Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Entomology



I've been doing a lot of clearing out, packing up, and throwing away lately. This takes a certain physical toll, obviously. Heaving crates in and out of cars and and up and down stairs in the heat and dust is definitely a job for a younger man, and I find I tire more easily than I used to. But it has also been emotionally exhausting. Unexpectedly so, although I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising. Our children are moving out of the family home, which is as it should be, but the imminence of an "empty nest" does draw your attention to the accumulated stuff of 25 years of family life, which fills a house several times over with a compacted tangle of memories and associations that is, at the same time, a precious legacy and a substantial obstacle to moving on. You know that you shouldn't and can't keep all that stuff for ever, but dealing with it requires a degree of ruthless unsentimentality which is hard to summon up in sustained doses. In fact, that effort is actually far more exhausting than humping the dusty boxes down to Oxfam and the Recycling Centre.

An attachment to inanimate objects is a natural human tendency, but one which can get out of hand. I accept that I have what we might call an advanced tolerance for clutter, though not to a pathological level. Mind you, it is curious, isn't it, how the opposite tendency – to continually discard stuff as if it were toxic – is not popularly regarded as a bad thing? Hoarding and a fear of clutter and disorder are doubtless two sides of the same neurotic coin, but I'm not aware of any TV programmes dedicated to filling the anaemically-minimalist houses of the super-hip with remedial clutter. That could be fun to watch, though, I reckon. Oh, come on, just a couple of piles of books over there, where's the harm? And, hey, why not leave the washed-up dishes on the draining board for a couple of days? You're only going to use them again, after all... And I want to see that pair of socks on the banister still there when we come back next week! We could call it How Sterile is Your House? or maybe Does Anyone Really Live Here?

I suppose the truest test of emotional steel, though, is when it comes to dealing with your own sentimental objects, especially those things you have kept close by you for most of your life. I had a dramatic illustration of this just recently.


A very long time ago, in my pre-teen years, I was a keen collector of moths. A teacher at my primary school was a serious amateur entomologist and palaeontologist and, spotting my love of natural history, he turned me on to both hobbies. For a few years, I was a full-on moth-nut. I'd sling a lightbulb and white sheet over the washing line, and net anything that stumbled drunkenly into my trap. With the guidance of books from the library I constructed my own entomologist's kit; a net from a coat hanger and a bamboo cane, a killing bottle from a ground-glass jar with ammonia-soaked plaster in the bottom, a relaxing tin from a tupperware box, setting boards from balsa sheet and tracing paper, and so on. Like the naturalist-collectors of the Edwardian period, who shot birds out of the sky and skinned them to get a proper look at their plumage, I was slaughtering and preserving the very things I purported to admire. My generation may have been the last not to see the inherent contradiction, though the hands-on skills in miniature taxidermy and species identification we developed in the process were not negligible. We were probably also the last 12-year-olds to be able to enter a High Street chemist, ask for a bottle of ether or ammonia ("For my killing bottle, mister!"), and walk out unaccompanied by the police or social services.

The one item I did not make myself was a double-sided "clamshell" wooden box, about 18" x 12", bought mail-order from Watkins & Doncaster – still in business after 140 years! – in which my collection was kept. Despite giving up the hobby in my teen years, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of one of those paths not taken, which say as much about us and who we are as the paths we did choose – and it has followed me loyally as part of my material entourage over the years. However, until a few weeks ago, I hadn't actually opened it for decades.

Yikes. It seems my skills at preservation, or the air-tightness of the box were not quite as good as claimed. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, and I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the rich metaphor I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I heaved the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre that afternoon.

I suppose a proper artist would have made something more of this, though goodness knows what. Certainly more than a thinly-veiled blog-post about the piercing sadness of throwing out your children's old toys. Although... Being of an inveterate post-war waste-not-want-not stripe, I did keep some of the tiny, beautifully hand-written labels – annotated with species, date and place of capture – removed from the delicate pins of a small, antique collection of butterflies I'd acquired to augment my collection. It struck me that, hmm, with a bit of scanning, there might be the germ of a photo-collage project there, maybe even a little artist's book...


8 comments:

Thomas Rink said...

The blessings of childhood! To immerse yourself totally and passionately into a hobby and become a 12-year-old expert in some small island within science ... You said that your teacher inspired you to try *both* hobbies - were you also into palaeontology?

Best, Thomas

PS: Today I asked my 8-year-old how it was at school. Great, was his answer. What in particular? Well, he found a big spider on the schoolyard ...

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Yes indeed, the intensity of it can be very sweet. And, yes, I collected fossils, too, and still do in a casual way. I love to wander along Charmouth beach, or pick through the rocks in a quarry, hoping for a specimen worth taking home. My son became very interested in dinosaurs (I mean *seriously* interested), and so we had some happy times on the beaches of the Isle of Wight, looking at the dinosaur footprints and hoping for a lucky find.

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike,

that's very interesting - when I was 12 years old, I was fully into fossils and minerals. Nowadays, when I'm roaming abandoned coal mining sites for my photographic projects, I still keep an eye on the ground for a chance find. Fossils of those huge plants from the Carbon age forests are not that seldom; recently I found a piece of fossilized bark from a giant horsetail.
My younger son is a Dinosaur nut, too. We've been visiting the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt three times upon his request. I remember one visit when we lost him (he was 4 years old); after a frantic search we found him in front of a Triceratops sceleton, where he explained the specimen to a group of grown-up visitors.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

I've never had the opportunity to pick over a coal spoil heap -- some of those Carboniferous plant fossils are beautiful. I do know a secret spot in mid-Wales, where the farmer allowed us to pick over his quarry where Ordovician trilobites are quite common, very occasionally in "museum quality" condition.

Actually, I always dreaded visiting Lyme Regis and actually finding a potential ichthyosaur in the cliff -- what on earth would you do?? Ammonites that fit nicely in a pocket are far better! Still looking for the perfect one, though...

The sad thing is these enthusiasms wear off... Probably just as well, or there would be a dramatic over-supply of palaeontologists, etc. But the residual benefits are very real (unlike, say, a couch-potato obsession with football).

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike,

to find a trilobite was an unfulfilled dream of my childhood. I always found them to be fascinating creatures - my parents had an illustrated "natural history" book, and I remember poring over my favourite picture, a dioramic illustration of the Cambrian ocean. Some years ago, I purchased a small specimen of Elrathia kingi in the shop of the museum over in M√ľnster. Probably a compensation for early childhood frustration ...

The coal spoil heaps here which would be interesting to go for fossils are commonly off-limits - those spoil-sports (no pun intended) claim that they are dangerous. The accessible ones are usually grown over, but one might strike lucky in the holes left by uprooted trees.

I agree that this particular enthusiasm might wear off - but I believe that the fantasy, imagination and the curiosity which kindled those childhood hobbies are character traits which will be yours for a lifetime. And, of course, the accumulated physical remains ;^)

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Well, if you ever find yourself in the neighbourhood of Llandrindod Wells, I'll give you the co-ordinates! Otherwise, Morocco seems to be the place to go...

Mike

Martin Hodges said...

It's tough, I know, Mike. Our daughter moved out shortly after her 21st birthday. I'm typing this in what was, for a brief spell, her bedroom. Now it's my broom cupboard. We have other cupboards still packed with boxes of her childhood drawings and school projects. And I'm starting all over again with the grandchildren. Thank goodness for digitisation!

Mike C. said...

Martin,

I proceed with caution, not least because I never forgave my own parents for giving away most of the books I'd left behind after I'd first moved out... "We thought you didn't want them"...

Mike