Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Writing like a dying anthill

The biologist E. O. Wilson published a fascinating story in The New Yorker this week depicting the life of an ant colony, using a literary narrative style generally reserved for human subjects. Wilson is an accomplished writer and scientist, as I’ve said before in posting about his account of ‘biophilia’, the idea that humans are instinctively attracted to life in all forms. His story, ‘Trailhead’, conjures the routines and dramas of life in the ants’ nest. It provides scientific insights without losing narrative tension, recalling Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind and Brian Clarke’s The Stream.

One of the difficulties in Wilson’s project is the question of how to imagine or talk about ants’ motivations and desires in human language. Wilson is careful to write in terms of instinctive reactions and pheromone signals. It may not be possible or desirable to write about other species without any anthropomorphism, but in ‘Trailhead’ Wilson at least tries to be as accurate as possible in his description of the ants’ sensory language. Usually he represents ants’ behaviour as simple fact, but he does not try disguise the way in which human perspective inevitably colours the tale, as in this description of ant-altruism:

‘Dying workers often left the nest completely, thereby avoiding the spread of infectious diseases. Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.’


The story centres upon the decline of the colony following the queen’s death, which is reported in the first sentence. The collapse gathers pace towards the end, culminating in a shocking scene of warfare, panic and horror.

‘Within a week, the colony began to starve. The nurse ants killed and cannibalized the last of the larvae and pupae, their own baby nest mates, and regurgitated their liquid and tissue to other adults…

In the confusion that reigned through the night, the Trailhead Colony felt—it knew—that it was in extreme difficulty. It had no conception of defeat, but the nest interior was filled with the odor of alarm and recruitment pheromones released by both sides during the attempted Streamsider break-in. The fighters were contaminated by the alien odor of the invaders. They could see the battle flags of the enemy, so to speak; they could hear the continuous shriek of alarms.’

From the beginning of the story we understand the colony is doomed, but the ants continue to pursue survival, even coronating queens whose eggs are unfertilised. Why did Wilson choose to publish a story about a tenacious, ingenious struggle to survive that never has any possibility of success? We expect to read about another species’ life, but he also shows us death.

The process of life and death in the story is entirely natural, but Wilson's choice of focus may be no surprise given his powerful account of the current mass extinction caused by human activity in The Future of Life. Interestingly, Wilson's language becomes most anthropocentric in discussing the superorganism’s collapse:

‘Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants. The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city. Their unity of purpose was gone, their social machinery halted. No foraging, no cleaning and feeding of larvae, no queen for them to rally around. The order of the colony was dissolving. Out there, indomitable and waiting, were the hated, filthy, unformicid Streamsiders. Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice—they could fight or run from the horror.’

At the risk of reckless misreading, his thought-provoking story might not look out of place over on the Dark Mountain website.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Literary anger

Over at Arts and Ecology, William Shaw is warming up for the arrival of Ian McEwan’s coming novel, Solar, by asking can literary fiction ever do climate change? I share the doubts about Solar but do think that there are good ‘literary’ novelists writing about climate change directly, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Hall for a start. All three women have written novels set in futures decimated by climate change. Whether their novels are literary fiction or science fiction is less important to me than the vivid, engaged storytelling.

Sarah Hall in particular writes about human relationships with nature with feeling, intelligence and fury, a great combination. In The Carhullan Army she imagines Britain wrecked by oil shortages and floods in the near future. Her narrator escapes bleak authoritarianism of town life for female commune on the Cumbrian moors, yet there’s no escape from violence.


Hall has said that the Cumbrian floods of 2005 inspired The Carhullan Army. Her first novel, Haweswater, anticipated those floods and is for me in many ways the more interesting novel. It explores the same Cumbrian landscape, showing the stark beauty of villagers’ lives in the valley of Mardale. People, time and place are torn apart by the arrival of a representative for Manchester Waterworks who announces plans to flood the land to create a reservoir. The casual destruction of the whole valley is based on reality, vividly dramatised in the novel. The personal and the ecological intertwine through the tragedy Hall depicts. As a historical novel, Haweswater is not about climate change, but it is an impressive portrayal of human impact on landscape, and shows how fruitful this subject is for ‘literary’ writers. Most of importantly, the novel has none of McEwan's diffidence about ideas: it’s bold, roaring.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

2010 is Year of Biodiversity

The United Nations has declared 2010 to be 'Year of Biodiversity', in an effort to spread this message:

'Humans are part of nature’s rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.

Biodiversity, the variety of life on Earth, is essential to sustaining the living networks and systems that provide us all with health, wealth, food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on.

Human activity is causing the diversity of life on Earth to be lost at a greatly accelerated rate. These losses are irreversible, impoverish us all and damage the life support systems we rely on everyday. But we can prevent them.

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. Let’s reflect on our achievements to safeguard biodiversity and focus on the urgency of our challenge for the future. Now is the time to act.'

What having a 'Year of' achieves, I'm not sure, but the message is important.

A glass frog, whose heart can be seen through the skin (Photo: Paul S. Hamilton)

Beautiful pictures from Ecuador in the Guardian this week revealed some of the astonishing species we have yet to meet. They are, however, threatened by logging and climate change (see also, here).

A scaly-eyed gecko (Photo: Paul S. Hamilton)

I thought today I'd recall some already classic WWF posters dramatising the ways in which we are thrusting other species from their homes and threatening our own. They're images of things out of place, manipulated in a high contrast style that has an apocalyptic register. Some of the texts on the images struggle to match the proportion of the scene's drama (below, 'Do your bit', or elsewhere, buy a hybrid). The question 'Where is your home?' works best for me:

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Vampires: an anti-nature fantasy?

This weekend, still malingering indoors because of the Europe-wide freeze, I finally watched creepy and excellent Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In. In an effort to exorcise that film’s ugly under-the-skin nastiness I’m taking a good look at vampires today, from an ecological perspective, naturally. Vampires are absurdly popular just now, mostly because of the extraordinary success of the multi-million best-selling Twilight franchise. According to some complex alogarithms ‘vampire’ was the 5th most popular word of 2009. And ‘climate change’ is the top phrase of the decade. Which surely raises the question, is there a link?

In their first wave of Victorian popularity vampires represented some aspects of nature that humans feared. Vampires were animalistic dwellers in darkness. They could transform into bats and dogs. Having given up their souls they were free to take survival of the fittest to new levels of selfish brutality, which Victorians worried might be a consequence of the collapse of religion (possibly). But most of the evidence suggests that vampires are anti-nature:

  • They are undead, not living or dead; this is quite unnatural.
  • They don’t breathe (no signs of various other normal bodily functions either, except for eating and sex).
  • They’re cold, hard and generally unmammalian despite their mammal origins.
  • Their natural enemies are werewolves (see Underworld and New Moon), who embody the wild, animalistic side of human nature.

Stephanie Myers’ bestseller list domination made me curious enough to find my inner teenage girl (admittedly, this is not difficult) and read Twilight, so I also know that modern vampires like fast cars, are very consumerist and have no conscience about taking long haul flights.

Twilight: Don't be fooled: this vampire is not a tree-hugger.

Why are vampires so popular now? Mostly, it’s about sex. But might their status as the anti-nature monster also have something to do with it? In the nineteenth century vampire stories spoke to cultural fears about female sexuality but also about colonialism. The vampire is a classic parasite so it was logical for Dracula to set up camp in London, heart of the British Empire, in his efforts to expand his blood-draining super-race. Today’s vampire stories might just be speaking to our fears that we are parasitically draining the world of its natural resources, transforming ourselves into an unnatural simulacrum of humanity in the process.

Let the Right One In: Also not about tree huggers

Even though vampires are decidedly unnatural beings, the current wave of novels, films and TV series like True Blood find them irresistibly attractive. Twilight and co are romances and they provoke bewildering passion in some readers. Vampires are multi-layered, and most of their appeal is in their strong appetites and freedom from social rules, but I wonder if we also see ourselves in their inversion of natural processes. Part of us does want to be better than nature, and in loving vampires we try to escape natural limitations. Let the Right One In’s deep creepiness seemed to me to come from the way it depicts human attraction to vampires. Vampires see themselves as top of the food chain, but being top of the food chain makes them parasites and a touch of sunlight makes them nothing at all (at least until Meyers started spreading all this sparkling in the sunlight nonsense).

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Les Nymphéas

About a week before Solstice, with December at its greyest, I went to visit Monet’s water lily paintings (Les Nymphéas) at The Orangerie. The paintings curve around the walls of two large oval rooms and drench the space with colour. The paintings show the water at different times of day and year. In the second room each view is framed by willows and the water’s blue runs through the trees’ trunks.

(Monet, Le Matin aux saules)

It’s difficult to convey on a screen the scale of the paintings, which are 2 metres high and up to 17 metres broad. Their great width and encircling shape immerses the viewer in the substance of the water. You cannot take it all in at once, nor distinguish surface, depths and reflected sky through his layered colours.

(Monet, Reflets d’arbres)

I was struck on this visit with the thought that Monet was painting his own garden pond to produce these images, and yet he represented the place very large. There’s a slight sense of disproportion looking at size of the leaves and walking around the space the paintings are designed to take. Nature feels bigger than usual. Monet spent the last thirty years of his life painting these scenes, completing the Orangerie Les Nymphéas in his eighties. He suffered at this time from cataracts and distorted vision, but the paintings suggest his ability to immerse himself in the substance of nature within one particular place. Perhaps he came to see that the water, the willows and lily leaves were boundless.

(Monet, Soleil couchant)