Insectopedia – An Interview with Hugh Raffles

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We asked Hugh Raffles, author of Insectopedia, to give us a glimpse into the intriguing  subject matter of his new book. Here’s what he had to say:

What inspired you to write about insects?

Insects are fascinating. They exist in vast numbers and extraordinary diversity, and they’re ecologically and economically vital. They elicit intense and intensely ambivalent feelings from us – do they think? Do they feel? We’re not sure. Yet, as Elias Canetti put it, they’re “outlaws” and we kill them not just with impunity but, often, satisfaction. They’re mysterious, powerful, and our relations with them are very complicated. I find that a pretty inspiring combination.

What is your earliest insect memory?

When I was little, we used to go to Norfolk for a few weeks every summer. My mum would put a jam jar part-filled with water on our kitchen windowsill. Attracted by the jam, the wasps would land on the rim and fall into the trap. I’d watch for hours, fascinated but immobilized – too scared to rescue them but horrified by their struggles. I’m sure I had happier insect encounters, but that’s the one that’s stayed with me all these years!

Tell me about ‘mushi-eyes’ and ‘konchu-shonen’ – do you now have them, and are you one?

‘Konchu-shonen’ (insect-boy) and ‘mushi (insect)-eyes’ are terms I learned in Japan while researching the chapter on Japanese beetle collecting. I was fascinated to discover that so many celebrated Japanese artistic figures, including pioneers of anime and manga such as Tezuka Osamu and Hayao Miyazaki, had been obsessive insect-lovers as children. Once you know that, you see it clearly reflected in their work. Yoro Takeshi, a well-known neuroanatomist and popular writer in Japan, was also a ‘konchu-shonen.’ He told me that spending time with insects gives you ‘insect-eyes’ – an enhanced sensitivity to small differences, to the individuality of plants, animals, and people, and to the existence of multiple, intersecting worlds. I came to a love of insects pretty late in life but like to think I developed a little mushi-vision over the course of writing this book.

The chapters in Insectopedia are as much about people as they are about insects. Do you draw any parallels?

I’m wary of drawing these kinds of parallels. It’s too easy to project our dreams and ideologies onto animals and find the lessons that suit our purpose. I’m an anthropologist, not an entomologist and I like to explore the worlds that humans and insects create together in our entwined lives on this planet. There’s a lot to learn about both people and insects from looking closely at these connections. One of the things I’ve loved about writing this book has been meeting people who are deeply connected to insects, maybe as artists, musicians, farmers, scientists, or collectors, and learning about insects through their experience. That’s been very inspiring.

Which is your favourite story from the book?

My favorite fieldwork was in Shanghai, meeting people who trained crickets to fight and going to the casino to watch the battles. My favorite story though is about Yajima Minoru, a prominent and innovative designer of Japanese insect zoos. Mr. Minoru was present during the bombing of Tokyo in 1945. As we know, the destruction was immense, more people were killed in the raids and the firestorm they generated than in the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mr. Minoru describes wandering dazed through the smouldering city among the traumatized population, in deep shock and despair. Then, in a crater, half-filled with water, he sees a dragonfly perched on a floating twig, laying her eggs. He takes it as a sign of rebirth amidst the rubble. The sight of this insect tells him that there’s a possibility of overcoming the nightmare and that there’s still a future to live for. This was a dramatic and moving story, but it wasn’t unusual to meet people who found in insects similar emotional strength and also refuge from difficult personal experiences.

If you could be an insect for a day, which would you be?

One of the 24-hour adult mayflies. I could live my entire life in the time allotted!

You obviously have a great love of diversity – have you always been a collector of specimens?

I do love the diversity of insects but I’m not actually a collector of specimens. I have a low-level kleptomania that makes it hard for me not to pick up stones, shells, dead insects, and other little things, and I have a desk cluttered up with that kind of stuff. But I’m not attracted to the killing and manipulation that’s involved in collecting. And, in fact, I’m not really attracted to collections. As I say somewhere in the book, they remind me of mausoleums – the transformation of living beings into aestheticized objects makes me a bit uneasy.

I was speaking metaphorically. The book is like a cabinet of curiosities and your interests so far-reaching…

Oh, that kind of collector! Yes, I do have some of that early modern curiosity. Happily, insects are everywhere and I had a lot of fun following them into unexpected and obscure places, and along the way learning about all kinds of topics about which I knew very little.

Does Insectopedia have an overall message?

It may sound clichéd, but I think of the book as a journey. It’s an exploration into our deep and varied connections with one part of the natural world. More than anything, I hope it creates reflection and helps people look at insects with slightly different eyes and slightly different feelings. If there is a message, it’s one that we already know: We’re all in this together!

What are your favourite natural history books?

I have a fondness for 19th-century naturalists which I developed when I was writing my first book, In Amazonia: A Natural History. I especially like Henry Walter Bates’ A Naturalist on the River Amazons and Alfred Russel Wallace’s Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. Both books offer such a strong sense of first-hand experience and the unfolding struggle to understand the totality of a world so different from the one these two men left behind in England.

Who are your heroes in your field?

I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant but I don’t have heroes. However, I’ve come away from this book full of admiration for many of the people I spent time with. One of them is Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a Swiss artist who, for more than 30 years, has been painting tiny insects she’s collected close to nuclear power plants around the world and is convinced that the high incidences of deformities she’s found are the result of low-level radiation. Her paintings are beautiful and disturbing and her discoveries should make us hesitate in the current rush to embrace nuclear power as a “green” energy source.

If you could spend a month working in another field, which would you choose?

I’d have to say marine biology. It’s always been my fantasy to spend time in the deep ocean. It might be the only landscape on this planet even more alien than the land of insects!

What will you be working on next?

I’m starting research on a book about rocks and stones. It’s a big project and I’m looking forward to getting going. Last summer I began some fieldwork in China and in a few weeks I’ll be going to the UK to visit a few megalithic sites. I’m very excited about it!

Buy Insectopedia now.

Visit Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia site.

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