The bumbleebees are buzzin’ in the wisteria blossoms, and all kinds of bugs are biting me around my eyes, behind my ears and in the middle of my back where I can swat or scratch. It got so bad that in the heat of the day yesterday, I retired to the house for iced tea and a dip into Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles (Knopf $29.95).
I was entranced the first time I picked up this book and began at A for Air. In 1926 a little monoplane took off from Tallulah, Louisiana to collect insects from the high altitudes. That was the first attempt to use an airplane, but not the last. While statistics tend to put me to sleep this chapter counts the amazing numbers of insects, some as common as ladybugs, at 6000 feet. Some are wingless, but carried by air currents. At 15,ooo feet a ballooning spider was found. “Think of 26 million little animals flying unseen above one square mile of countryside. . . . a vault of insect laden air.”
But that is just an introduction to the insect world, which for Raffles in an introduction to many other facinating topics and a spur to his own thoughts and point of view as an anthropologist. He is interested in how humans interact with all manner of animals, including insects.
The twenty-six chapters or essays range between 2 to 44 pages, and cover insects from a variety of perspectives. In Chernobyl he writes about Cornelia Hesse-Honeggers painting of mutations in insects caused by radiation; in Fever/Dream he writes about malaria and his own attack; and in The Sound of Global Warming he writes about pinon engraver beetles. Chapter headings like The Ineffable, Temptation and Zen and the Art of ZZZ’s take us to unexpected and fascinating places. When the grandsons visit this summer I’ll be full of weird and wonderful facts. They love weird and wonderful things.
Raffles has said that writing this book as an ‘encyclopedia’ is bit of a joke, making fun of the idea that you can gather all the information about anything and put it in one place. But he is an anthropologist, not an entomologist, so he comes at insects in myriad ways, with references to artists, philosophers, novelists and the ways they approach the world, not only insects. The book (well footnoted if you are interested) ends with this: “Learn to live with imperfection. We’re all in this together. The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.
I am still going to put on insect repellent when I go out in the garden today.