Things with Legs and Wings

“In JUNE Kipper lay on his back and watched as little things with legs and wings climbed the spindly grass and whizzed into the big, blue sky. “There are a lot more things with legs and wings than you would think”, thought Kipper.”

That is from a wonderful book called “One Year with Kipper” by Mick Inkpen. If you are reading this and you have preschool children you should track it down and read it to them.
People look for wisdom in all kids of places. Books especially. It gives the world a nice kind of symmetry that you can find truth in books of that make no claims to fact. Truth presented in a simple way does not have to be simplistic. Books like Kipper offset all the instances where others make sweeping claims to fact without any basis in truth.

But a simple observation in a children’s book pointed me towards a certain set of thoughts.
Coincidences abound. On the day after I read the Kipper book I saw a butterfly in the window of a clothes shop. It was early in the morning, a clear night had brought with it a slight chill. It was cold enough to notice, but you did not need a jacket. A brisk walking pace and the promise of coffee was more than enough to keep you warm. Yet I could feel the chilled air streaming through the shop doorways. Refrigerated shopping. Air conditioner turned up to maximum. Cold outside and colder still inside. Why?

The butterfly was trying to come up to speed, struggling to reach a working temperature. Occasional movements, brief flutters. In reality it may have been dying. If it did not find warmth it would become as lifeless as the shop window mannequins, who’s posed beauty was destroyed by the flaking paint of fingernails and sun faded lips. Contemplative staring into the windows of fashionably expensive shops is liable to attract unwanted attention. Especially if you are male. The presence of a struggling butterfly would be no defense, even if it really is justified. I moved on.

The hollow limbs of arthropods, changed over countless generations to carry out a dazzling array of tasks, go unnoticed on most days by most people. The endless forms most beautiful of the arthropods would overshadow the pedestrian engineering of humans if we cared to pay more attention. Instead of chilling them to death in shop windows, swatting them with rolled newspapers or poisoning them with sprays and baits we should pay a little more attention. Before people become concerned that I have strayed into the realms of “equal rights for cockroaches” or some such location, I would say this. We need more understanding. Understanding of how the world works, what changes we are causing and what the consequence of our future actions could be. If we are to achieve any of these we cannot ignore the fraction of life normally dismissed as bugs. To do so would dismiss the majority of animals. We humans are not typical, far from it. The butterfly was closer to typical, beetles even more so. The meek may inherit the Earth, but the meek will have an exoskeleton.

I would also like to say that what follows will be a valuable contribution to the on-going debate about why we should value bugs. Why we should value the joint legged and the tiny. But the truth is that I doubt that it will. Firstly, there is no on-going debate. Secondly, these are just some simple observations from somebody window shopping in the supermarket of biodiversity.
As I walk across my lawn small blue butterflies lift from grassy hideouts. Achieving flight in a fraction of a second, airborne at will. The evening brings life to the outside lights, confused by the million moons of suburbia. Moths leave dusty marks on window panes, beetles scratch against invisible glass barriers. Tiny specks of life float in the air. Living dust, smaller than sand grains, as viable as me. In each speck of life the same processes are carried out. The same cells are found and a common heritage is shared. Me, you, blue whales and bugs. Life started once and once only and it gave rise to all this. It’s the only wonder you need. If we are to be struck by awe, we only need open our eyes and look around. Why direct our eyes to the empty heavens when our world is so full.
Butterflies are conspicuous and popular, so they are noticed. Cabbage white, Australian Painted Lady, Caper White, Yellow Admiral: they all pass through the garden. Many are missed. You don’t know what it is, but you know what it is not. The caterpillars feeding on the fence line grapes, on the pear tree, on the tomatoes. Each adds to a list of residents and visitors.
The cockroaches and milling hoards in the compost bins, the flies in the air, the armoured slaters under the pots – not insects, but land living crustaceans –, earwigs, claspers at the ready, all join the throng. Each one adds to the garden list and makes a connection in a food web the supports us.

But not all of these garden insects are so shy, so retiring, so mobile. Some stand out and some stand their ground and wait. Preying Mantis’s sit and await their prey. There victims do have a prayer. An alien like predator with huge eyes and equal claws. A four legged insects, with two arms as well. They rock gently in a non-existent wind and wait. And wait. And wait. The strike – seen only once – is a blur of extending arms and thrashing legs. It was as if the mantis had conjured the insect from thin air. One moment the space in front of the mantis was empty, the next it was filled with death and feeding. A movement so fast and so precise it defied sight. I only knew it had happened when it stopped. What would the world be like if these animals were a meter long? What fear would we know then?

But insects do not need to be fast or menacing to be remarkable. Or in this case, annoying to the point of rage. Mosquitoes are evolutions portable drill. A flying Black and Decker capable of boring through almost any human invention or chemical deterrent. And often doing it without being noticed. Only the much too late hand slap and the smear of blood betray their presence. Sometimes you can get them, most times you miss. And when you do get them the victory is pyritic. They got you long before you got them. They can drive you to distraction and drive you from the garden, taking shelter in the house. The night time buzzzzzzzzzzz, high pitched, sitting just on the edge of hearing is enough to keep you awake, always at your ear. They are remarkable and without redeeming features. They are wonderfully adapted, but I don’t care - I really don’t like them.

Sometimes it’s not the size or the colour that demands attention. It’s the sheer numbers that astound. Standing by a bare willow bush in mid-summer, not a leaf left. You could hear a hiss from the twigs. The bush was moving with weevils. Just on this bush and no other and you could hear their feet. Each animal making six little noises as it moved, and the uncounted numbers made a sound I could hear. Imagine being alerted to the sound of insect feet! That was years and many concerts ago, would I hear it now?

I have heard wasps chewing plants to make their paper nests, a drying rasping from a dead stem. The buzzing of bees in the trees, or in a concrete power poll, seems less remarkable, but it is more common. But most remarkable was a gathering of flies painting the underside of beach cliffs black. Uncountable numbers in undisturbed places. Any movement towards them formed a choking black cloud. A lung clogging swam of protein and wings. I am glad I saw them before I breathed them.

I have, of course, missed out the spiders. Autumn brings them out when they weave their webs between the trees. For now, the spiders can wait.

There are clattering moths at my window and noisy cicadas in the trees. So I will turn off the light and go to listen.


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