Friday, March 19, 2010

“Thirty-six million little animals flying unseen above one square mile of countryside.."

Growing up in city, my concept of wildlife consisted on squirrels, pigeons, stray dogs and cats --- and insects. For a couple of summers my friends and I organized a traveling "insect zoo". We carefully placed ants, spiders, slugs, fireflies, beetles, bees, wasps, butterflies and even a praying mantis into jars (containing soil, rocks, grass and twigs intended to mimic their "natural habitats") tightly sealed with air holes.

We taped their common names and, whenever possible, their scientific names (we had access to a set of encyclopedias) on the jars and put into a couple of red wagons and wheeled them around the neighborhood.

The Vast World of the Tiny, Arranged From A to Z

By Katherine Bouton
New York Times
March 15, 2010

“The minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” This is both Hugh Raffles’s epigraph and the last line of his miraculous book “Insectopedia,” as inventive and wide ranging and full of astonishing surprises as the vast insect world itself.

In 26 chapters varying from 2 to 42 pages, from “Air” to “Zen” and “The Art of ZZZs,” with “Chernobyl,” “Fever/Dream,” “Kafka,” “Sex,” “The Sound of Global Warming” and “Ex Libris, Exempla” in between, he takes us on a delirious journey, zooming in and out from the microscopic to the global, from the titillating to the profound, from Niger to China, from one square mile above Louisiana to the recesses of his own mind.

First, that square mile over Louisiana in “Air.” In 1926, P. A. Glick, a scientist from the federal Division of Cotton Insect Investigations, and colleagues from the Department of Agriculture, among others, counted about 25 million to 36 million insects, including a ballooning spider they found flying at 15,000 feet, “probably the highest elevation at which any specimen has ever been taken.” (A Boeing transatlantic passenger jet flies at an average of 35,000 to 40,000 feet.) We know how the Boeing gets up there, but the spider’s launch is an aeronautical feat unequaled by aerospace engineers. Here’s how Mr. Raffles describes what Mr. Glick observed: the spiders “not only climb up to an exposed site (a twig or a flower, for instance), stand on tiptoe, raise their abdomen, test the atmosphere, throw out silk filaments, and launch themselves into the blue, all free legs spread eagled, but they also use their bodies and their silk to control their descent and the location of their landing.” His own sense of wonder is infectious: “Thirty-six million little animals flying unseen above one square mile of countryside? The heavens opened.”

In “Chernobyl,” Mr. Raffles profiles Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, an artist obsessed by mutation. Her precise scientific drawings of insects collected in Ticino, Switzerland, affected by the fallout from Chernobyl, countered the claims by scientists that the released radiation was too small to induce mutations. Hers was a long and too familiar battle, but eventually her findings could no longer be denied. “Sharing much of the visual grammar of the biological sciences,” Mr. Raffles writes, “the paintings seem mutely dispassionate, resolutely documentary. But so thoroughly in the world, they shimmer with emotion.”

“Fever/Dream” is a brief meditation on a time in the Amazon when everyone got malaria. No when, where, who. Just a description of a woman “motionless, lifeless but not quite dead, lifeless on the outside, but everything happening within, malaria coursing through her veins, bloating her liver, fevering her poor troubled brain.”

“Sex.” No, this is not about how insects do it (though insect homosexuality is addressed in “Queerness”). Instead it is an essay about Jeff Vilencia, a self-identified “crush freak” and the linchpin of an international brotherhood of 300 likeminded people, who find the idea of being crushed like an insect erotic (“all gentlemen, by the way, very intellectual people,” Mr. Vilencia says). His company, Squish Productions, does a mostly mail-order business, but in the early 1990s two of his films (“Squish,” about crushing grapes, when he was still finding his métier, and “Smush,” featuring earthworms) enjoyed an unexpected art house success.

Mr. Vilencia was invited to a talk show to discuss his work, and soon fell afoul of the morality police, with a Congressman seeing in Squish Productions an inevitable first step leading to kittens and hamsters and on to “Ted Bundy, the Unabomber and the safety of our children.” Mr. Vilencia himself is a vegan and an animal rights advocate and has no interest in stomping on anything furry.

Mr. Raffles’s flights of prose sometimes tend to excess. At times he seems to be playing with words to see how far he can push them. His chapter “The Deepest of Reveries” starts with a 239-word sentence that both enthralls and calls attention to itself.

A long chapter called “Generosity (the Happy Times),” first printed in Granta, gives us more information on the fighting cricket culture of China than I had tolerance for. But this is an encyclopedia. The format invites you to dip in here and there, skip over the boring parts. But mostly you won’t want to. And you will probably never look at a wasp the same way again.


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