Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Insectopedia-Travel Essay and Field Guide

There is nothing better suited than a list of fears to get me thinking about childhood. On Thursday night I listened to author Hugh Raffles read this passage from his new book, Insectopedia:

There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of unguarded places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin. There is the nightmare of swarming and the nightmare of crawling. There is the nightmare of burrowing and the nightmare of being seen in the dark. There is the nightmare of turning the overhead light on just as the carpet scatters. There is the nightmare of beings without reason and the nightmare of being unable to communicate. There is the nightmare of them being out to get us.”

The book falls into a sort of genre twilight zone—a combination of sociology, anthropology and entomology, organized into 26 chapters corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. This excerpt is, naturally, from the chapter, “My Nightmares.” Think of it as a book of short nonfiction; wildly diverse and populated with strange characters, human and insect alike.
Mr. Raffles' breadth of imagination is obvious, and the passages he selected made me realize how much my attitude toward insects has changed as I've aged. As I listened to the author read, I wondered, what forces this change in human beings? What transforms curiosity into fear? My summer vacations from elementary school were always full of interaction with the natural world: hunched over by the fence in my backyard, watching a spider gracefully kill whatever lower order of insect was trapped in its web, digging a deep hole to find earthworms, collecting potato bugs in jars, feeding them to the spiders. It seems as though this disgust I've acquired in adulthood is a terrible virus for which there is no cure. I believe there is something in that nightmare passage that rings true for everyone. I was so irrationally disturbed to find ants in the kitchen of my last apartment that searching for them became a paranoid obsession; every speck on the linoleum was an emergency.
But maybe I can separate my primal squeamishness from my detached scientific curiosity. Maybe a vicarious relationship to insects is enough. Many people at the event got up to ask questions, and those questions often turned into anecdotes. There was a beekeeper who spoke about the concept of individuality in bees, and an entomologist who told the story of the bug that flew into his ear and stayed there until it died. People were weirdly excited to talk about their insect experiences; almost like a roomful of kids trying to top each others stories.
Books like Insectopedia bridge an important literary gap; between the field guide and the travel essay there is a whole world of observation, of reawakened curiosity and memory waiting to be tapped into. And it seems like many authors are doing just that.

Seija, General Books

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