The Sum of Quiet Abundance

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Insects are contagious, both in their profusion and appeal. In the cool hours of early spring they are few and far between, like solitary wanderers striking out across a desert. A roving ground beetle might rise into view, clambering with slow deliberateness over the dunes of bare earth. A bee occasionally drones across the March garden, its sound a solo when it will soon be orchestral. With the first flowers unfurled by the warming air insects multiply beyond all calculation, waking from a winter torpor or hatching out from safely-stowed eggs and pupas. The world fills with the most fruitful of things.

The lilac in the garden sways with more species of bees than I can count on my hands. The perfumed bundles, purple and drooping with the weight of their splendour, are an irresistible magnet in the brief span of most insect lives, like the bright lights of cities are to youth. They taste urgently, diving into the depths of what must be the insect equivalent of ecstasy: bees weighted with pollen grains, dusted and furred about their legs like they wore anklets of gold; the emerald sheen of chafers glinting in the sun, drunk on nectar and nuzzled into pillows of soft petals or moving woozily about the leaves. Time slows like a ceremony when I see this sweet ardour.

Around the lilac butterflies lose some of their timidity, having weighed up the gains of such riches and shed their natural caution to make the most of it. The delicately furred swallowtails, their cream-white wings ribbed with black veins and flecked with eyes like blue summer seas, almost touch my nose as I edge nearer. The proboscis works like a mechanical drill, plunging into the purple tubes in search of a sweet nectar seam. Carpenter bees swarm around the aquilegia; despite their size and heavy flight, they hover without being awkward, drawing shy and lazy circles about the hanging lamps of rose, mauve and maroon flowers. On a walk a sea of baby grasshoppers part with my steps like waves before a boat, jumping as though one. And amidst this brash and brazen plenty hunting spiders lie in wait, sharing in the prosperity. Still and unseen behind a petal, the spiders await the inevitable moment when an insect strays to the chosen flower in its random and roaming way, poisoning their prey into paralysis.

Each afternoon a hush descends on the village with siesta, when farmers draw curtains against the sharp mountain light and birds relinquish their songs until evening. Even the dogs curl quietly into the shadows cast by trees. But it’s a surface hush that I’m aware of, swimming in the foreground of my consciousness – a silence that is neat and obvious. At the edge of the world is a murmur, the thrumming cadence of untold other lives, small and often inconspicuous affairs. The insect song drones throughout the hours, like the heat haze that wraps itself about the day. I listen in – perhaps tuning in would be more accurate, like it were a radio signal, fainter and more distant than birdsong and machinery, nearly out of range in the ebbing afternoon. But as I still myself it clears, focusing into the notes of a complex, creaturely music, as varied as their kinds.

There are few things as numerous as insects. About a million species have been discovered, named and described, and each year more of them are found throughout the world. Their number is greater than all other known fauna put together, comprising perhaps as much as 80% of the animal species present on the planet, an abundant sum whose total weight would easily dwarf the biomass of man. Whether it’s mosquitoes rising from warming ponds, a trail of ants sending intricate signals with a touch of their antennae or the entrancing work of butterflies opening for the first time to fill their fragile wings with blood, building them up into weightless scaffolds of flight, insects are about us at any moment in numbers beyond our knowing, in water, in earth, in air. But despite their achievement, their pervasive presence across the planet, insects are as vulnerable to threats as the less numerous mammals and birds. In recent years the mass die-off of bees has shown us how fragile abundance and diversity can be. Colony collapse disorder has decimated bees throughout Europe and North America, putting at risk an insect crucial to crop pollination and the health of plant communities. Amongst a litany of probable causes, the intensive use of pesticides and diminishing numbers of wildflowers due to habitat loss are high on the list. There is no safety, necessarily, to be found in numbers.

When everything seems still I listen for the buzz and the hum, the murmur of a million things. Across the sunlit hills and meadows, the rain-soaked garden and plain, this chorus of trilling and clicking leads to some of the most commonplace and charismatic creatures about us, the countless minor lives burnished with a brief beauty, blazing through the afternoons with no time to live any other way. And while spring pulls us into summer, the quiet is more song than silence, abundant, rich and full.

34 thoughts on “The Sum of Quiet Abundance

  1. Outstanding photos, Julian – I think the dragonfly is my favorite. Thanks for introducing and documenting this beautiful macrocosmos, one that is usually out of reach when living in a big city.

    1. Thanks, Pablo! Great to hear from you, and I’m delighted you enjoyed the post. Cities often shelter a wide range of wildlife but I’m blessed to be able to walk out the door into such profusion here. Hope you’re well!

  2. Beautiful description of those sounds you can hear only when it is absolutely quiet – an unfortunately rare experience in so many places. I think all cultures should observe a siesta in hot or cold weather. We have lost the ability to rest and recharge. The images are lovely and a testament to your patient observations. (I’m choosing the caterpillar as a favourite.)

    1. Thanks, Cindy. That silence is increasingly elusive, even here, it saddens me to say. But when it’s found, it’s one of the richest soundscapes that I know of. A visitor from Canada who once visited us couldn’t believe that people had siestas in this part of the world; he said – “If we don’t need them in Canada then why should they have them here?” Cultural traditions (off all hues) are some of the hardest to see beyond…

      The caterpillar is a favourite of mine as well! Thanks for the kind words and hope you’re well, my friend.

  3. Wonderful post, Julian. Beautiful writing… and such a treat to feast the eyes on the vivid, intense insect world you’ve captured in your photos. It’s great to share in your experience of watching swallowtails – I dream of seeing one for real one day. Lots of drama in your photos too – the comma and the ambushing spider – and the general dazzle of micro-life!

    Your words (so much wonderful imagery) capture perfectly that gradual awakening of insect life towards abundance – and that special feeling that belongs to this time of year, which is so – almost subconsciously – bound up with the presence of insects. I totally recognise that experience of stilling the self and ‘tuning in’ to the background murmur – the sound of the awakening summer itself. ‘Time slows like a ceremony’ is such a wonderful way of describing that deep sense of focus on colour, sound and movement – a perfect summing up of the experience of insect watching.

    I’ve been sitting in our garden during the recent warm days here in England, and watching various bees visit the abundant flowers on our weigela. They have kept busy right up to the last rays of the day’s sunshine – and their vital presence is like an underlining of the working of the year. It’s truly scary to think of the threats they are under…

    Thanks again for a really absorbing read…

    Melanie

    1. Thanks for this marvellous comment, Melanie. Sorry it’s taken me a little while to reply, but work is keeping me away from the desk right now (which means I’m also late, but looking forward, to reading your own latest post!). I love your phrase, “the general dazzle of micro-life.” So true, so true. From the tiniest, humble beetle to the more easily rewarding swallowtails, there is a cast of colour that shimmers about insects like little else. They glint and glimmer, and their every move fascinates me. These last few days I’ve been watching a bundle of baby spiders looked over their mother, specks of gold that clamber and gleam about the web slung between lavender stems. There is often so much in small spaces.

      Just like you watching bees on the abundant flowers, I’ve been astonished each morning with their sheer number buzzing back and forth on the crowd of scarlet poppies that arrive each dawn in the meadow beside me. The petals fall after a few hours, and the bees seem to recognise this, making the most in an urgent and irrepressible way each day. Great to hear of your similar experiences, and I love the careful attention you bring with your words.

      So pleaseed you liked this post, Melanie. Many thanks for your kind and generous compliments. Enjoy the sun!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  4. Hi Julian: beautiful words, beautiful pictures. A fine reminder of the importance of looking closer at the world, and the beauty that repays close, uncritical observation.

    I’m reminded of that witty comment from the scientist JBS Haldane who, when asked what coul be concluded about the Creator from a study of creation, is reputed to have replied ‘an inordinte fondness for beetles’.

    best wishes

    Ian

    1. Thanks kindly for the compliments, Ian. Greatly appreciated, and I’m delighted you enjoyed the post. And thanks for the quote; although I’ve been aware of it for years, I never knew who’d said it, or, for that matter, whether it wasn’t a kind of urban myth sort of quote. Now you’ve put a name to a fine observation!

      Many thanks and best wishes,

      Julian

  5. “The murmur of millions.” Normally when we say something like this, it’s hyperbole.

    I love how you focus on something so many of us overlook, when in fact these creatures are so often what let us get the closest (whether we want that or not.) I can’t say I’m a huge fan of, say, mosquitoes, but YES, what they can teach us, YES what they give the world, yes to appreciating them through words and images.

    Thanks, Julian.

    1. It’s funny, but that’s what I love about your work! How you pick out the wonder from the ordinary, finding the seams of riches within. I can’t say that I’m a big fan of mosquitoes either, to be honest, but when I see bats drop from the eves come dusk I suspect they see them in a very different light! I try to keep that in mind when I come indoors scratching and itching…though it doesn’t always work!

      Many thanks, Emily, for your lovely words, as usual.

  6. My wife has left the purple sprouting broccoli to go to flower in the garden, as the blossoms attract hoverflies which eat aphids. How can we, disconnected as we are, fail to appreciate the complex inter-dependencies that exist in the insect world?
    There’s a beautiful entry in Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne where he describes swallows feeding: “When a fly is taken a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case; but the motion of the mandibles are too quick for the eye.” Now that is a form of natural obvservation of which I am in awe. No mosquitoes, no swallows.

    1. The Nature History of Selborne is one of my favourite books. I only read it a couple of summers ago, but it was an experience of great joy and amazement at the connections White was making all that time ago, many of which illuminated for me certain aspects of behaviour that I see in species around me today. It has spanned many ages, and still feels as fresh as a spring dawn. Thanks for this fine example of the “complex inter-dependencies,” Ian. There is much to be in awe of, Ian, which is one of the reasons your writing and observations speak to me. Thanks for stopping by with your comment, and looking forward to reading your work in the upcoming issue of EarthLines.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  7. What gorgeous exotic-looking insects you have in your neck of the woods Julian. The butterflies are wonderful. There is something extra special about that image of the comma butterfly’s colors against the lilac blooms. Utterly beautiful.

    1. Thanks kindly, Amy-Lynn, and great to hear from you! So pleased you liked this eclectic collection from around these parts. It never fails to surprise me, each spring and summer, the brilliance and diversity of insect life, and the thrill of turning a leaf to find something new. Hope all is well with you out on the coast!

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  8. Hi Julian. Sorry to arrive late to the party, as always. I’m glad to have finally had time to sit and enjoy this. Reading your work is always such a lovely mental escape from the day to day of work.
    This is a gorgeous post, both in images and in words. I’ve only recently come to truly appreciate the wonder of insects. Here in Manitoba, insects usually refer to either mosquitoes, fishflies or blackflies and its rarely in a positive light. While I will admit to getting a little frantic when surrounded by a cloud of biting insects, I still am awed by their sheer numbers. Of course, there are plenty of other species that don’t negatively affect my life that I find fascinating.
    Thanks for tuning us into this colourful world full of amazing variety and adaptations.

    1. Heather, no such thing as arriving late here in my book!That you arrive at all is always a honour, especially when you grace the posts with your fine observations and experience gathered from careful time in the wilds. Insects are a relatively recent interest of mine as well, noticed when I began trying to pay closer attention to what kinds of wildlife was close to me or the house. The garden alone is a living museum of amazing species. But yes, the dreaded mosquito does garner a lot of the headlines, not surprisingly! Thanks for kind compliments and hope you’re well, my friend.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  9. To anyone who would say that there are no such things as miracles, I would say, read this post. Marvel at the intricacies of life you can see in these photographs. Marvel at the wonders and interdependencies that are so beautifully described. Thank you for another beautiful journey through your world.

    1. It’s an honour to read this comment of yours, Janet. It really is. Thanks ever so much for the marvel of your attention and illuminating thoughts.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  10. I wish I could love insects. Their prehistoric grace, their dragon beauty…they can be tiny sparks of wonder.

    I read you post – feeling guily and less of a person, not being able to appreciate the insect world. Your beautiful words speak of gratitude and acceptance of this tiny world, of nature’s endless wit – I ate your phrases up. And I felt gratitude as well – that I was in my apartment and the insects were outside!

    1. You may not be the world’s biggest fan of insects, Aubrey, but you spin a fine web of words that do them justice all the same!

      Many thanks for the lovely comment and hope you’re well,
      Julian

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