Learning the locusts’ lesson

We depend on insects for our existence, yet we abuse them casually.

Some years ago, at a time in my life when I was close to unemployable, a friend wangled me a job at Zoology Field Station No 3 (Insect Breeding), which, in spite of its grand title, was a series of small, almost ramshackle wooden huts and a couple of old glasshouses on a tiny plot of land just off Huntingdon Road in Cambridge.

My task there was simple: I grew plants to feed to the locusts and tobacco moths, I carried buckets of food mush into the cockroach house and scattered it across the concrete floor and I vacuumed the glass cases where the various insect tribes lived and died, and, in ways that never ceased to fascinate me, transformed themselves from one form into another. The locusts were my favourites: they would fasten themselves, upside down, to the side of the case, then gradually slip free of their old skin, leaving behind a perfect, if slightly shrunken image of the shining new body that had emerged. It was an astonishingly beautiful process and I would often take my lunch in the locust room so I could watch it happen, over and over, the new form emerging from the old, the massive continuum of transformation that is the essence of what we call nature, occurring before my eyes in one emblematic instance, endlessly repeated, yet always individual in the fine detail.

It is common knowledge, now, that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade. Yet there is no other life form on the planet that we abuse so casually, as the current neonicotinoid controversy shows. In serious matters, our duty is to err on the side of caution – a policy that goes undisputed when the ecology of Wall Street or the City of London is in apparent jeopardy – but when it comes to safeguarding bees, all manner of folk, from government departments to the National Farmers Union, are now up in arms about the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, all over the country, garden centres and hardware stores are stocking their shelves for the summer with a wide variety of poisons, so their untrained and unconcerned customers can eliminate any variety of insect life that might cause them the least annoyance.

In response to the introduction of agricultural DDT in 1945, the great entomologist and popular science writer Edwin Way Teale said, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety per cent of all insects are good and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

When Teale uses the word “good” here, he is speaking from a human point of view. There is no good or bad in nature, which is the great lesson that careful attention to insect life teaches us – and nobody paid closer attention to insects than Teale. He saw how essential even the most common or, to human eyes, annoying bugs are to the economy of nature but he also understood that the lessons they teach us can be subtly philosophical, even spiritual.

“In nature, there is less death and destruction than death and transmutation,” he said – and, as I munched on my cheese and pickle sandwiches in the locust room at Field Station No 3 almost three decades ago, I was subtly, perhaps even subliminally, learning the truth of that saying.

As they move from phase to phase of their life cycles or shrug off an old skin to emerge brightly reborn in the summer light, insects remind us that life’s changes, life’s transmutations, are subtler and more varied than we think – and that our ordinary narratives of profit and loss are rather tawdry compared to the generational play of the butterfly, which in ancient Greece (lest we forget) was synonymous with the soul. 

There is no good or bad in nature. Photograph: Laura Letinsky/Gallerystock
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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