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Illustration: Maria Francesca Melis
Illustration: Maria Francesca Melis

The Sunday EssayFebruary 12, 2023

The Sunday Essay: It’s the little things

Illustration: Maria Francesca Melis
Illustration: Maria Francesca Melis

I’ve finally learned there’s a middle ground between panicked eco-zeal and Kardashian-level consumerism and that ground contains thousands of intricate, magical, planet-enhancing insects. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Maria Francesca Melis

Shockingly, secondary school didn’t equip me with many life skills. The only use I’ve ever had for algebra was looking at my x and wondering y. But thankfully, Mr Kersley’s class meant that I wasn’t flung into adulthood completely incompetent. We were allowed to watch movies in class, and the fact that they were grim documentaries about the planet’s devastation like Home and An Inconvenient Truth was balanced by the prospect of not having to do any work. Full of prophetic wisdom, Mr Kersley once told me, over a vegan salad, never to buy coastal property. Ten years later, on an ecologist’s salary, I can’t afford a cardboard box, let alone a house, but if I could I’d take my teacher’s advice and avoid low-lying sections. 

Thanks to Mr Kersley I became the environment prefect in my final year at high school. I rallied for the canteen to stop using unnecessary plastic, implemented recycling and compost bins and forced the same protocols on my own household. I even spoke at school assemblies, which terrified the absolute shit out of me, but nothing lights a fire under an introvert like a climate crisis. 

At university I studied zoology and ecology, did post-grad, worked in marketing for a sustainable brand and eventually became an ecologist. But somewhere between Mr Kersley’s class and adulthood, I changed. Of course I still care; I just don’t have that bright-eyed enthusiasm I had in high school. Frankly, absorbing any more of the creative ways we’re destroying the planet has become unbearable. When the news is wildfires, floods and melting ice caps, I know that everything Mr Kersley said was true. But I’ve adopted the tired environmentalist’s approach to life: do as much as you can but not to the detriment of your own sanity – the world’s fucked anyway. 

Reality is best served with a healthy side of denial. Sure, in this profession, I’m continually confronted with saddening information but, outside of work, I avoid further torture. My reading material, for example, is curated. On a recent visit to the library, the first book I picked up started with: “We are facing a global emergency.” I snapped it shut and walked away.  The next, Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, began: “I fear the majority of people don’t much like insects” – at last, something we can all agree on and, impending doom absent, it made the cut. Turns out old mate eventually gave me the same message: global emergency, planet is dying and so are the insects – at a rapidly alarming rate.

Some truth bombs dropped included the fact that there’s been a 75% decline in insects over the past 50 years and one dose of your pet’s flea treatment contains enough insecticide to kill 60 million bees. So if you blast the hose at your neighbour’s cat for shitting in the garden, you may inadvertently be committing mass murder. But there’s a trick to functioning amid ecocidal mayhem: care enough to avoid Kardashian-level personal emissions, but don’t care so much that you let the fleas get your cat. I googled natural flea remedies and spraying my cat with vinegar and lemon juice is not a path I’m ready to go down.

As well as selective compassion, what helps is admiring all the cool things we have on this planet, like insects. Goulson’s right; not many people do like insects. But this leaves me wondering where we go wrong, because like many small children, I was fascinated with bugs. When I was seven, my mum gave me a beautiful box from Bali she kept her rings in. Biffing aside her jewellery collection, I filled the box with bees, butterflies, beetles – any dead bugs I could find. Now, I wear all her rings but no longer collect insects. 

Thankfully, not everyone loses interest, or develops irrational fears. At university I met friends who were still collectors and are today some of my favourite people. One had a series of disastrous collections: a huge and beautiful pupurangi/kauri snail shell turned out to contain a potent cocktail of decomposed snail juice that stunk out her car for weeks; a bird’s nest she’d brought home to display on her windowsill resulted in a dorm room infested with mites.

But I love that this friend is drawn to gorgeous things in nature that many of us walk straight past. I know some people who would miss a locust invasion while scrolling Instagram. Increasingly I like to put my phone inside a sock inside a drawer and slowly battle with the re-emergence of my own thoughts. Once the excruciating boredom passes and you remember what it’s like to function without a rectangular extension to your hand, you’ll have some fun. Phoneless sights include the forest ringlet butterflies spotted while tramping in the Ruahines in Hawkes Bay, or the metallic green and gold Christmas beetles that show up in Mum’s garden in December. 

Insects are a key part of studying zoology as they account for an astonishing amount of the world’s biomass. They’re literally the most successful organisms on the planet. Of course, when it comes to soothing eco-anxiety, a love of insects is far from a panacea. Those forest ringlets are endangered, and this Christmas I didn’t see a single beetle. Insects are one of the sharpest reminders of the state of the planet, but they deliver the message on a scale that I can absorb.

When I was younger I read that aerodynamically bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. They’re too fat for their wings, and it’s a miracle they can amble from one flower to the next. But because they don’t know it’s physically impossible, they just go ahead and do it anyway. 

I googled it recently, and much to my disappointment, it’s a misconception. But for a while, it served as a triumphant little message and it was probably the beginning of a lifelong love of bees. From rescuing and ushering any that came indoors to freedom, providing sugar water for thirsty stragglers and apologising whenever I get stung, I am enamoured. But when most of the world’s food crops are pollinated by bees, they don’t need an anecdote like the one I believed to make them impressive; they just are. 

When my mum first saw the bumblebee tattoo I got at 23 she grabbed my wrist, licked her finger and rubbed my forearm in the vain hope it was all an elaborate prank. I think she’s since grown to accept its existence and even though she said I’d regret it, I don’t. It’s a permanent reminder of the crucial role bees and, of course, every insect and animal has in the health of our ecosystems.

When you care about insects, you inadvertently care about every environmental factor in existence. You care about invasive species because they’re eating our native insects. You care about climate change because it’s disrupting the resources and environments these creatures rely on. You care about pesticide use because it kills a lot more insects than your neighbour’s cat. Most importantly, when you care about insects you also begin to notice more of what’s around you. 

On my path from ecowarrior to ecologist, I found a middle ground. These days I don’t dwell too much on the negative and I take the time to stare wonderingly at the fly floating in my pinot gris before I neck it. Some call it ignorance, I call it survival.

Keep going!