Press "Enter" to skip to content

Tag: ecology

Transversal Ecology and V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival is a nervous text. Its unnamed narrator (almost always read as Naipaul himself, as I will refer to him here) repeatedly confesses to suffering from a “rawness of nerves” as he migrates from Trinidad to England, where he settles in a small cottage on the grounds of a derelict Wiltshire manor (123). He attributes his nervous temperament to his self-consciousness as a postcolonial subject who lives on a hereditary estate established and long sustained by colonial plantations such as the one his grandparents worked as indentured laborers. But the estate also offers Naipaul the time and space to develop a critical intimacy with the Wiltshire countryside, an intimacy that revolutionizes his understanding of imperial England and its cultural legacy. He spends large portions of the novel walking the droveways of this ancient landscape, carefully observing the spatial and temporal dimensions of what is, at first glance, an idyllic environment. But as he comes to know the land more intimately, he develops an increasingly critical perspective, experiencing what he calls a “second childhood of seeing and learning” (93). Observing how the passage of time inscribes itself on the manor’s built and natural environments, as well as on its human community, Naipaul arrives at an understanding of England that diverges in significant ways from the one passed down to him in the literary and artistic representations that formed such an integral part of his colonial education. This “second childhood” is thus a process of disillusionment with the cultural ideal of England. It is also a reorientation of how Naipaul understands the relationship between natural ecology, social history, and his own subjectivity, an “awakening to the natural world” that ultimately empowers him to reassess his place within a post-imperial England, which is characterized in the novel by the grandson of indentured laborers roving the iconic landscape of the Salisbury Plain (105).

What Naipaul sees and learns as he explores the derelict Wiltshire estate is the subject of much critical commentary. Virtually all of this commentary focuses on issues of postcolonial identity, and much of it is critical of what Pascale Casanova refers to as the novel’s “colonial nostalgia for British power” (212). Casanova joins Rob Nixon, Ann Lora Stoler, Ian Baucom, and Derek Walcott, to name just a few of Naipaul’s many detractors, in reading The Enigma of Arrival as the apotheosis of Naipaul’s “unmistakably English view of the world, his almost provocative determination to prove himself more English than the English, more nostalgic than his neighbors for the Empire and England’s lost power” (Casanova 211). Others are more sympathetic. For example, Shirley Chew, Lucienne Loh, Sanjay Krishnan, and Anna Jörngården offer more nuanced readings of the novel that see in Naipaul’s fixation on England’s imperial decline a challenge to what Chew calls (quoting Naipaul) “the colonial fantasy of ‘security,’ that is, the notion of a ‘fixed world’ comprising, on the one hand, the timeless perfection of England, and, on the other, the disorder of ‘half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made’” (137). I too am interesting in how The Enigma of Arrival represents postcolonial identity, but I want to approach this question by exploring how the landscape itself—the natural ecology that contributes so mightily to the novel’s setting—functions as a means of framing and reorienting Naipaul’s struggle to understand his place within post-imperial England. In what follows, I will offer an ecocritical reading that draws on theories developed in Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies to argue that Naipaul’s “second childhood of seeing and learning” is, in ways germane to the question of postcolonial subjectivity, an awakening to the multiplicity of ecological registers.

Before considering how discrete passages from the text engage in an ecocritical approach to postcolonial identity, it may be fruitful to consider why The Enigma of Arrival is not read more often as a work of nature writing. Perhaps the reason why more critics do not address Naipaul’s interest in the natural world as such is because that intersects with a larger postcolonial critique. Naipaul himself admits as much when, in his preface to the novel’s reissue, he writes: “I knew there was a long tradition of nature writing and I knew that I was not equipped to add to it. My concern as someone from the colonies was the use of the land, nature pushed to its limits by a repeated crop” (v-vi). Naipaul’s emphasis on “nature pushed to its limits” works against the norms of mainstream nature writing, which have their roots in the pastoral. Although major literary figures such as Salman Rushdie have identified The Enigma of Arrival with “pastoral England, an England of manor and stream,” the novel does not, in fact, belong to a tradition that emphasizes the natural environment as a benevolent, contemplative, spiritually rejuvenating space. If anything, the evidence of material ruin and decay that Naipaul discovers embedded in the landscape as he walks and re-walks the Wiltshire countryside exposes the conventional pastoral as an illusion, if not an outright deception. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin attest to this when they call The Enigma of Arrival an “anti-pastoral,” arguing that “Naipaul’s work is no haven for the literary nature-lover. His despoiled landscapes tell of centuries of human cruelty, greed and plunder” (128). The fact that Naipaul’s landscapes seem to insist that “land is not land alone, something that simply is itself,” but rather that it “partakes of what we breathe into it,” shifts attention away from his work as nature writing and toward his work as pure social or cultural critique (Huggan and Tiffin 366). Yet the novel does not support this division. Indeed, The Enigma of Arrival represents environmental, social, and subjective experiences as mutually embedded phenomena.

In his essay The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari refuses the distinction between nature and culture in ways I find productive for thinking through Naipaul’s claim that “land is not land alone.” Guattari writes, “Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’” (28). To think transversally is to develop the critical capacity to address three overlapping ecological registers at once: environmental ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology (Guattari 18). Recognizing the interdependence of these ecological registers complicates Naipaul’s concern with “nature pushed to its limits” because transversality demands that we incorporate social and subjective dynamics into those limits (v). Naipaul models this in The Enigma of Arrival’s representation of Trinidad as the site of such extensive environmental exploitation that the near-total transformation of the land has left its occupants estranged from their own history. In fact, it is only in researching the history of Trinidad for a book he had been commissioned to write that Naipaul recognizes the artificiality of what he had always assumed to be his native island’s natural condition. He explains, “As a schoolboy I had assumed [Trinidad’s] torpor to be a constant, something connected with the geographical location of the island, the climate, the quality of the light. It had never occurred to me that the drabness I knew had been man-made, that it had causes, that there had been other visions and indeed other landscapes there” (170). This is the torpor of a colonial plantation society at the waning of the British Empire, which is altogether different from post-imperial Trinidad, where the landscape is again transformed, this time by the discovery of oil and natural gas. Naipaul bemoans the fact that the fossil fuel industry “ravaged and remade the landscape where we had had our beginnings in the New World,” and he does so in explicit transversal terms, noting that the shift from sugar cane to oil and natural gas “altered our landscape, our population, our mood” (384 and 385). There is a keen recognition in his bringing together landscape, population, and mood—terms that mirror Guattari’s emphasis on the three ecological registers of the environmental, the social, and the mental—that a change in one ecological register has the potential to transform all the ecological registers.   

A transversal consciousness is also active in Naipaul’s representation of the Salisbury Plain. What at first appears to be a timeless landscape emanating from the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Night or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude gradually reveals itself to be shaped by spatiotemporal historical processes. For example, Naipaul recognizes in the seeming emptiness of the plain subtle traces of social activity: “Daily I walked in the wide grassy way—perhaps in the old days a processional way. Daily I climbed from the bottom of the valley to the crest of the way and the view … A vast sacred burial ground, bounded by the sky—of what activity those barrows and tumuli spoke, what numbers, what organization, what busyness in these now virtually empty downs!” (19). His ability to discern traces of ancient social activity in the shape of the land gradually opens his eyes to how contemporary social activities are also reshaping what may seem, at first glance, to be wholly natural. Musing on the absurdity of the fact that the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill’s luminous targets stand out more dramatically on the Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge, both of which are visible in the same vista, Naipaul notes that “because of the purely military uses to which the land had been put for so long, and contrary to what one might expect after the explosions and mock warfare, there survived on the plain some kinds of butterflies that had vanished in more populated parts” (14). As with the previous example, the different ecological registers are intertwined: beneath the surface of what appears to be untouched nature are the traces of frenzied social activity; within the center of explosive social activity is the most unexpected and unlikely trace of untouched nature. It is precisely in recognizing this transversal quality that Naipaul can see through the so-called “timeless perfection of England” to something that is altogether more temporal (Chew 137).

I will conclude with one final example of transversal ecology in The Enigma of Arrival, an example that shows how the reach of what Guattari calls “the mechanosphere” into the heart of rural England degrades both corporeal nature and communal bonds. Although the territory over which Naipaul ranges throughout the novel bears subtle traces of pre-industrial social activity, that ancient landscape is also in the process of being transformed by large-scale industrial agriculture. Naipaul writes of “Change! New ideas, new efficiency,” an ironic exclamation that soon takes on a dystopian tone. Where once was “a wooden platform where the milk churns were placed” now stands a modern, prefabricated milking barn. He notes that “this milking building or milking ‘parlour’ (quaint word) was a mechanical-looking affair”—what he calls “a little factory at the top of the hill”—that was full of “pipes and meters and gauges; and the men who worked the parlour, who corralled the dung-stained cattle into the pens or channels, had something of the grimness of industrial workers” (58). This description of industrial-scale animal agriculture stands in marked contrast to the ideal of “pastoral England” with which Rushdie associates the novel, in part because it acknowledges the ecological registers that Guattari identifies in The Three Ecologies. This is made explicit in the passage’s concluding description, in which Naipaul writes: “The brightly-coloured cars, the hum and hiss of the milking machine (the cows, even with their dung, reduced to machine-managed objects), the tense young men, their moustaches and cars—they were all aspects of the new, exaggerated thing that had come upon us” (58). As had befallen Trinidad with the discovery of oil and natural gas, the introduction of industrial agricultural practices into the rural Wiltshire economy has a powerfully estranging effect, distancing the landscape and its occupants from the ideal that Naipaul had internalized as a postcolonial subject whose sole experience of England came through art and literature.

The disillusionment that Naipaul experiences as he observes the technological transformation of the dairy industry allows him to see through the supposed authenticity and historical continuity of agrarian England. For example, he fondly recalls the illustrated cows that graced the labels of the condensed milk he consumed as a child in Trinidad, an image that he describes as “the very heart of romance, a child’s fantasy of the beautiful other place” (90). But what he finds in reality refuses any such romantic ideal. Walking the droveways, he encounters a “ruined, abandoned, dungy, mossy farmyard” in which are penned a group of deformed milk cows:

The breeding of these cattle had become so mechanical that the malformation appeared mechanical too, the mistakes of an industrial process. Curious additional lumps of flesh had grown at various places on the animals, as though these animals had been cast in a mould, a mould divided into two sections, and as though, at the joining of the moulds, the cattle-material, the mixture out of which the cattle were being cast, had leaked; and had hardened, matured into flesh, and had then developed hair with the black-and-white Frisian pattern of the rest of the cattle. (9)

The radical incongruity of this reality with the fantasy Naipaul brought with him when he migrated to England extends to the larger social register as well. For example, he initially assumes that the people he encounters on his walks have ancestral connections to the land, that they are—as he says of one of his neighbors—“emanations” of “literature and antiquity and the landscape” (21). But as with the distressed, hideously deformed cattle, they too are soon exposed as something other than Naipaul first assumed: “So much that had looked traditional, natural, emanations of the landscape … now turned out not to have been traditional or instinctive at all” (49). Indeed, with the exception of the reclusive owner of the manor, none of the residents have an authentic connection with the land. They are temporary residents of the estate, and those social bonds that do exist between the neighbors lack depth and stability. When one of the longest surviving residents dies, nobody notices. The children are discourteous to their elderly neighbors. And an itinerant laborer, come to work the mechanized milking machines, murders his wife in a jealous rage.

This social fragmentation is coterminous with the deformed cows, and together they powerfully reorient Naipaul’s perspective on his own place within post-imperial England. But his disillusionment is also an awakening to a new way of seeing England that challenges and ultimately transcends the ideological representations he encountered as a schoolboy. As Anna Jörngården argues in a recent article, “Rather than a cause for nostalgia and regret, this shift from seeing the valley as replete with living history to seeing it as a field of ruins opens up alternative histories that destabilize fantasies of the valley as the authentic home to rooted, authentic people” (217). It is precisely in this destabilization that the subjective register of Guattari’s transversal ecology intersects with the environmental and social registers. If The Enigma of Arrival is, at its core, a novel of postcolonial identity—as the critical consensus suggests—then one way to achieve a deeper understanding of such an identity is through a transversal ecocritical approach. Read transversally, the novel’s mutually embedded ecological registers redefine who can legitimately claim the Wiltshire estate as their own. If socioeconomic and environmental transformations have emptied the Salisbury Plain of its meaning as “the authentic home to rooted, authentic people,” then it can now be the authentic home of the rootless, the postcolonial, the transnational. The Enigma of Arrival thus emerges as a critique of how social and environmental transformations shape the mental ecologies of all who exist within changing spatial and temporal contexts, including both the localized English countryside and the globalized, postcolonial setting within which Naipaul’s work is so often understood.

Note: I presented a version of this paper at the “Conceptions and Perceptions of Time and Space” conference at the London Center for Interdisciplinary Research in London, England on February 17, 2019.

Leave a Comment

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades,” with its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs catalogued in the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

Leave a Comment

Locusts and Wild Honey

When I think of the word “ecology,” images of rainforests leap immediately to mind. The dense canopy, the intense diversity of flora and fauna, the screeching monkeys and brilliantly colored birds. If I dwell on the word a bit longer, my imagination expands to include rivers, mountains, deserts, coral reefs, and even the frozen expanses of the arctic. These are the sorts of settings that make nature documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth so compelling to watch. But world ecology encompasses so much more, including human beings (people are notably absent from Planet Earth). In his essay “The Three Ecologies,” Félix Guattari identifies three “ecological registers”: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity,” all of which are intimately interconnected and mutually contingent (18). Where there are rainforests, rivers, mountains, and deserts, there are also social relations and the complexities of human subjectivity. To suggest that humanity and nature exist in separate spheres is to engage in a fallacy, just as it’s naive to neglect the extent to which natural ecology penetrates the human species.

Food is one of the most important means by which natural ecology enters human experience. We eat, and in so doing we incorporate nature into our biology. It enriches our bodies as it passes through them. As philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton argues, “All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (274). The most obvious way this is true is that we consume aspects of the biological world when we eat, and in turn we produce organic matter (including our own bodies) that feeds back into the biosphere. But eating is also a key aspect of human sociability. What occurs at mealtime is responsible, in significant and far-reaching ways, for human culture, and even for civilization itself. The fact that natural ecology is reflected in every plate of food puts nature at the center of culture. And this, it seems to me, opens up possibilities for shared recognition between distant and sometimes unfamiliar cultures, as well as opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences that may prove crucial to our survival in an age of ecological crisis.

I began thinking about this after reading Karen L. Kilcup’s recent article on the popular nineteenth-century children’s periodical Juvenile Miscellany. In that article, Kilcup touches on how famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lydia Maria Child, who served as the Miscellany’s editor from 1826 to 1834, used natural history to connect her New England readership with the diversity of cultures around the world. One of the ways Child accomplished this was by drawing her readers’ attention to the relative continuity of human attitudes towards, and interactions with, natural ecology, even when specific cultural practices diverge. For example, Kilcup notes that in her article surveying the various ways people use insects, Child refuses to “ignore traditional practices, even if they make readers uncomfortable, including descriptions of how various cultures consume insects as food — a practice that, she underscores, the Bible references” (268). By drawing a parallel between modern entomophagy (i.e., the practice of eating insects) and the biblical tradition, Child suggests a point of commonality between her predominantly Christian audience and the many people around the world who eat insects.

There are indeed biblical examples of people practicing entomophagy, the most famous of which is John the Baptist surviving on “locusts and wild honey” as he wandered the desert. Somewhat less famous is the dietary code outlined in the Torah, which condones eating “the locust after its kind, the destroying locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind.” By emphasizing biblical entomophagy’s precedent, Child was clearly attempting to cultivate within her predominantly Christian audience some measure of tolerance for insects as a food source, while at the same time advocating sympathy for those cultures that practice dietary customs unfamiliar to the West. If locusts fed the prophets, why should modern Christians be so repulsed by those who eat insects today? Perhaps locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers should be a part of every omnivore’s diet.

Child was working against the grain of deep-seated cultural assumptions. As important as nutrition may be, the fact remains that people make food choices based on a spectrum of concerns, many of which have little to do with sustenance. Prominent cultural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Mary Douglas have long understood that food has symbolic value. What we eat, and the manner in which we eat it, helps shape our social and individual identities. As Pat Caplan reminds us in her article on the relationship between food, health, and identity, Lévi-Strauss went so far as to contend that careful attention to eating habits can yield “a significant knowledge of the unconscious attitudes of the society or societies under consideration” (1–2). Such cultural attitudes, including those expressed in the Western taboo against entomophagy, can be difficult to shake, which is why Child’s biblical appeal did little to persuade her young readers and their parents to incorporate insects into the American diet.

It’s been nearly 200 years since Child made her point regarding entomophagy, and people in the United States — and the West more generally — still reject insects as a food source. The degree to which American’s are repulsed by the practice of eating insects is reflected in how entomophagy is represented in pop culture. Consider, for example, American television programs such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Bizarre Foods, all of which feature Americans (or a Briton, in the case of Man vs. Wild) struggling to eat foods that are commonly consumed by people around the world. The insect-eating segments of these programs participate in the pervasive sadomasochism that characterizes reality television; viewers enjoy watching people choke down bugs precisely because entomophagy is considered to be vile and humiliating. This is true of even the most sympathetic of these programs. For example, when Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef and host of Bizarre Foods, consumes insect-based dishes, he often seems to enjoy what he’s eating, and yet the appeal of his show is undoubtedly the spectacle of someone eating food that Americans find disgusting.

But why is eating an insect any more disgusting than, say, eating a pig — an animal that is reviled by many cultures, including the culture that produced the Bible? The answer to this question leads away from food and toward Western notions of ethnocultural supremacy. In its 2013 report Edible Insects, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) repeatedly notes that people in most Western countries view the eating of insects with disgust, and that this feeling of disgust “forms the basis of moral judgement” (35). Related to this is the report’s conclusion that people in the West “perceive the practice [of eating insects] to be associated with primitive behavior” (35). Joseph Bequaert makes a similar case in his 1921 article “Insects as Food,” arguing that it “can be attributed only to prejudice, that civilized man of today shows such a decided aversion to including any six-legged creature in his diet.”1 In other words, one of the unconscious attitudes reflected in the taboo against entomophagy is the belief that Western culture has advanced beyond the so-called “primitive” stage of human development, relegating to a distant  past such backwards practices as eating insects.

Unfortunately, this disparaging attitude toward entomophagy negatively influences the eating habits of people who have maintained the tradition of consuming insects, arachnids, mealworms, and other creatures that repulse the Western palate. For example, the FAO makes the case that people in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their consumption of insects in an effort to emulate Western standards and norms (39). This is especially true of converts to Christianity. Indeed, there is evidence of Christian missionaries explicitly discouraging people from eating insects on the basis that doing so is “a heathen custom.” One Malawi convert is on record as saying that “he would never taste such things [i.e., winged termites], valuing them as highly non-Christian” (39). This is an old story, as the FAO rightly notes, and it fits within a larger history of Western ethnocentrism:

In 25–50 percent of Native American tribes, … there existed a long history of insect eating; yet because Western cultures lacked strong cultural experience with the practice and considered it primitive, they discouraged and suppressed it among Native American tribes when these two cultural groups began to interact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Western cultures inflicted similar damage on other indigenous groups, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of modernizing or westernizing them. This cultural suppression was still prevalant [sic.] at the end of the twentieth century. As a result, entomophagy has almost disappeared from Canada and the United States and is showing signs of abating in West Africa. (39)

The abhorrence of insects as a food source should be challenged. At a time when human population growth poses a serious threat to ecosystems around the world, people everywhere need to rethink how their diets affect the environment. In his National Geographic article “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, makes the case that dietary changes are imperative if we intend to feed the Earth’s growing human population without doing irreparable damage to the planet. He argues that “finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets — even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef — could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.” It would also do a great deal to mitigate animal agriculture’s devastating environmental impacts.2

I would push Foley’s point much further, urging the widespread adoption of plant-based diets, and especially veganism. But in the context of omnivorous food culture, the West has much to learn from those societies that practice entomophagy. Not only are insects a protein-rich food suitable for human consumption, but they can also be used for animal feed, and they are significantly less land and water intensive than traditional livestock. The environmental, health, and social benefits are many. Here are just a few benefits outlined in a recent FAO information packet:

Environmental Benefits

  • Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold-blooded. Feed-to-meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used, but nonetheless insects are extremely efficient. On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
  • The production of greenhouse gases by most insects is likely to be lower than that of conventional livestock. For example, pigs produce 10–100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight than mealworms.
  • Insects can feed on bio-waste, such as food and human waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform this into high-quality protein that can be used for animal feed.
  • Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought-resistant than cattle.
  • Insect farming is less land-dependent than conventional livestock farming.

Health Benefits

  • Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids (comparable with fish). They are also rich in fiber and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
  • Insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) such as like H1N1 (bird flu) and BSE (mad cow disease).

Livelihood and Social Benefits

  • Insect gathering and rearing can offer important livelihood diversification strategies. Insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild. Minimal technical or capital expenditure is required for basic harvesting and rearing equipment.
  • Insects can be gathered in the wild, cultivated, processed and sold by the poorest members of society, such as women and landless people in urban and rural areas. These activities can directly improve diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street food.
  • Insect harvesting and farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed, transitional and developing economies.
  • Insects can be processed for food and feed relatively easily. Some species can be consumed whole. Insects can also be processed into pastes or ground into meal, and their proteins can be extracted.

There has been some modest movement toward entomophagy in the United States. For example, there is a growing demand for cricket flour, which is used in everything from cookies to protein bars, and educator-friendly information about the dietary benefits of insects is readily available. Just type “entomophagy infographic” into Google, and you will find dozens of examples. Two of my favorites can be found here and here. There are also organizations that advocate for insects as a sustainable food source. Little Herds is a good example. And yet a typical American market is unlikely to stock a single item that makes use of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, or other insects that the FAO recommends as nutritious and sustainable food sources. The disgust toward entomophagy — and the unconscious attitudes it reflects — effectively deprives a sizable portion of the world’s population from a perfectly sensible source of nutrition.

The commitment to progress and modernity has led us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Large-scale industrialization, a voracious fossil fuel industry, a blind faith in free markets, and rampant consumerism are a few of the forces that have contributed to the problem. But there are deeper forces at work as well. One such force is the idea that the West — its culture, its religion, its politics, its technology — represents “progress,” and that those cultures that embrace different values and customs are backwards, primitive, and morally deficient. This ethnocentrism has deep roots and manifests itself in many ways, and it has proven remarkably adept at expanding its sphere of influence. Indeed, one of recent history’s great tragedies is how so many of the world’s cultures have accepted this ethnocentric narrative. The widespread enthusiasm for Western food norms— including the disgust toward entomophagy — is but one example.

There are those who believe technological innovation will save us from the worst of our accelerating environmental degradation, allowing us to progress out of the crisis into which “progress” has delivered us. But perhaps the most progressive thing we can do is to listen to those whose customs are all too often considered objects of disgust. There are communities of people in the world who hold a wealth of traditional knowledge, yet the practices derived from that knowledge are too often dismissed as “primitive,” or as belonging to “a heathen custom.” Western ethnocentrism is, in this regards, maladaptive. We need to learn from each other. The future of our species may depend on it. But to do so we must first become aware of how our unconscious attitudes make us averse to cultural practices that can benefit us and our shared environment. Entomophagy is one such practice that the West would be wise to reconsider.

Comments closed

The Last Chapter of Genesis

Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, it promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell makes this point clear in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” The contempt for nature, including the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Christian myth and has done much to condition western attitudes toward the environment.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is figured as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position vis-à-vis environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”

The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin, and thus also our own deaths, just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what Pope Francis, quoting his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, identifies as “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”

I was reminded of this imperative by two short articles I recently came across in The Spectator, an underground newspaper published by students at Indiana University from 1966–1970. Both articles draw on biblical language to make the point that we have abdicated our responsibilities toward the environment. For example, in his article “On Population,” Bruce Williams uses familiar phrases from Genesis to argue that both environmental degradation and human want are the consequences of our irresponsibility and ignorance: “We are fruitful and multiply so that overpopulation and starvation are commonplace, subdue our planet by destroying it, exercise dominion with poison and killing.” By echoing language taken directly from the first book of Genesis, this sentence makes the point that modern humanity’s mistreatment of the earth stands in opposition to the doctrine of environmental stewardship.1

More striking still is the second article, which recasts the seven days of creation as a perverse undoing of ecological balance and planetary health. Ironically titled “Last Chapter of Genesis,” the article reads:

In the end, there was earth, and it was with form and beauty; and man dwelt upon the lands of the earth, and meadows, and trees — and said, “Let us build our dwellings in this place of beauty.” And he built cities and covered the earth with concrete and steel. And the meadows were gone, and man said, “It is good.”

On the 2nd day, man looked upon the waters of the earth. And man said, “Let us put our wastes in the waters that the dirt will be washed away.” And man did and the waters became polluted and foul in their smell. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 3rd day, man looked upon the forests of the earth and saw they were beautiful. And man said, “Let us cut the timber and grind the wood for our use.” And man did and the lands became barren and the trees were gone. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 4th day, man saw that animals were in abundance and ran in the fields and played in the sun. And man said, “Let us cage these animals for our amusement and kill them for our sport.” And man did. And there were no more animals on the face of the earth. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 5th day, man breathed the air of the earth. And man said, “Let us dispose of our wastes in the air for the winds shall blow them away.” And man did. And the air became heavy with dust and choked and burned. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 6th day, man saw himself and, seeing the many languages and tongues, he feared and hated. And man said, “Let us build great machines and destroy, lest others destroy us.” And man built great machines and the earth was fired with rage. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 7th day, man rested from his labors and the earth was still, for man no longer dwelt upon the earth. And it was good…

It is difficult to read “Last Chapter of Genesis” without sharing in its misanthropic attitude, especially when the current ecological crisis is considered alongside the myth of Eden. Not that its misanthropy is out of step with mainstream environmental consciousness. Even Laudato si is misanthropic, especially in its salutation, which bemoans the fact that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Francis leaves little doubt that the responsibility for environmental degradation rests squarely with humanity.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (one of America’s great misanthropes) was correct when he suggested that the only hope for a peaceful, verdant future is the possibility that human beings may still evolve out of their highly-destructive hyper intelligence. In his view, this means regressing (or is it progressing?) into a species of comparatively unintelligent seal-like creatures, as his novel Galápagos so brilliantly suggests. But even this participates in the Christian aversion to nature that Campbell identifies, for Vonnegut’s story exploits an antagonism between humanity and nature that can only be resolved when one or the other is purged from existence. Rather than deepening this antagonism, we need to develop a synthesis between culture and nature. It will only be when we move beyond the sort of dualistic thinking that Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki, whom Campbell quotes in The Power of Myth, characterized as “God against man, man against God, man against nature, nature against man, nature against God, God against nature” that we will begin to come to terms with how thoroughly we are invested in the natural world.

It’s unfortunate that western attitudes toward nature continues to be shaped so powerfully by Christian myth. So long as people think of nature as a “gift” from God that is now “at our disposal” (and here Francis seems to fall into the ideological trap of “ownership” that he criticizes in so many of his other writings), we are unlikely to experience the behavioral revolution that our ecological crisis demands. In the meantime, we should seize ground wherever we can. If Christian thinking insists upon dominion over nature, let’s commit to a wise and noble dominion. We can then hope that the sort of responsible stewardship urged by The Spectator so many decades ago will serve as a catalyst toward the deeper work that remains to be done.

Comments closed

The Year of Ecological Thinking

The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.

Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had even arrived. My concept of desert landscapes owed more to illustrated stories of Moses wandering the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust, than it did to any actually existing desert. My imagined deserts were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.

America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But what surprised me most were the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.

The same can be said for deserts around the world. They too are alive. Earlier this year I drove through a portion of the Arabian Desert on my way from Dubai, where I currently live, to Muscat, the capital of Oman. The landscape between these cities is marked by shifting dunes and dark-rocked mountains that cut through the sand, yet even here the earth shows signs of life. My two young sons, looking in confusion from the backseat, didn’t believe me when I told them we were in the desert. They couldn’t see it any better than I could when I first encountered it back in 2002.

It seems to me that this condition of being unable to recognize the desert for what it is is a symptom of ecological know-nothingness . I have lived my life content in ecological ignorance, and while I’ve learned to see the desert through the flora, I cannot name a single one of those plants, let alone explain their relationship to each other and the land from which they grow. They are a blur, an impression.

We are approaching the end of a year that has seen record high temperatures around the world, the earth’s biodiversity is in collapse, the United States has elected a man to high office who believes climate change is a hoax, and I can’t identify the tree outside my window.

An acquaintance of mine suggested that rather than make a New Year’s resolution, we would be better served by committing to a “theme” for the year, the idea being that a theme offers a more nuanced, expansive way to affect change than a resolution. A theme. Something around which to organize our thoughts and actions. I like this idea, so I choose for myself the theme of “ecology.”

I want to think of ecology broadly, as encompassing what Félix Guattari calls the “three ecologies”: natural ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology. He shows how these ecological registers come to bear on each other; when one of them falls out of balance, the others follow. In other words, the three ecologies are integral parts of a larger ecosystem, which speaks to my earlier point about ecological know-nothingness. Being blind to the desert is to be blind to much more, including ourselves.

Throughout his ecological writing, Gary Snyder stresses the importance of developing an intimacy with our surroundings, including learning the names of the plants that grow around us. This means looking closely and accounting for what’s there, noting the details and the subtle variations that occur over space and time. This means staying put and watching where we step.

Knowing our neighbors’ names may be the beginning of basic civility, but it’s also — at a deeper level — the beginning of responsible coexistence, which is necessarily bound up in some degree of self-knowledge. To watch where we step is to look at our own feet. I am writing this from my balcony in Dubai, approximately one kilometer from the Persian Gulf. It is December 27, 2016. The weather is mild. I am looking at a tree. It’s a mature date palm, its fronds erect and in excellent health.

There is too much at stake at this critical juncture to continue in ecological ignorance. This is true for the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. But it’s also true for human sociability, for the stability of our communities, for our bodies and our minds. If there is any hope of avoiding the worst of our accelerating ecological crisis, it very well may depend upon our learning to see clearly what surrounds us every day.

Comments closed