Saturday, February 17, 2007

The death of a wasp

In one of his books on animal behavior, the biologist Adrian Forsyth writes about frogs he encountered in a rain forest: "[They] have a way of facing you with a goggle-eyed gaze that is disconcertingly humanoid. Their huge wrap-around mouths, while perhaps not actually resembling a smile, are certainly not frowning. Sitting hunched up as though in anticipation, they assume the posture and calm demeanor of patient listeners ready to participate in conversation." Forsyth is clearly anthropomorphizing, but his response is not frivolous. "The art of natural history," he writes, "lies in allowing such personal reactions to organisms to lead us into their biology."

Natural history is not quite the same thing as biology. It lies in that sparsely populated territory between science and poetry, where exact observation and reliable scientific information is paramount, but where human emotional and aesthetic responses are not slighted. In natural history, we learn as much about ourselves as about the thing studied. RM's beautiful wasp story is an example.

Here on the island we don't have glass in our windows, just wooden louvres with inside screens. The spaces between the louvres and the screens are attractive as places of creaturely refuge. And so we find them there -- geckos, free-toed frogs, bat moths, and just about anything else that creeps or flies -- as if on display in a museum case. Perfect for study. What am I studying? The creatures, of course, but also human nature. Curiosity. Empathy. Love.

In this I am guided by my friend the biologist David Campbell, who lived in the Bahamas before he decamped to Iowa, and who wrote a marvelous book on Bahamian natural history. In his first paragraph he discounts the necessity of looking for "nature" in the wildest and most remote of environments -- the flamingo salt lakes of Iguana, the green turtle beaches of uninhabited isles, the shark reefs at the edge of the Bahama Bank. "Any backyard, any weed patch will do, whether in Bain Town or Bay Street [populous Nassau neighborhoods]," he writes. "Turn over a stone or glance into a nearby tree and, by careful observation and study, you will find a hint of wilderness."

To enter the near "wilderness" is to explore the history of our species, and to learn of the molecular affinities that bind us to the gecko, the frog, the moth. And the wasp.