought worm makes a tasty deep fried snack;
the deformed make chicken feed.
Children crave a dish of wok-fried worms.
Who wants to be an ugly moth, now that you know
how silkworms die, their lives recycling
for profit and a beauty nature never intended?
I too was a weaver addicted to that code,
reincarnated, endlessly returning to that guild,
then rehabilitated, as the Maoists used to say.
Prior to the dyeing process, if the ashes of a kapok tree
can’t be found, soap will bleach the skeins.
For dyes the best are barks, roots,
rhizome, seeds and leaves of an old Khmer forest
de-mined to a 99 percent ISO rating.
Tinctorial plants shimmer in the eye.
Nature’s madder red refracts blue, then green
(as if spot-lit in a TV studio or circus) then yellow.
The dealers know what yields indigo, what
doubles as a pesticide, disinfects a cut
or stuns a fish more cheaply than grenades.
From indigo leaf derives indican, hence conversion by alkaloid
to indoxyl. Alum and green vitriol are mordants;
with green sappan wood the mix turns red and purple.
The cow hoof tree I’ve never seen, while iron,
especially military ordnance (like a tank rusting in a mangrove)
is abundant as rain.
Jackfruit, domestic and wild
gives saffron; for a deeper brown, add
ebony berries or turmeric; cassia gives you beige.
For red, the excreta of the sap sucking lac bug
never fails, and our old distinction Science and Art
breaks down, fermenting in a vat of silk.
Natural green now rare makes way
for what’s in vogue today; an overdye of mango bark yellow
spliced with indigo, which is fugitive, as they say in the trade:
Wednesday’s colour will become with time and washing
the colour of another day, Monday.
This has consequences:
the confused mnemonics of school children,
the disconnect of colours with calendars;
the rhyme I used to chant, fading in an empty room of worms.

by Adam Aitken

Author’s note: Info from Gillian Green, Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage (River Books, 2003).

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Bug on a Banana Leaf

December 23, 2007 Comments off
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Strangers in Paradise

December 22, 2007 5 comments

When God and His assistant Evolutio created insects, they were drunk on a nectar they had concocted the night before, so you can imagine the hilarity. It was Evo’s idea to add all the stinging/biting/poisonous bits to the creatures, supposedly to ensure their survival, but actually because it was more fun. At the drawing board, God’s imagination went wild and the designs He came up with were just unbelievable. “They’ll never believe I did this!” He giggled.

Now I have no way of proving that this comical cosmic team was behind the farce that landed me and my ex (not ex at the time) in the jungle, but there does not seem to be a better explanation. You could say that it was because my father, a man of ideas, persuaded ex, a laid-back potter, and I, a comfort-loving city-dweller, to both become managers of a strip of land shaved out of the insect paradise in the heart of Brazil called Mato Grosso, i.e. very big forest. Mato also means crazy, so: a very big, crazy forest. The idea was that the shaved strip would eventually become a vast ranch sprinkled with income-producing cattle, golf courses for rich tourists, and model cottages with attached jobs for thousands of homeless immigrants. It was not one of my father’s more realistic ideas.

There are humans and other large animals living in Mato Grosso but the indigenous population are largely insects and they do not let you forget this for one moment. When we soft-skinned, sweet-blooded strangers arrived, armed with mosquito-repellent and sunscreen, the insects laughed so much they nearly died. But they didn’t die because insects are workaholics. No wonder they rule the earth. They are the Starbucks and McDonalds of the underworld, branches everywhere and new ones opening daily.

Our home on the bald strip of land in the middle of Mato Grosso was one of a handful of prefabricated wooden huts. Surrounding us on all four sides of the clearing was dense jungle, humming with unbridled entomological activity which, in our naive enthusiasm, we aimed to record with drawings and photographs, when we were not too busy managing our native work force: four men, one woman, two children and a baby. More personnel was due to arrive later when things were ready but since neither ‘later’, ‘things’, or ‘ready’ had been clearly defined, we were there merely as entertainment for the natives and the insects. How they applauded when it became clear that whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down, we were irresistibly attractive to legions of tiny carnivores. The smaller the creatures, the more insatiable their appetite. Not for them a sensible siesta whilst digesting one’s prey. It’s suck suck chew chew crawl crawl buzz buzz round the clock. God knows when they slept, and it’s His or that demented Evo’s fault if they don’t sleep at all. I know I am being unfair to the innocent minority, those heavenly blue, iridescently shimmering, giant Brazilian butterflies, Morpho menelaus. We could see them flickering in and out of the lush vegetation but if we tried to get closer, busy little predators made sure we had to run for cover.

Human ingenuity being what it is, we sewed netting around the broad brims of our hats, lathered every inch of our skin with the latest repellent, wore boots and long-sleeved shirts. But human ingenuity is no match for ancient insect cunning. In the heat and humidity, covered up head to toe, we sweated profusely and became caviar for the beasties. Never mind mosquitoes, tiny flies or larger creatures, such as the rhinoceros beetle which knocked down my camera when I attempted to record its slow progress on our dinner table. What really tipped the balance was the jungle chigger. These invisible instruments of torture penetrated all our defenses, invading waist, armpits, groin, ankles — anywhere they could taste our delicious sweat — and stayed there until we were driven mad by the intense itching. And then they sent for reinforcements. I didn’t know it at the time, or care, but they are the larvae of mites belonging to the family Trombiculidae.

They pierce the skin and inject into the host a salivary secretion containing powerful, digestive enzymes that break down skin cells, which are then ingested, after the tissues have become liquefied and sucked up. Also, this digestive fluid causes surrounding tissues to harden, forming a straw-like feeding tube of hardened flesh (stylostome) from which further, partially-digested skin cells may be sucked out.

It was them or us and it was obvious that they were the fittest. We managed to endure a few months of sleepless torment, frantically scratching the red welts that covered our bodies, and then we gave up. Made our excuses, said our goodbyes to the unsurprised, un-bitten natives, and left.

As far as I know, the insects still rule in Mato Grosso, and God and His assistant Evolutio are still drunk on the nectar of creation.

by Natalie d’Arbeloff

Editors’ Note: Another version of this story appears in Part 7 of Natalie’s online illustrated memoir, The Burial of Mickey Mouse.

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