Does an insect know what ‘wild’ means?

IMG_5326It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”.  Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand.  We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention?  Do they even understand what ‘wild means’?  And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.

Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of  purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea.  Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.

Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink.  We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.

This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today.  Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.

We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things.  I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.

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