One of my earliest memories from childhood (and to be honest considering the amount of years I lived through my childhood, I’m astounded I can’t recall more) is a recollection of an early ‘ecology’ lesson at my primary school in South East London, the area where I grew up. I was perhaps five or six.
The subject was the observed metamorphosis of a caterpillar (and here’s where my memory fails me) from either an egg, or more likely a perfect specimen of a caterpillar tucked into a sealed jam jar complete with a small store of leaves and twigs upon which to feed and mature.
I suppose we looked on with the childish attention that seems to be lost in the age of digital distraction as the caterpillar fed and grew fat in its glazed world, finally transforming itself into a small brown chrysalis hanging from one of the twigs.
One day, the metamorphosis was complete and we were all invited to look at the beautiful specimen of what I recall was probably a Red Admiral butterfly. Our teacher invited everyone around to see it and to witness its release it in the school garden.
The thing was that the butterfly refused to leave its place of birth so a question was raised as to who would be available to tease it out into the open. I’ve never been afraid of insects and so with my child’s small hand, I reached into the jar, gently took it to my finger and lifted it out surrounded on all sides by my school mates. Funnily enough, I have no recollection of it flying off but I am convinced that it did — such is the unreliable witness of the memory.
I recall this memory because it is somehow connects me to a time where I first felt a sense of wonder to the complexities of the natural world. Butterflies are an easy pick for most people since their delicate, silently fluttering wings, predilection for nectar and improbable colour displays make most people stop and wonder. In multiple cultures across history, they are considered to be the souls of the dead, the notion of which, if only buoyed upon the wings of superstition, gives their presence an otherworldly feel.
Other bugs are not so easy to love or romanticize.
Other memories from childhood include ruthlessly killing other insects using whatever means were at my disposal. This continued into my early teens and anything with the exception of spiders (Eight legs good, six legs bad, and anyway they kill insects too) was fair game. I feel ashamed to think of the spiteful war I waged upon them, happily tossing a half dead bluebottle into a web just to watch it be devoured. These days, I will go out of my way to trap a wasp or bee in the house and release it and am pleased to note that my special needs daughter does the same.
The question that emerges through all these recollections, is when is it justified to kill an insect and when is it not? The idea of a butterfly collection seems like a particularly human kind of folly — to take something rare, beautiful and living and then to shut it into a killing jar just to mount its corpse on a board like a prized stamp is just wrong.
If we elevate that wanton killing to the level of protecting our crops, the argument becomes distinctly Machiavellian. If a pesticide works efficiently on the worst pests but takes with it other less harmful insects, the ends seem to justify the means. To feed the growing mass of humanity, we’ve hybridized crops to create maximum yields and spread the earth in monocultures protected by mass blanketing with pesticides and herbicides.
It has been decades since the so called Green Revolution — humanity is expanding at a rate beyond the capacity of the earth to carry it. Meanwhile the incredible diversity of the groundswell of life on earth; insects is being flattened by a killing jar on a near global scale.
If you stop to think about the incredible complexity of a single insect evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, part of a delicate interwoven tapestry that connects it to specific plants, other insects and larger biospheres and then erase it, the act is a monstrous one. Multiply that act across thousands of species, each with their own unique evolutionary story, and the destruction is unforgivable. Certainly insects, which are so foreign to human life, insignificant in their way and to many of us, equally monstrous warrant little attention in their destruction. And yet, and yet…
As cities continue their expansion into megacities and the countryside empties, one can only hope that there will be places where we are not, and that the tenuous chains that link life together can continue threading their way into the future. Our future on earth depends on their survival, if only we knew it; their lives as precious in their way, as our own.
Not so many years ago, I gently removed a butterfly from a spider’s web and set it free. In my mind, the two events, one of my childhood and the other of my later years are intimately connected by the survival of that other species. It is our duty to incorporate a sense of wonder in our children for the natural world — the one that supports us all.