The Joys of Limitation

Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoznobcenus L.). B.

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin Bodd.).

Blackcap (Sylvia a. atricapilla L.).

Whitethroat (Sylvia c. communis Latham). B.

Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia c. curruca L.).

— from  R.M. Lockley, List of Birds Recorded at Skokholm 1927-1940


On one of my many aborted attempts to produce art rather than just look at it, I misguidedly signed up for a clay modelling workshop. It was one of those open format affairs where you are supposed to “explore your creativity” with minimal guidance which means that one thing leads to another and then, you know, suddenly you find yourself a million intellectual miles away. Or, in my case, pondering about gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Anyhow, one of the first exploratory assignments was about realising the importance of texture and so I ventured out to the back garden of the place – a beautiful Victorian purpose-built art school with large bay windows – and went on to visit my favourite tree there thinking that an impression of oak’s bark would be just the thing. When I was about to apply my lump of clay to the side of the tree, I stopped just in time to avoid squashing a beautiful spider. I tried to find another spot but there was yet another spider. Tried again, found a earwig. Yet another sort of earwig. A moth. Yet another moth. A beetle. A number of unremarkable bugs bereft of a household name. I decided there and then that my art wasn’t worth an insect’s life. I stayed there a few moments more gazing at the tree trunk and getting sidetracked once again by imagining how interesting it would be to catalogue all the insects found in one oak tree at more or less eye level. Ah, the possibilities which close, patient observation holds, I thought, while doubting the wisdom of free range artistic activities. I could even print the list of insects on an A3 poster and call it art – or so I gather from what little contemporary art theory I have read.

This episode came back to me as I was reading Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap and learned about Richard Deakin, a doctor who in 1855 wrote a sizeable book on the flora found exclusively growing in between the stones of the Colosseum in Rome. I apologize in advance for the narcissistic statement but there is great joy in finding somewhat kindred souls in past centuries. In this century even. Sjoberg is an entomologist who lives in an island off the coast of Stockholm and he collects and studies hoverflies. The meandering reflections on life and nature in The Fly Trap are loosely connected to the parallel narrative of Sjöberg’s research into the life of a minor Swedish entomologist, René Malaise, who lead a wondrous life and ended up publishing discredited theories at his own expense and being duped by art dealers who helped amass his collection of mostly fake Old Masters –  he also invented the said Fly Trap of the title. Sjöberg blames his interest in this person to his “attraction to losers” but, since I suffer from a similar condition, I think my description of “secondary characters that make the story more interesting even if they don’t further the plot” more illustrative as well as more charitable. As Sjöberg ended up buying a fake painting which had belonged to this adventurous scientist gone astray so I am the keeper of the tomb of a semi-famous book publisher no one cares about anymore. Sjöberg couldn’t bear to see the painting go to some foreign anonymous entity and I couldn’t bear to see the man’s grave destroyed for lack of payment. I’m sure there are more of us in the world – those possessed of an instinct for the preservation of the seemingly irrelevant.

The Fly Trap is an apology for limitation of both subject and geographical coverage as the only way to devote an undivided and profound attention to one’s surroundings and find some meaning in the process. I suspect it is also a means to ward off existential anxiety. I didn’t expect a natural history memoir to be full of graceful, melancholy wisdom (interspersed with a few belly laughs) but since finding the wonderful Letters from Skokholm – the subject of islands keeps popping up – I had been pondering on the joys of limitation already. In fact, on the very morning of the day I started reading The Fly Trap I had spent an unreasonable amount of time by the side of a road looking at a mullein bush which was crawling with copulating weevils and thinking how soothing would be to study the habits of this maligned species and wondering who the world authority on them is. You see, I can write this without flinching having read Sjöberg and knowing that risking being taken for a lunatic comes with the expression of a narrow interest. There is a memorable passage where he lists his dilatory manoeuvres to avoid answering the question “What are you doing there with a net?” without having to explain what a hoverfly is and why is he interested in them enough to wait patiently next to a drainage pipe. Thankfully I am living in England where natural history related eccentricities are par for the course.