Given the amount of information we process on a day-to-day basis, paying attention to minutiae is difficult. The small things pass us by; we miss detail and texture. Given news and ecological change and activism, cultivating a slowed-down and therefore richer attention is an ethical imperative for me.
These days I spend my afternoons wandering between a vibrant park and the Irish Natural History Museum here in Dublin. The Museum is a complicated place, sometimes called the “Dead Zoo.” And that nomenclature should tell you something about the place’s charm and strange energy. The halls and walls inside beckon eyes to jam-packed lines of animal specimens collected since the mid-19th century. This collection of specimens ranges from charismatic megafauna to birds to the smallest of watery creatures to rows and cases of insects.
My attention turns these days more to those cases of insects. They display the pinned corpses of butterflies, beetles and other critters. Insects, insecta, those with “notched” or “cut” bodies into three segments, unfold with variety and color—though in the Dead Zoo they remain cut by mounting and faded with time. Here, etymology entangles with entomology. Of course, the cases display worms and arachnids, too, and one marvels at the variety of those smaller creatures we inhabit the world with and between. We’re surrounded by them, creeped out by them, enamoured with them, collect them, eat them and the honey they provide.
The news talks a lot of those honey bees these days—“colony collapse disorder”—and radically disturbing declines in bee population. The implications for pollination of plant species is astounding. But a very recent study from Germany signals a more terrifying reality: three quarters of insect life there has disappeared in the last twenty five years. Because insects serve as indicators of healthy ecologies and biospheres, they’re using terms like “ecological catastrophe,” “environmental apocalypse,” and “Armageddon.”
When you consider how little and mystified our knowledge of the insect world actually is, we don’t even know fully what’s been lost. Folding this study into the other news unfolding in the sixth great mass extinction, where fifty percent of animal life has disappeared in the last forty years, I can’t help but repeat the words of ecotheorist Timothy Morton: “I feel like I’ve been kicked in the biosphere.”
Our ability to lament exceeds our language. And so I’ve been in mourning with this information too much to bear, sitting at these cases of the minute and dead, mourning our collective habits, our dominion fetishes of taxonomical greed, our pesticidal mania, and our climatological malfeasance. Where do our ecological and religious imaginations need nourishment? Creatures buzz and flit around us daily, but do we take notice? Do we respond, personally or politically?
Insects, of course, populate religious and spiritual imaginations, too, whether we realize that or not. Forms of ahimsa in Jainism and forms of Buddhism avoid violence against the insect world. Locusts serve to remind of the divine judgment in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus spends some time asking which insects might count as food. In the book of Judges, a bee colony sets up in the carcass of a dead lion. Butterflies often serve as symbols of resurrection. Jesus asks hearers what is valuable, since moths destroy the perishable. The Qur’an celebrates the dedication of and handiwork of bees and other insects. And the list multiplies.
In the middle of the 18th century, another German study—this time by a Lutheran theologian—wrote a little book with an odd title. The translation renders Friedrich Christian Lesser’s book as Insecto-theology: Or A Demonstration Of The Being And Perfections Of God, From A Consideration Of The Structure And Economy Of Insects. Insecto-theology. What word and imagination. The book sits as a note in the annals of natural theology, and revels for hundreds of pages in the intricacies and glories of insects. The book meditates on human relationships with them, their occasional beauty and antagonism, the theological glory of them.
Lesser revels in human dominion and use of insect life, the minute, to contemplate Divinity. He notes that God uses insects (think those plagues) to chasten humankind. He argues that, “In order to manifest his [sic] dominion over insects, God ordained that the first fruits of honey should be presented to him [sic].” Lesser’s God sounds like quite the queen bee.
Such attitudes of human dominion and instrumentalization of critters for human use precisely figure into the Anthropocene’s abuse of the planet. The more human beings render nature as a tool for transcendent escape, the more willing human beings render themselves the exception in the world. And the more one imagines their exceptional statues, the less one finds dignity in nonhuman life.
But perhaps Lesser’s contemplative wonder about the minute intricacy and the theological necessity of insects is something we can recover. This loss should chasten our arrogance and exceptionalism. We must contemplate, wonder in, and lament insect loss in a way that beckons our attention.
It might be easy to despair in this time of loss. It might be easy to hold a funeral for the planet or live in the naïve hope that the planet will fix itself. It might be easy to mourn and lament so hard that our stomachs buckle in grief. It might be that we lose ourselves in remembering the dead. But other ways of living into the loss exist; other traditions might bear us forward.
Here in Ireland, an old and beloved tradition is the wake. Wakes lure everyone into a commons of mourning. Stories are told to celebrate the dead. Drinks are had. Songs are sung of their life. Strangers connect with one another to remember and support, to share grief and cultivate tradition. Mourning and celebration go hand in hand.
Kevin Toolis writes in a brilliant reflection on the Irish wake that in such gatherings we learn, “How to be brave in irreversible sorrow. How to reach out to the dying, the dead and the bereaved. How to go on living no matter how great the rupture or loss. How to face your own.”
We need such a planetary commons of mourning to bind us, a planetary commons of mourning to recall our odd little lives, insect, bird, or animal into resilience. We need a lively, planetary wake.
Wakes come after the event—in the wake—but they also awake our senses to what matters and the consequences of our lives. We begin to reimagine the worlds around us and in us.
In that spirit, a number of years ago hearing reports of the amassed creaturely dead, I began adding the names of endangered and extinct species to the All Saints remembrances in my own Christian practices. Larry and Jennifer, the Western Black Rhinocerous, and the Pyrenean Ibex…To call the memories of these losses forth, to honor them, awakens and imagines our connections across time and space differently and creatively.
Indeed, the anthropologist Anna Tsing imagines that what we need are “arts of living on a damaged planet.” We need wonder and lament and protest. We need wonder to direct our attention, lament to speak grief back to the world, and protest to demand better, more resilient practices.
And I want to think further of the theological and spiritual practices that we might create. The philosopher Donna J. Haraway asks us how we might construct or fabulate those kinds of stories and myths that help us “make kin” with other creatures in this time of ecological devastation. Haraway ends her book, Staying with the Trouble (Duke University Press, 2016), with a fictional story of the “Children of Compost,” who begin practices of storytelling as “Keepers of the Dead.” People identify with a species, learn about that species, and tell that those specied stories to pass down knowledge, awareness, connection, and empathy from generation to generation. The generations of those keepers, in Haraway’s words, tell stories of interconnection, beauty, loss, and embody the empathic attention to their chosen critterly kin.
In this case, Haraway tells a more than relevant tale of those who tell the endangered monarch butterflies that migrate across the United States. They remember biological lives, they make cultures of art and resilience with them. These stories tell of a creaturely cloud of witnesses, a wake across generational memory.
We need to recover such a more minute attention and wakeful, expansive storytelling as well. To construct stories and myths, policies and protests that call forth the creativity of the creeping things of the earth might be one of the most needed spiritual practices for our moment. Insecto-theology, perhaps.