Brotherly Love

“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.”
Erich Fromm

The most fundamental unit of life is a cell and we all have them. If you find nothing else in common with your fellow man, find that. Her cells, like yours, from two into multiple trillions. Cleaving and heaving and belching their way to tissue and organs and eyes and you and me.

But there is something more that connects us, isn’t there?

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
Spreading “ripples of kindness” throughout England, the Take Heart organization crochets pocket-sized hearts and leaves them about with notes saying “You are not alone.” Learn more.

Before humans understood the concepts of atoms, or species or a cellular interconnectedness or anything else that connects us, they had a concept of brotherly love and used surprisingly familiar words that we use today. Former Emperor and late-in-life Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote about a “nature akin to my own…”

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Marcus Aurelius’ concept of brotherhood, echoed in in his fellow Stoic Seneca’s pithy “if you wish to be loved, love,” was rooted in a fierce belief in the whole of things, a unity of which we are all part.

Is it our shared fragments of divinity? Our unknowable real mortality? We were born for cooperation? Are those the feelings of brotherly love?

“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love.” argued Erich Fromm in his sublime tract on the mellifluous shapes of love.

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbour as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness. If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

This unity, this feeling, is it something into which society can ebb and flow? Do we expand and contract our ability to love one another?

And if so, where are we now?

Hearts and cards frTake Heart organization.
Take Heart’s abundance of warmth, a reminder of love to the finder, a kindness that extends from the maker, the writer, the mailer, the placer of hearts and whoever is lucky enough to discover the little gift. Each act of love settles itself in the recipient. Learn more.

In Robert Putnam’s ground-bulldozing book from 2001, Bowling Alone, the Harvard sociologist studied civic engagement and social bonds relative to the erosion of social trust.

One of the central arguments of the book is that both civic engagement and organizational involvement experienced marked declines during the second half of the twentieth century. According to the best available evidence, these declines have continued uninterrupted. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer Americans are socializing through membership organizations.


[S]ocial trust has deteriorated further over the past twenty years as well. This continues to be explained in part by generational replacement […]. As more trusting generations have died out, they have been succeeded by less trusting youth cohorts, leaving America a less trusting society, year after year.

From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

If social capital is an uninvested asset, then not only do you not know your brother, but you also do not trust your brother.

Putnam continues:

In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of ‘social capital.’ By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.[…]Social capital refers to connects among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.

From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

It is this reciprocity and trustworthiness that James Baldwin summons in his 1964 essays calling for an awakening to the racial crisis besieging America: “If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

The same themes course through Baldwin’s earlier brilliance, Notes of a Native Son, which argued that we are bonded by even the darkest side of our nature:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a ‘new’ society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly ‘new’ society impossible to conceive.

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son

If we are bonded by our mutually endured and perpetuated horrors, we must, must, be part of their absolution.

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.

In the early 20th century the War-torn French government called on philosopher Simone Weil to expound on what was needed to rebuild a tattered society. “Every human being needs to have multiple roots,” argued Weil resolutely, “It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

The lack of roots, a society bifurcated by the ostensible differences of morality, leads not only to lack of integration but also to the further breakdown of society.

The antithesis of brotherly love.

In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human oneness. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

Then, how do we get back to this? How do we burrow to the core of who we are to find that commonality of being?

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
So many people loved, all from this little group, a #crochetarmy of unbeatable kindness. I found one of their hearts once. Bright like a ripe apple. I exhaled a breath I did not know I was holding, felt a breath of kiss I did not know I needed. Learn more and consider donating to their heartfelt cause.

According to the watchful eye of Rebecca Solnit, a chaser of narratives on the human social condition, humans do a unique thing in moments of disaster. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit admits in her touching work on humanity in times of disaster.1

The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell

The breakdown of separating structures allows some miasma of binding substance to flow and fill the cracks.

“We don’t even have a language for this emotion,” bemuses Solnit, “in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.

Could that emotion be the seed of brotherly love?

Solnit’s writing abounds with examples of care, protection and the kind of unadulterated generosity of which we imagine but never see.

Whatever that emotion is, joy in sorrow, a feeling of open-heartedness, however you feel it when our society breaks down and flows apart, hold it tight. Or when anything falls apart, atomizes into bits. Hold it safe.

As my voice reaches your inner ear over the internet and warms your cheeks let’s imagine together a human at-oneness.

The Flux of All Things

“Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. ... Nothing is whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still.”
Alan Lightman

I learned recently that ants never sleep. Never mind sleep, have you ever watched an ant? They never stop moving!

Of course, if they were to sleep, their bodies would be reviving and regenerating, much like ours. The body never rests, never sits still, even when it is sitting still.

Ants and humans. And so many other things. Unstill all of us.

Clare Millen's "The Quiet", acrylic on canvas.
“The Quiet” by Clare Millen a Cambridge-based painter. Millen’s work is primarily based on the light and movement of nature but captures the thingness – memory, longing, uncertainty – that humans so often impose on landscapes. Learn more.

I’ve written about the question of stillness, how to seek it, grab it, hold it. I never thought to question whether stillness was desirable.

This “never sitting still” is called flux. The flux of all things is the movement, the unsettling and undoing and redoing of all things.

To and from chaos and pattern, we turn in the ever-widening gyre.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

Yeats’s gyre, turned over itself in metaphor by Joan Didion in her essays on the undoing of America, smoothed over by Pema Chödrön in her advice on holding together, is something to be escaped and turned from, no? Stillness – and its henchmen: absolutes, control, pattern – is to be desired.

Or is it?

American poet Mary Oliver sought the stream, to be in the stream, specifically upstream. “May I stay forever in the stream” she wrote in her last published collection of essays.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

A connection to the eternal, not in the stream, but in the flux of the stream. For there we find the flux of all things.

Oliver continues:

Occasionally I lean forward and gaze into the water. The water of a pond is a mirror of roughness and honesty—it gives back not only my own gaze, but the nimbus of the world trailing into the pictures on all sides. The swallows, singing a little as they fly back and forth across the pond, are flying therefore over my shoulders and through my hair. A turtle passes slowly across the muddy bottom, touching my cheekbone. If at this moment I heard a clock ticking, would I remember what it was, what it signified?

From Mary Olivers’ Upstream

“The descent of an eighth of an inch in a mile is sufficient enough to produce a flow” Thoreau informs us in his contemplation of rivers and human life. “As things flow they circulate, and the ebb always balances the flow.”

A river is a natural metaphor for flux, for it is constantly moving, constantly flowing.

“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things-” echoed Thoreau’s compatriot and Transcendental kin, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson continues:

Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature

Emerson, a time-removed mentor to Oliver (and so many more), believed wading into such flux was to step into the deepest recesses of meaning in the universe.

Is there a connection to the eternal in the flux of all things?

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Open Space” by Clare Millen. Using a process of repeated application and scraping, Millen forms structures on the canvas. “I work in layers -” Millen articulates, “Building, scraping and scoring surfaces to expose the history of colour and surface I have laid down. I am led by what is revealed and work intuitively until I feel the piece is complete.” Learn more.
There is a reason I’m circling on themes of nature. Nature is the root of all flux. Nature is flux itself. We can shut the door to the ants and the rivers, but they continue and will continue to change, and so do we.

Grace Paley’s perfect sentiment on flux is entitled “Fear.”

I am afraid of nature
because of nature I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear.

From Grace Paley’s Begin Again: Collected Poems

Nature bellows out overwhelming, incapable flux that blows aside our pretense of control and whisks away our attempt at pattern.

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Big Sky” by Clare Millen. “I’m often defeated and have to walk away. However when a painting does work it is a deeply satisfying feeling – one that compels me to repeat the process again and again.”

I’ll never forget Oliver Sacks’ warm, generous memoir of treating patients with neuro-deficiencies in which he writes about a particular patient who could not form memory. When confronted with anything, rather than drawing from memory like we might, this patient constructed elaborate fantasies every few seconds.1

Sacks’ writes:

He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated or acknowledged, for an instant – there was, instead, his strange, delirious, quasi-coherence, as Mr. Thompson, with his ceaseless, unconscious, quick-fire inventions continually improvised a world around him – an Arabian Nights world, a phantasmagoria, a dream, of ever-changing people, figures, situations – continual kaleidoscopic mutations and transformations.

For Mr Thompson, however, it was not a tissue of ever-changing, evanescent fancies and illusion, but a wholly normal, stable and factual world. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing the matter.

From Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

What happens when we root our self in a reality that erodes a moment later? We form new realities. Again and again until the mental machine that erects those realities becomes worn and threadbare.

There is great uncertainty in flux. There is discombobulating uncertainty in the flux of all things. An uncertainty that splits us apart in its own way, cleaves us down the middle and begs us reshape!

“Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still…”

Everything is in flux, and everything, as imagined by physicist Alan Lightman, means our space, time, composition, morality and everything else we can imagine. “If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.”2 Therefore, the only absolute is infinity itself, is the eternal. To some it is that unknowable divine.

Is that what Oliver sought in the stream?

On his back on a boat in one of the many dark, secretive and quiet Maine coastal inlets, Lightman – his name never more fitting – finds some inkling of this eternal:

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.

From Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Clare Millen's "Shore Line", acrylic on canvas. © Clare Millen
“Shore Line” by Clare Millen. The flux involved in making the paintings is reflected in the final canvas. The layers and depths flow before our gaze reflecting Millen’s artistic process and nature itself. Learn more.
Maybe the idea of flux appeals to these individuals because they approach it from stillness. Oliver steps into the stream from the bank, Thoreau looks upon a river in a meditative hour. Lightman looks at the stars from a boat. They all eventually turn away and return home to a more controlled environment, to stillness.

The lightness we feel if we gaze upon flux – in the stars, a river, or whatever – is short-lived if we do not simultaneously open our hearts that we are not only in a state of flux, but we are the flux.

The infinite expanse of sky is in us as well.

I have changed from the beginning of this post. Cells have died, regrown, thoughts formed, held then vanished. I am someone who has written this post as you are now someone who has read it.

I want to return to Yeats because his grasp of human triumph and frailty is unique. He imagines his future self, regretful yet triumphant, sorrowful but content.

A celebration of the complexity of being human;
Although I shelter from the rain
Under a broken tree
My chair was nearest to the fire
In every company
That talked of love or politics,
Ere Time transfigured me.

Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny,
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.

There’s not a woman turns her face
Upon a broken tree,
And yet the beauties that I loved
Are in my memory;
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.

From William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

Throw yourself into the stream, into the world, into a line of ants, into the universe. It will be held in flux.

Paying Attention to Insects

“It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated when watching what was going on in the natural world.”
David Attenborough

Behold the insect!

Its beauty and horribleness. Its mullioned thorax and prehensile leg joints. Its rapacious strength and six-dimensional speed. Its ocular multiplex and hive mentality.

Ladybug, by Ellen Vrana for "Paying Attention Insects" on The Examined Life.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo begged that we pay attention to the small lest we ignore the large in ourselves. Insects are small beings. Sentient beings.

Not too sentient (although are we smart enough to know how smart they are?) but some creation that formed to have eyes, legs, arms, scant nervous systems and an enviable talent for species survival.

A cluster of ladybugs is called a loveliness.

Insects are demonstrably other, not human in any way.

And yet, we can have empathy for them, even kinship.

Common Red Damselfly by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
A common red damselfly by nature photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

“When I was 11 years old,” David Attenborough reminisced in his enchanting memoirs, “It wasn’t unusual for a boy of my age to get on a bicycle, ride off into the countryside and spend a day away from home. … Just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath is exploring. It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated.”

You are never more than five feet from a spider.

I’m not advocating we all notice insects all the time.

But rather that we awaken and nurture the part of us that wants to pay attention to insects. Our child self, our sense of wonder.

Scientifically, naturalistically, creatively, compassionately, we should reach across that which divides us and pay attention to insects.

Their variation, their volume, their sheer utility. The collective mind, the non-language language. The knowledge acquired in lifespans measured in eaten leaves and summited grass blades.

I’ve gathered a few glorious examples. Enjoy!

Henry David Thoreau and the Ants

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” wrote one of the world’s greatest nature writers, “Not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Thoreau continues:

One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.

The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other’s embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noon-day prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out.

From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Gerald Durrell and the Lacewing Flies

Has anyone noticed insects more delightfully than Durrell? As a child growing up (gloriously under-parented) on the island of Corfu, Durrell nurtured a mind that devoted a lifetime of noticing nature and saying Pay attention!

I found a lacewing-fly on the roses and watched her as she climbed about the leaves, admiring her beautiful, fragile wings like green glass, and her enormous liquid golden eyes. Presently she stopped on the surface of a rose-leaf and lowered the tip of her abdomen. She remained like that for a moment and then raised her tail, and from it, to my astonishment, rose a slender thread, like a pale hair. Then, on the very tip of this stalk, appeared egg. The female had a rest, and then repeated the performance until the surface of the rose-leaf looked as though it was covered with a forest of tiny club moss. The laying over, the female rippled her antennae briefly and flew off in a mist of green gauze wings.

From Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

Emma Mitchell and the Ladybug

Like others who have traipsed about to find stillness within, British writer and nature collector Emma Mitchell believes in movement there is blessing. But not just movement – abandonment of the dark, thudding muck that has been her emotional headspace.

The sun has opened their petal-like scales, forming shapes like miniature dried sunflowers. As I examine them there’s small glimmer of red in my vision and at first I mistake it for a retinal flash caused by bending down too quickly, but it persists and looking more closely I realize that there are ladybirds in the centre of many of the rosettes. In one of them five are nestled, motionless and in the torpor of hibernation. The centres of the seed heads are hairy, trapping air and forming a layer of insulation, preventing frost from penetrating and providing protection for the ladybirds when the temperature drops on clear nights. There is a reason that ladybirds gather together in groups to overwinter. If a ladybird is attacked by a bird or other predator on a day when it is active it will produce a yellowish fluid from its leg joints called, rather gothically, ‘reflex blood’. It is rich in alkaloids and is bitter and foul tasting to birds. Along with its bright coloration, this response is an effective deterrent, and after attempting to eat their first ladybird and receiving a beak full of acrid toxins most birds will avoid them.

During winter when their usual aphid or scale-insect food is not available and temperatures drop too low to permit activity, ladybirds must hibernate in order to survive. The production of reflex blood costs energy that the ladybirds do not have to spare and so they no longer produce it in response to an attack between November and March. Instead, the ladybirds huddle together in a place where frost cannot reach them: between the needles of yew, in the curled-up desiccated leaves of beech or in the crook of a branch of wild rose. Should a robin or dunnock decide to chance a wintry ladybird snack, one of the group may be lost but the rest will remain, huddled together and looking at first glance like a rather large insect sporting the warning colours of red and black.

From Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us

Wolf spider by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
Wolf spider by nature photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

Charles Darwin and the Beetle

In 1831 Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist and an aspiring preacher when he was invited to accompany the HMS Beagle as the onboard naturalist. The trip lasted five years and his notes were later published as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin’s extremely detailed observations set the basis for his theory of evolution by natural selection published much later in The Origin of Species in 1859. I love how he retains a perfect scientist vibe even though he is clearly excited by what’s unravelling before him.

When we were at Bahia, an elater or beetle (Pyrophorus luminosus) seemed the most common luminous insect. The light in this case was also rendered more brilliant by irritation. I amused myself one by observing the springing powers of this insect, which have not, as it appears to me, been properly described. The elater, when placed on its back and preparing to spring, moved its head and thorax backwards so that the pectoral spine was drawn out, and rested on the edge of its sheath. The same backward movement being continued, the spine, by the full action of the muscles, was bent like a spring; and the insect at this moment rested on the extremity of its head and wing-cases. The effort being suddenly relaxed, the head and thorax flew up, and in consequence, the base of the wing-cases struck the supporting surface with such force, that the insect by the reaction was jerked upwards to the height of one or two inches. The projecting points of the thorax, and the sheath of the spine, served to steady the whole body during the spring. In the descriptions which I have read, sufficient stress does not appear to have been laid on the elasticity of the spine: so sudden a spring could not be the result of simple muscular contraction, without the aid of some mechanical contrivance.

From Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle

Annie Dillard and the Praying Mantis

Annie Dillard’s unparalleled “noticing of nature” is worthy of so much time, but for now we’ll settle for this slice of her Pulitzer Prize-winning writing, a spell-binding observation of nature and self at the most immediate, conscious level.

I have just learned to see praying mantis egg cases. Suddenly I see them everywhere; a tan oval of light catches my eye, or I notice a blob of thickness in a patch of slender weeds. As I write I can see the one I tied to the mock orange hedge outside my study window. It is over an inch long and shaped like a bell, or like the northern hemisphere of an egg cut through its equator. The full length of one of its long sides is affixed to a twig; the side that catches the light is perfectly flat. It has a dead straw, dead weed color, and a curious brittle texture, hard as varnish, but pitted minutely, like frozen foam. I carried it home this afternoon, holding it carefully by the twig, along with several others—they were light as air. I dropped one without missing it until I got home and made a count.

Within the week I’ve seen thirty or so of these egg cases in a rose-grown field on Tinker Mountain, and another thirty in weeds along Carvin’s Creek. One was on a twig of tiny dog-wood on the mud lawn of a newly built house. I think the mail-order houses sell them to gardeners at a dollar apiece. It beats praying, because each case contains between one hundred twenty-five to three hundred fifty eggs. If the eggs survive ants, woodpeckers, and mice—and most do—then you get the fun of seeing the new mantises hatch, and the smug feeling of knowing, all summer long, that they’re out there in your garden devouring gruesome numbers of fellow insects all nice and organically. When a mantis has crunched up the last shred of its victim, it cleans its smooth green face like a cat.

From Annie Dillard’s The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Grace Paley and the Bee

Poet Grace Paley said a beautiful thing once; she avoided nature because it reminded her of mortality. Except she didn’t avoid nature entirely because she noticed the bee. May we all have such courage.

A bee!
drowning in
a wild rose
flat on its
round back
too young to
use love for
health and

From Grace Paley Begin Again, Collected Poems

When we observe insects – or rather when we nurture the part of us that longs to observe insects – one must understand they are not happening to us.

They simply are and we are, coincidentally.

Ant species have more 16% more biomass than human species.

I think they reflect something hidden in us.

Buff tip of a camouflaged moth by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
Buff tip of a camouflaged moth. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

Imagine an insect. Now imagine that insect on its back in water struggling to right itself.

Did your feelings shift? Even a bit?

A group of cockroaches is called an intrusion.

What if I told you it was a bee? A spider? A ladybug?

If your emotions shift, bad or good, you are tapping into your umwelten, an ability to think what the animal is thinking. That suspension of self is the height of empathy even if we cannot know what the insect is thinking, we try to understand.

Insects are something else. This utterly different creature. Get lost in the insect and his doings.

He is an insect. Pay attention!