Suppose you were looking through a telescope and this is what you saw flitting through a tropical forest with shimmering wings and a noble pair of antennae held as proudly as the antlers of a 15-point stag. What imagined beast could be stranger than this unicorn-like fly, its diaphanous wings edged with a spider-silk fringe, its legs kinked as if to pounce, and a life history stranger than that of the phoenix? This is a gall midge with a body of only a couple of millimetres, and it would have developed inside a bump or thickening on its host plant that its own irritating presence had produced. I caught this one in birch woodland but since I can’t find a key to the 653 British species in the family, all I know about it is that our paths crossed.
One of my favourite books is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which is, among other things, an invitation to pay attention to what is near at hand. He slyly wrote, “I have travelled a good deal in Concord; …”, making it clear that he was not writing a travel book, but an anti-travel book. He was interested in what is local and immediate, what is accessible to anyone who cares to look for it. Walden is full of inconsequential matters like who his neighbours were and what people shouted out to him as he was weeding his bean patch, of the woodchucks that ate his bean plants in the summer and his potato stores in the winter, though he grudged them neither and having tasted one, preferred to do without such meat. He writes of how he could tell when visitors had been to his cabin in his absence by bent twigs or flowers dropped some distance away, or a lingering pipe smell. A whole chapter on the characteristics and taste of the different ponds nearby, or on the animals living nearby or within his cabin; whatever the topic he draws from the particular to the general in his own quirky and humorous, but devastating way. And I like his finishing lines: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. The sun is but the morning star.”
As part of my devotion to the Year of the Fly, I have been reading Life of the Fly by Thoreau’s longer-lived contemporary J. Henri Fabre. Here the intent is more obvious, but a similar approach; instead of expeditions to the tropics, Fabre studied the insects outside his backdoor, the behaviour of individual insects of a particular species and how they responded to his problematic interventions. He studied the putrefaction of blow flies and flesh flies on carrion brought to him by children for the reward of a penny, teasing them (the flies) with different kinds of barrier to see which ones they could circumvent and testing the maggots to see how far they would tunnel through soil to find a dark place to pupate.
Wordsworth celebrated the constraint of the sonnet in a sonnet that begins “Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room” with the lines:
“Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:”
For each of these writers, it is the self-imposed restriction of attention that provides their inspiration. Limitation is their gall, a tiny fragment of the world from which something unexpected and fantastic emerges.