The angry locust and other stories

I got an email the other day for an academic conference session called Intimate Ethnographies in Multispecies Lifeworlds.  This important discussion is due to be held next spring at the American Association of Geographers conference in Denver, Colorado, and is being organised by Katie Gillespie and Yamini Narayanan. ‘What on earth is that?’, some of you ask, including me. OK, so let us break it down. Ethnography is when you study a population through living with them. And intimate ethnographies must be when you do that in very close quarters. So, for example, an intimate ethnography of a ‘tribe’ or ‘subculture’ might involve studying them through living with them, perhaps living in the same house, living in the same room even, and conducting their daily routines with them, as they do. OK, next- multispecies lifeworlds–  here is the idea that we are studying the lives, experiences, thoughts and feelings – ways of being- of not just humans, but other species. And not just one species, but more than one, and our coexistence.

I read on with interest. The session organisers show a particular interest in auto-ethnography.  Which, yes, you have it, means an ethnography of yourself, or your life(world). ‘Ooh’, I thought excitedly, ‘that’s what I am doing’. I always felt I could not help but be a sociologist in my own life. This is why I started to blog. I had not thought of my writing as auto-ethnographic before, but it is slowly becoming that way.

Then I saw the phrase ‘attention to uneven power structures’ and I thought again, that’s my interest. In any given situation I study, I am always interested in who has power and who does not, and how that plays out. Katie and Yamini go on to claim that ‘Centering lives lived in close relation, in multispecies lifeworlds, allows for a politicization of these relationships and the contexts in which they unfold’. I am aware that almost all of our perspectives give precedence and power to humans over any other animals, as a base assumption. Animals are considered to be secondary, second-class, ‘sub’ human. The way we construct knowledge- or the way we think about, and understand, ourselves and our time on this planet -is inherently ‘species-ist.’ So, these geographers call for us to think more about humans’ relationship, coexistence, symbiosis with the animal world, and the multiple species in it, and to apply a political lens to this study. They invite us to ask: who is the ‘underdog’ here? What are the ‘power structures’? How are they uneven or biased in favour of humans? What are the consequences of this? How can we think differently about this?

One of the specific questions they ask researchers to tackle is:
– What might an intimate ethnography look like with those animals closest to us—for instance, how might we think about ethnographies of those with whom we share our lives, our homes?

Well, here goes.

An intimate ethnography of human-insect-vanlife-life-worlds

Sikia, Halkidiki. Mount Olympus at background. Author’s own photo.

Living in a campervan for months on end, moving from place to place, means having a very different relationship with the natural environment (and the creatures in it) than you do living in a house. This experience has made me think a lot, specifically, about the insect world and our relationship to it, because, living in a van in the woods; on the beach; in a field; up a mountain; by a stream, we come into contact with various, and multiple, insects on a regular basis. When I lived and worked in London, when I reflect back on it, I rarely saw or thought about an insect*.

Last winter I read a feature article in the New York Times called The Insect Apocalypse Is Here. This piece summarised scientists’ incredibly worrying hypotheses that overall insect numbers are decreasing rapidly, year on year, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Reading this article, has also informed my shifting relationship with insects. The journalist invites us to cast our minds back to when we were young (presumably assuming a readership born in the 1970s and ’80s), where he tells the story of a science teacher who recalls when he was a child, driving (and cycling) through the summer countryside in his home town in Denmark and the number of bugs striking the windshield (or his face!) was in the thousands. But today, that same experience, might be merely tens of insects. If that. If I cast my mind back, when I was a kid, living in a house in a semi-rural area of Southern England, this used to involve co-existing, to some extent, with various insects. In the autumn the spiders would come in. Big ones, small ones, hairy ones, ginger ones. There was always one in the bath, or one in the corner of the room. In the summer there were the flies that would invariably bother you in the kitchen; when you were trying to cook; the moths that would come in around the porch light at dusk; the ‘daddy long legs’ who would dive bomb you in the hall way; the dragon flies around the pond. Towards the end of my time in London- a large but relatively green metropolis- when I think about it, I rarely encountered insects in my home (except the bed bugs that had been ‘imported from India’, but that is another story all together).

Living in a van, however, it was necessary to coexist with various insect populations. Everywhere we traveled, there would always be some kind of insect population making themselves known to us, getting in our space, as we got in theirs. Interestingly we tended to be aware of one type of insect species at a time, as if they had different geographies, or they took it in turns to taunt us. We had bees in the mountains of Fethiye; mosquitos on the beach on the Albanian Riviera; beetles in the forest in Alanya; locusts in the grasslands in Halkidiki; sandfleas at the harbour of Andriake; flies in the farmlands in Urfa; scorpions in the Sahara dessert. As we failed to install any mosquito screens in our campervan and the temperature inside in summer was often 40 degrees or more, the open windows and roof vents meant there was no getting away from the insects. We had to at least try to get along with them. In the beginning we would spray the campervan with insecticide (indeed some campsites we stayed on sprayed the entire campsite with insecticide), but we soon learnt this was futile: it didn’t seem to remove the insects, only kill some of them and then more would appear. So we realised this was unsustainable, not to say inhumane, and we began to try to tolerate them.

Bugs and Beetles, by Naomi Adams

Another thing I became very aware of -in addition to the different insect geographies- was that they tended to have quite discernible daily rhythms too. Cicadas would sing all day, and then would instantly go to sleep, or just stop talking, at dusk**; flies would be attracted by food so would come at meal times; bees by water when we were washing; mosquitoes would come at dusk, feed from us over the period of about an hour, and then retreat, leaving us in peace for the night. Only when there was a plague of mosquitoes (i.e. problematically large numbers) did they continue to bother us through the night. Well, of course, I guess it makes sense: if there were more of them, then it would take longer for each to get their turn to feed. I began to change my attitude towards insects, as I began to have a relationship with them, as I began to understand them, and their needs. I read that mosquitoes take your blood to feed their babies, and I thought ‘oh well, in that case, fair enough’. Wouldn’t you do anything to feed your baby? We tried to avoid being bitten, through natural means- covering up with long clothing at dusk; covering my son’s bed with netting; burning citronella; sleeping in the path of a fan, and if there was a real plague of them we would cover ourselves in DEET to repel the worst of them. However, as time went on, I began to tell myself to just let them be, let them do their thing, let them feed. Just try to ignore the itch. It would be gone or replaced by a different itch in a few days. This was just the cycle of life.

The ants of Andalucia

When we were in Spain it rained. And rained. And an extended family of ants congregated in our shower. Our first reaction was horror and we wanted rid of them- they were in our space. But my partner, who is Muslim, said ‘in Islam you are not supposed to kill ants’. So we didn’t. We soon realised they came in when it was raining hard, they had their meeting (literally convening in a circle) and then when the rain stopped they would go back outside, and we were able to shower. Phew. This brings a new meaning to flat sharing.

An ant conference in Spain, author’s own photo

The Fethiye bees

That is not to say that I was not challenged by the presence of some insects on various occasions. Flying beetles dive-bombing through the roof lights at dusk was quite panic-making, and we were not prepared to share our space with these blighters.  The ‘Fethiye bees’ was another strange encounter. When traveling in southern Turkey we parked at an idyllic spot in the forest in the mountains above Butterfly Valley (interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, said to be lacking in butterflies now). We planned to cook dinner while our son played outside. I went outside to do some washing up in a bucket while my partner was cooking, but by the time I had finished the washing up I had about ten bees around me. When I finished the washing up they swarmed the tap, the washing up sponge and the pile of wet gravel where I had poured my washing up water. ‘OK, they are just thirsty’ I said to myself. But gradually they started to surround the campervan, sitting on the van and coming inside. They weren’t just thirsty, they were watching us. Then my son came inside. This was strange because he never came inside voluntarily. When I asked him why he had come inside he said dismissively: ‘oh, just too many bees’. He had left all his toys on the mound where he was playing and when I went to collect them, the toys were crawling with bees. I looked around. The bees were nowhere else to be seen. Only on our belongings. This was the point at which I said ‘OK we are leaving.’ The way in which they were surrounding us, watching us, taking interest in us, marked unusual behaviour for me. This seemed bizarre behaviour for bees: usually we coexist, but they show little interest in us. Perhaps we had disturbed their nest? But they were not stinging us, not threatening, just showing too much interest. This was too eerie. We packed up and drove off, driving fifty miles down the mountain and out of the forest into an urbanised area. That was better: just species like us here.

Tawny mining bee, photo by Penny Metal

The angry locust

This takes me to my last story, or encounter: the angry locust***. In Greece we spent nearly a month camping in abandoned campsites on the peninsula of Halkidiki. The economic downturn had obviously affected tourism and holiday-making and more than one campsite had closed-down in this region. We parked up on the beach near Sikia, in one such abandoned campsite, in the long, wild grass, under the shade of a tree and started to assemble our camp. We were aware of the noise of ‘cicadas’, in the long grass, which was a noise we were accustomed to. However as we settled in our camp we realised it wasn’t multiple ‘locust’ sounds coming from all around, but the noise was localised: it was coming from only one patch of grass. It was incredibly loud, and incessant and very close to our camp. We peered into the long grass and could not believe our eyes. The creature we saw was almost the size of a small rodent. But it was an insect. And it seemed to be shouting at the top of its ‘voice’. When we peered closer it would stop, but as soon as we moved away it started again. We sat for a while outside, but he disturbed our peace. We decided to go inside and have a nap, but the noise continued and seemed to get closer. We couldn’t sleep. Then I thought I heard another sound, this time coming from the opposite side of the van. I went out to investigate and indeed there seemed to be a response of sorts, coming from long grass the other side of the van. ‘I think we are in his patch’. I said. ‘We are parked in the way between him and his lady, and he’s not happy’. As the noise got louder and angrier, again, we agreed to move. We packed up the van and drove about fifty yards away to another pitch and parked up. We then walked slowly and quietly back to the pitch with the locust and indeed the noise had stopped. Whatever the matter was, he was quiet now. One nil to the locust.

Meadow grasshopper, Lewes, England, photo by Penny Metal

All power to the insects

These are trivial stories of encounters with insects but I want to draw attention to the power structures, as Katie and Yamini ask us to do. For all-too-long we humans have wielded power over insects (and indeed most other species), with little concern for their welfare, or even concern for how much we need them. As the article about the insect apocalypse points out, we are dependent on insect populations to pollinate our crops, to process our waste, as a food source for other animals. Without them we will starve and be neck deep in shit. But our attitude for far too long has been: Not In My Back Yard. As we swat that swatter; spray that Raid; pump that insecticide; jet that pesticide; spread that Rose Clear; shake that ant power, little by little, we contribute to this holocaust. Van-life has fundamentally changed that relationship for me. I draw the line at flying beetles in my hair, but other than that, live and let live. I learned to live with insects, to the extent that, now I am in a house in the city again, I miss them. Not only should we learn to coexist with insects, but, as with the bees; the mosquitoes; the ants; the angry (or horny?) locust in my stories, we should be curbing and adapting our lives, our behaviour around theirs: we should be allowing them to take the stage. Because one day we might miss them.

Clockwork Bubble Bee, by Naomi Adams

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Insect Trivia:

Crickets, locusts, grasshoppers and cicada: what is the difference?
Locusts are a type of grasshopper, both categorised as ‘Acridoidea family’ in the order ‘Orthoptera’. Crickets are also of the Orthoptera order, but crickets are typically wingless, and they are omnivorous: eating plants, smaller insects and larvae. Locusts and grasshoppers look similar to each other, they both have wings, and are both herbivores but locusts differ from grasshoppers in their ability to swarm. These insects make a sound by rubbing their wings together and this is called stridulation. Cicadas on the other hand, are ‘true bugs’ from the order Hemiptera, they are dark, stout insects with large heads and transparent wings. They look more like a beetle.  They come in two major variations: annual cicadas, and periodical cicadas. Periodical cicadas (only sited in North America) are often commonly referred to as the ’17 year locust.’  They spend 13 to 17 years as ‘nymphs’ living under ground, feeding from the juices of plant roots, before emerging- in number- in spring, when the soil reaches exactly 64 degrees Fahrenheit, when they climb up trees, shed their brown nymph skin and emerge as a cicada (most commonly black, with red eyes and orange wing veins). The male cicadas, the loudest insect around, then ‘sing’ by producing a sound from a pair of built-in drums called tymbals at the base of their abdomens. The females are attracted by the sound and after mating the females lay eggs burrowed in the twigs of the tree, before dying. The eggs then fall to the ground and hatch into nymphs who burrow into the ground, where they will then live for around 17 years. There is nothing trivial about that.

Photographs featured:

Feature photographs are courtesy of Penny Metal and Naomi Adams. Penny Metal is an artist who loves and photographs insects. She has published a book consisting of photographs of the insects of Warwick Gardens, a small park in Peckham ,South London. You can see more of her photos and buy the book here.  Naomi Adams is an artist and illustrator. Her relief pictures of bugs and beetles made from minute, found-objects such as beads, earrings and clock parts, can be bought here.

Footnotes

* Such is the rarity, that the beauty of the urban insect has attracted the attention of South London artist and photographer Penny Metal, who has published a book of photographs on these creatures, and our encounters with them.

** The sound Cicadas make is actually made by their abdomen not their mouth so technically they are not ‘talking,’ but I am anthropomorphising for dramatic effect.

***After researching, it is most likely it was a Cicada that we saw, not a locust, but humans often confuse the two.

Toddlers and screens: is the tablet computer a tool of the devil?

I’m unsatisfied with the information in blog posts and articles about the dangers and damage of too much ‘screen use’ by young kids. Having bought my toddler his own tablet (a decision that was made because he nearly broke my rather more expensive Notebook), I have first hand experience of managing a toddler’s (personal) screen use. While this turned out to be a traumatic experience which resulted in us ditching the tablet entirely*, I still wasn’t satisfied with the articles that seem to circulate which hail the irreversible damage of screens to children, and call for an outright ban in the early years. As a sociologist, to me this screams ‘moral panic’: when television first took off there were similar panics about the damage it caused. These scares are almost always over-sensationalised. But at the same time we do need to be aware of how these technologies are slowly but surely changing the way we relate to one another. Recent confessions from producers of social media that they deliberately design usage to manipulate dopamine levels are worrying**, as are reports that young people spend more time interacting on their smart phones than face to face. There are definitely things to fear from increased use of technologically mediated interaction. But technology is here to stay. So let’s talk about how we use it for good, and not what it does to us. Here’s six points I want to share which hopefully move us forward from the screen-good-or-bad debates:

1. Of course kids are gonna get fat and ill if they play on screens all day and don’t exercise or interact with anyone. The need for balance is obvious, let’s move beyond that

2. It’s the message that’s important not the medium, right? Are they using the screen to play ‘educational’ games, or watch endless ‘trashy’ cartoons? Or perhaps worse: YouTube videos of someone with painted nails endlessly opening kinder eggs (why!?). My son went through a stage where he was only interested in watching YouTube videos of someone pushing toy tractors through sand. This freaked us out. But as soon as he showed interest in following a narrative we steered him away from this and towards short films and series suitable for his age. For a while he kept asking for ‘tractors’ and we just changed the subject and he got over it (and moved on).

3. Children are dynamic and constantly changing. So are our family circumstances. If your toddler is spending a lot of time on their screen, this doesn’t mean it will continue in that vein forever. Our son was particularly difficult to handle around 22 months before he could really talk. Plus at that point we were trying to pack to go travelling (in a bus that wasn’t finished) and things were extremely stressful for us. We found the screen really useful at this point in our lives – a lifesaver in fact- because it would occupy him completely for at least an hour sometimes. Now he’s a bit older, and is beginning to occupy himself with imaginary play, and we are a bit less stressed as a family, we don’t need to use it so much as a babysitter.***

4. There is a fundamental difference between a personal screen and a shared TV in a shared space. This didn’t occur to me until it was too late, because we didn’t have a TV. For those who don’t have a TV (which is increasingly common) a personal screen seems an obvious choice for the kids but I found this a mistake that was then hard to go back on. The TV convenes the members in the room, while the personal screen isolate them. I try to watch programmes and play games with my toddler on his screen, but, mimicking me perhaps, he pulls it away, preferably watching alone. The TV just does not behave in this way. It’s something you gather round to watch and interact with together, for better or worse. From my experience I would say try and avoid giving toddlers a personal screen if you can. Or if you do get them a personal screen don’t tell them it’s theirs so they don’t get too attached to it, or have that sense of ownership. This keeps you more in control, to change the dynamic when you need to.

5. Screen-use is part of a social environment that you create for your family, and one in which you set the example. We thought a lot about what we fed our son at dinner time, but seemed more lax when it came to the diet of the mind, which seems ridiculous for a sociologist but what you don’t realise is how much you have to change your habits and ‘diet’ to help them. Put restrictions on use, or make a routine, that fits with when you need the screen most: ‘you can only go on the screen when mum’s making dinner’, or ‘no screens after dinner in the evening’. For example. Basically try to lay down rules or conventions that you want to form into healthy screen use that they take with them into later life. (And lets practice what we preach, innit. Obviously if you sit on your screen all evening, they will want to mimic.)

6.’Open ended browsing’ (such as surfing YouTube) seems to me to be the most problematic screen behaviour for my son as a toddler. He learnt how to surf YouTube within a few days of being introduced to it. We know ourselves how addictive surfing the net is, with the infinite information, pages to view, posts to scroll, pictures to swipe. I had a friend who went on Facebook every evening and he was unable to sign off until he had scrolled through every new post until he reached the posts from the day before. Crazy right, but we all can recognise our own similar negative screen behaviour like this. With my son, open ended browsing seemed to re-enforce his already short attention span: he would never watch something until the end, tending to jump from one YouTube video to another in the space of a few minutes. This was something we wanted to discourage from becoming habitual. Also open-ended browsing meant he could technically be watching something totally unsuitable. Although the feed generally filled with videos aimed at toddlers, this didn’t mean I approved of them. pseudo-advertising (aswell as actual blatant advertising) was rife, be it for branded toys or branded candy. But there is also something quite dark about some of the content, much of it being set to the same happy hardcore mix of ‘Old MacDonald’ and ‘Mommy Finger’ tunes (which makes you feel completely manic after a while); features disembodied adult hands playing with toys or unwrapping candy; in hyper-synthetic landscapes. Plus the feed is often hijacked by a channel called ‘bad baby’ which features older kids miming babies doing mischievous things involving gaffa tape. That’s not to mention that the content completely reinforces western capitalist norms, unchallenged. I guess it’s possible to restrict the YouTube feed to only videos that you have vetted and selected, but if you haven’t then I would avoid it entirely in the early years.

To conclude, I think to answer my title question, is the tablet computer a tool of the devil, with regards to young children, the answer is yes, it has the real potential to be, but you can circumvent the devils tactics with some attention to the details. With close supervision and restrictions you can hopefully use it to your ends, and not fall into the manipulation.

In post script, I think it’s important to ask why we are blaming screens when we should be blaming the conditions that we have to live in that mean that we need to use them as a babysitter (because that is basically what they are): long hours of paid work, plus housework that all takes place in isolated or nuclear or single parent families with no, or little, daily support networks. What we can try to do is to organise more co-parenting where groups of parents or family members get together and parent several children together, sharing the labour of parenting, housework and even the takings from paid work. But that’s another blog post.

Post post script, I’ve since had further dealings with kids-oriented YouTube videos and I have more to say about their sinister nature. Another blog post to follow.

*Oh no, we thought it was gone for good, how we were mistaken…

**I’m not going to hyperlink it, look it up yourself if you care (dare?) enough to go down this road

***Oh ho. The dynamic has shifted again and it creeps back in. You have to click ‘follow’ to hear what happened next.

Survival or specialisation?

what do we want for the next generation?

As I was growing up, I never had to do any chores or anything to help in the home. No washing up, no laundry, no cleaning, no cooking. The most I did was take my plate to the kitchen when I’d finished my dinner. At my dad’s house he expected us to offer to wash up (that’s polite) but we rarely actually did it. My mum’s reasoning was that she wanted us to focus on our school homework, so she didn’t want us to be distracted with chores. My mum’s goal was for us to have a good education and for that to give us the best opportunities in life. Her approach certainly worked for these purposes: my sister and I both worked and studied hard and got excellent academic results. I guess what my mum’s approach enabled us to do was to specialise – it has enabled us both to access good careers but neither of us can cook and we are embarrassingly undomesticated. Furthermore, my partner says if I was left to fend for myself in the wild I wouldn’t last two minutes. He’s right.

In the context of 1980s feminism and rising possibilities for social mobility, my mum’s focus on her daughter’s education was an understandable goal. But what are our goals now, today, in 2018? Do we want our son to specialise on his one career? My partner certainly doesn’t want that. He wants our son to be self-sufficient; an ‘all-rounder’; multi-skilled; survivalist.

Is not the era of specialisation dead anyway? There are no more ‘jobs for life’. Most people, we are told, will have three or four different careers in their lifetime. We are told we need to be ‘Entrepreneurial’ – adaptable, flexible. As a parent, what’s the best way to achieve that for a child? Should we be raising our children to be flexible to the needs of capitalism; to be able to adapt and survive in an ever-changing technologically advancing job market? Or do we want to bring up our children to be able to survive, to know themselves, to feed their basic needs, when all this melts away?img_3694

In my research on the London middle classes, we found parents who talked about ‘global travel’ as a kind of ‘cultural capital’ for their kids, an experience that they can ‘cash in’ for a university place or a job. In my experience, the middle classes always talk in this way: searching for ways to capitalise on something. (This is not their fault but the system). I hate to think of our travels with our son in this instrumental way. And I know my partner doesn’t. But I am burdened with a sociological knowledge and understanding, which is just that: a burden, that prevents you from just being. How can you know ‘game theory’ and not apply it, right?

So I guess it’s what you do with that knowledge. We want to think beyond the instrumental. To provide our children with the (multi) skills to be of value in the community, rather than be of value to an employer; to share skills rather than compete for them. When we are deciding what to teach the next generation, what to guide them to study, we want to always hold in mind ‘what is of value to the community?’ (I.e. all of us) rather than ‘what gets them ahead in the rat race?’.