by Ashutosh Jogalekar
From the age of eleven to the age of fifteen or so, my consummate interest in life was collecting insects and studying their behavior. In the single-minded pursuit of this activity I chose to ignore every ignominy, ranging from being chased by stray dogs and irate neighbors to enduring taunts hurled by my peers and disciplinary action meted out by teachers. Suffice it to say that I would have been the last boy to be asked on a date. The best thing was that none of this mattered in the least.
I don’t remember how it began, but I do know how it progressed. I vaguely recall a book, one of those craft books that taught kids how to build terrariums and enclosures. What I do remember well is that once the hobby took hold of my mind, it changed the way I saw the world. A new universe opened up. What might look ordinary to others – a patch of dusty brush by the side of a busy highway, the outskirts of a field where everyone else except me was playing soccer, and most notably, the hill close to our house which was a venue for vigorous workouts and hikes by seniors trying to stay fit – now teemed with insect life for me. That is what science does to your mind; it hijacks it, making you see things which everyone sees but notice things that very few do.
The hill and the soccer fields, especially, were paradise exemplified. To see the mysterious universe that science uncovers, often all you have to do is look closely. And so I did look closely, and I saw katydids and praying mantises, ladybugs and walking sticks, pale spiders and bright butterflies, red and black ants, and most notably, emerald scarab beetles. I soon became an expert in identifying and capturing every kind of insect that came my way using a net which I used for my aquarium and small bottles. The biggest casualties were the mason jars that my mother kept for storing pickles and miscellaneous food items. One by one they disappeared from the kitchen into the maw of the “insectotron” and then mysteriously reappeared in the living room on top of the television and on the windowsills, crammed with creepy crawlies and food in the form of twigs and leaves which they gingerly munched and walked on. I watched them lay eggs, tend their young, fight over mates. I scribbled notes furiously. My parents looked on with patient forbearance.
Once you forge a bond with nature, it transforms itself into a very personal bond. My most important “relationship” was with a katydid, a beautiful and curious yellow-crested fellow moving slowly among several baby praying mantises which I had housed on a plant growing in our balcony, some kind of creeping vine with hollow pods looking like little hot air balloons. The katydid did not seem to mind the mantises and they did not mind the katydid and it seemed to subsist well on the leaves of the plant. I named him “Skippy” (although it could well have been a female). Skippy was often a companion on excursions to the hill on other insect-gathering expeditions. Occasionally I used to take him to school in a bottle, resting on a bed of his favorite leaves, and show him off to friends and teachers; the reaction of the latter was often mortification as I suddenly whipped out my friend from my backpack or pocket as they were opening their lunchboxes in the faculty room.
Unfortunately I found Skippy dead next to his plant one day. The cause of death was unclear since he seemed to have been doing well until the day before. I was heartbroken. More cruelly but entirely consonant with the way of nature, his body was now becoming food for ants. I carefully brushed away the ants and picked up Skippy’s lifeless form. In death he seemed to feel as light as in life. What does a 12 or 13-year-old do when face to face with this minor form of death, much less consequential than that of a human but consequential enough in light of his personal relationship with the victim? In my case I went downstairs to the foot of a tall jasmine vine that had been growing for a long time up our balcony. The fragrant jasmine flowers would fall all day long at the foot of the vine. Here I dug up a little pocket of earth, gently deposited Skippy into the depression and covered up the grave with the dug out earth. I knew that every day he would be commemorated by the jasmine flowers steadily making their way from top and piling up, like blessings dispensed by the Gods for a life well lived. I would occasionally attend Skippy’s grave and observe a moment of silence.
Thirty years later this overly sentimental love for a katydid might seem silly, but I believe it exemplifies what the late, beloved biologist E. O. Wilson called “biophilia“, a natural love for and deep bond with nature that was forged during our evolution in a world teeming with nature’s sights, sounds and colors. It was also a natural way to introduce a young boy to nature’s way of death. What comes your way is bound to perish, and you must learn not just to accept this fact but to celebrate life and experience it fully.
Beetles were next. In the world of insects beetles are only second to butterflies in their explosion of colors. The ones I remember had a curious transparent edge all around their body, and the primary ones were either red with black spots, bright yellow with pale yellow spots or – my favorite – bejeweled emerald green scarab beetles. These last ones were stunning and scarce and I seldom found them.
There was one encounter with them in particular that led to some serious disciplinary action at school. In typical fashion, while the rest of the kids were playing soccer in PE class, I was at the periphery in the bushes, looking for emerald beetles (I can’t remember a single time that I joined the soccer session instead of looking for insects). Having found one I carefully kept it in a small bottle that I had handy. PE class dispersed and we all went into the classroom for the next class which was English literature. I was sitting at the back and could not help but constantly take out the bottle and admire the shine and glaze of light on the emerald shell of the beetle. Somehow the teacher saw this. She might have warned me once or twice. What I do remember is that at one point she lost her patience and told a fellow student to grab my bottle, run out into the schoolyard and throw the beetle out. Before I could react the kid had grabbed the bottle and bolted. I yelled loudly and ran after him, only catching up when he had already emptied out the bottle. My emerald friend was nowhere to be seen. I was both distraught and furious. My classmate went back to the classroom, but I couldn’t care less. I spent the next three hours sifting through the foliage, refusing to go back to class, and I was still at it when school ended for the day. The predictable result was a summons for my parents to meet with the principal. Your son’s behavior is getting out of hand, they were told, his insect obsession exceeding his need for a decent education. Little did she understand that this was my education.
Perhaps the most diverse of all the places where I went insect hunting was the hill, a fairly large eruption of earth and greenery a few miles from our house. It was easily biked to. In deference to its unique identity we simply called it The Hill. The Hill was densely blanketed with shrubs and greenery. The Hill had many secret passages leading under a dense canopy of undergrowth, passages whose knowledge we zealously guarded. The Hill virtually screamed with insect and animal life, especially when it rained. Best of all, The Hill had peacocks on it. One of my most memorable experiences was when I made my way through a naturally formed tunnel beneath some undergrowth after a vigorous bout of rain. I had traversed that tunnel a few times and did not expect to see anything out of the ordinary on the other side. Imagine my astonishment and wonder when I emerged on the other side and saw, sitting majestically and peacefully on a big tree…no less than seven peacocks. I don’t remember my exact reaction at the time, but I am certain I must have spent several speechless moments. The beautiful birds were eyeing me suspiciously, occasionally uttering one of their harsh-sounding cries. I knew peacocks could be aggressive. More importantly, I did not want to scare them off and shatter this picture-perfect spectacle that nature had seemingly arranged for me. So I watched them quietly for a few minutes and made my way back into the refuge of the tunnel. Along with the panoply of insect varieties that The Hill supplied me with, the magical peacock sighting was its most generous offering.
When I was in high school I came across E. O. Wilson’s superb memoir, “Naturalist“, in the British Library. One important reason I felt myself growing particularly sad and wistful after hearing about Wilson’s passing a few weeks ago was because I remembered the emotional impact his writing had had on me. The first thing I said to myself when I read the pages of “Naturalist” was, “Now here’s a scientist who can write. Really write.” My parents were college professors and intellectuals, and although trained in the scientific method and having a rational, scientific worldview second to none, were professionally members of the humanities. Especially through my father I benefited from this dual education in C. P. Snow’s two cultures, always wanting to become a scientist since I was a kid but having a sensitive appreciation of literature, history and the written word in particular. Most scientists’ writing, while often clear, is not particularly literary. Wilson who had won two Pulitzer Prizes was different. The words flowed from his narrative like a silken thread, mixing taxonomic descriptions with high literary accomplishment. In the pantheon of scientists writing for the public, only Freeman Dyson equals Wilson in his literary and humanistic bent in my opinion. Before I read “Naturalist”, I doubt I had ever heard of Wilson. Once I started reading it I instantly saw a kindred soul who was infinitely more accomplished than I was but who harbored similar sentiments about insects.
“Naturalist” started accompanying me everywhere. One moment in particular vividly stands out. I was on a vacation with my parents in the mountains, and for some reason found myself hiking alone up a steep road on a hill one evening, “Naturalist” in hand. When I got to the top of the hill I sat on a rock. There did not seem to be anyone else around. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful scene spread itself out in front me, with dense foliage extending across mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. I opened the pages of “Naturalist” and flipped through many memorable sections where Wilson had described his adventures in amateur natural history as a boy and his adventures in professional natural history as an adult. In keeping with his other work, he didn’t just talk about ants; he talked about everything, about how the unifying thread of life makes its way through all of nature, from bacteria to human beings.
Suddenly I had an eerie feeling that I was observing not just the individual parts of nature spread out before me but all of it. I was no longer thinking about just the trees keeping time, just the monkeys or gliding squirrels jumping across their branches, just the birds perched on them sonorously singing their songs, just the spiders and ants and grasshoppers making their way around on the ground. Instead I seemed to feel that I was observing all these different levels of organization all at once, taking in the whole picture, seeing all of nature’s emergent complexity not just through my physical eye but in my mind’s eye. It was Wilson’s grand vision of life unified, communicated urgently in his famous synthesis, “Sociobiology“, that seemed to not just unfurl in my rational being but touch every part of my emotional being as well. Nature is all one, the moment whispered, and the only reason we divide it up into species and taxa and chemistry and biology is because our puny intellects cannot grasp it in its entirety. But sitting on that hill that day, reading “Naturalist” I thought that perhaps we can conceive of nature in its entirety, perhaps we can appreciate the “web of life” that Fritjof Capra talked about, seeing not just unified levels of organization but humans themselves as seamlessly integrated into it. Perhaps then we will finally take better care of our planet.
As Ed Wilson once said, the thing about him was that he never outgrew the bug phase that many kids have. In my case I sadly did. By the time I had transitioned from high school to college my attention had shifted from the complexity and wonders of biology and natural history to the fundamental nature of physics. More tragically, my latent concern for what my peers and members of the opposite sex might think of me finally caught up and I thought that maybe, just maybe, tamping down the nerd factor might help a bit with my social skills. In retrospect I believe that was a mistake, partly because I never really outgrew the nerd phase, but more importantly because my insect phase was profoundly edifying. Quite aside from all the wonderful details of insect behavior it taught me, whether it was through Skippy’s death or the gleam of scarab beetles, the insect phase made me realize the bonds that we humans share even with supposedly lowly and simple creatures. That is a lesson that is manifest for all of us to embody deep within today, especially as we encounter unprecedented challenges to our environment.
As they say, charity begins at home. Although I formally abandoned my insect phase at age fifteen, it’s never too late to begin anew. I not only have a few more means now to pursue it than what I had then – although the means for entomological discovery have always been simple – but most importantly, I have an eager audience happy to help me with it. A few days ago when I took my 16-month-old daughter to the park for her daily evening playtime, I stopped by a fence while on the way back. I spotted two black ants walking on it, and after letting them walk on my hand and making sure they didn’t bite, I gently transferred them to my daughter’s hands. In the sanitized homes and parks where we live, she had never seen or felt ants before. Her eyes lit up with curiosity and wonder. After letting them play all over her fingers and arm for a while we put them back.
Every step on the way back after that, she kept looking at me from her stroller and chanting excitedly. “Ant! Ant! Ant!”, she went.