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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The film for The Lost City of Z was flown back from the jungle – and it was worth it

Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.​

Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).

Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.

James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.

Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of ­fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last ­resident in her block, to sell up and move out.

We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.

Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.

The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution