Pokémon, Animism, and Conservation

Creatures, animism, weird catchy melodies, perhaps all my interests can be traced down to playing Pokémon in the 90s (admittedly, also in the 2000s). Endlessly. And when I wasn’t playing, I was filled with this special desire to return to that creaturely world. To be with these hybrid shapeshifters and build relationships with them — something a lot harder to do with wild creatures.

I never gave my relationship with Pokémon much thought until I started becoming aware of species extinctions and conservation issues. I encountered this article, titled:

Why conservationists should heed Pokémon

Woah. It raises interesting points. Kids have no problem naming and cataloguing imaginary creatures in the game, yet can often hardly name any species in their ‘real world’ surroundings. What can conservationists learn from this game, in order to make people care more about the real creatures?

I’d like to look at it from a different angle. In order to make people care about real creatures, it’s perhaps not super productive to focus on the naming and cataloguing aspects ((boring) taxonomy!). What is arguably a lot more captivating, is to learn about them as persons: as active, aware, dynamic, sensing and responding agents. This is what’s Pokémon does. These imaginary creatures have personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and respond to other Pokémon, sometimes in surprising ways. Most of the time you can rely on them, but sometimes they have a mind of their own, as they dismiss your orders. Spend enough time with the game, and you really get to know them and their quirks.

Turns out that Pokémon has some deeper links with animist thinking. The (Japanese) game incorporates some aspects of Japanese folkloric creatures and monsters: the yōkai, supernatural beings, often featured in folktales, literature, woodblock prints and beyond. Both types of creatures are shapeshifters, hybrid or human-like, evocative. For mind-blowing comparisons between Pokémon and yōkai, please have a peek here.

Fungal hybrid of my imagination. Excerpt from If I grow up … who should I become? (2019)

Animist views and imaginations could be dismissed as anthropomorphic, yet the more we learn (scientifically) about other creatures, the more we uncover hidden aspects about the inner worlds and intelligence of, say, insects. The tiniest beings do things we usually only associate with humans. They can learn new tasks, make decisions, perform worse after sleep deprivation, and do many more things that make them a little more relatable. As ethologist Frans de Waal asks: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Nonhuman lives are richer in many ways than what we give them credit for. Bees and ants, for example, may dream during sleep. Anthropomorphisms are not necessarily bad. They can help us to relate and view others with a generous eye. For the shapeshifter-theme specifically, we can think about real-life examples of insect metamorphosis, or simply about personal transformations that happen literally and metaphorically, for humans and nonhumans alike. Nothing and no-one is ever truly static. Even a rock is in motion as it slowly erodes over millions of years. One entity causes another one to move. It is from this perspective that I’d like to consider the liveliness of creatures and even ‘inanimate objects’, and appreciate folklore themes where objects suddenly come to live, such as the Japanese Tsukumogami and Pokémon like Magnemite (a magnet creature) and Graveler (a rock/gravel creature).

Finally, it’s not just us humans that play games. Bumblebees can learn to play a ball game:

(Source: Queen Mary University of London (QMUL)


For more on shapeshifters in folklore and nature I recommend the book Becoming Animal (2010) by David Abram.

Need No Sustenance: Just Cicada Music and Apple Scents

A wish for transcending bodily needs?

Throughout history, humans have had interesting ideas about peoples that don’t need food to live.
They can just live off the scent of apples, or music.

just place the apple near your face, and sniff it.

just place the apple near your face, and sniff it.

This image comes from the fantastical travel stories of Jean Mandeville, which first circulated between 1357 and 1371. The first known edition is French; this is a Spanish edition. He claimed to really have encountered these apple-sniffing people, somewhere far, far away.

The cicada has also been a figure for thinking about living off music rather than food.

backyard cicada on silverbeet, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Socrates told a ‘functional myth’ about cicadas that explained observed characteristics, like their endless humming and buzzing, and apparent lack of any need for nourishment. I quote from Phaedrus, a dialogue between Plato and Socrates:

“The story is that once upon a time these creatures were men —men of an age before there are any Muses— and that when the latter came into the world, and music made its appearance, some of the people of those days were so thrilled with pleasure that they went on singing and quite forgot to eat and drink until they actually died without noticing it. From them in due course sprang the race of cicadas, to which the Muses have granted the boon of needing no sustenance right from their birth, but of singing from the very first, without food or drink, until the day of their death, after which they go and report to the Muses how they severally are paid honour among mankind and by whom….”

So, while this myth tells of a hybrid lineage from people to cicadas, it is more than just fantasy and comes from close attention to the natural world. Still, there is a myth within the myth. While it is true that some insects don’t need food in their adult lives (some moths for example), cicada adults can eat. They suck sap.

Only this empty husk, a cicada moult, is able to cling on to the tree without needing sustenance.

Knights Bush, New Zealand


Functional myths like the cicada myth are explored in David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous (1996).

Dandelion: Fire Bird

Dandelions became another world when I looked at them close up.

I saw the fire bird.


Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). Illustration for  Contes de l'isba : Ivan-Tsarevich and the Firebird

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). Illustration for Contes de l'isba: Ivan-Tsarevich and the Firebird

The discovery of shared forms and colours.


“The discovery of shared forms” is a way to post-anthropocentric thought. It’s is about seeing repeating patterns across scales, and recognising similarities in shape of seemingly disconnected entities. It draws human and nonhuman domains together, from human imaginations to flowers, insects, and beyond, and so it provides a way out of thinking of the “human-nature divide”. If you’re interested, check out Chapter 6 of King & Page’s book on posthumanism and the graphic novel.

Earthstar fell from the sky

Earthstar — born from the earth, fallen from the sky

Today I had my first encounter with an earthstar.

It was a long anticipated encounter, as I’ve been reading some curious folklore inspired by the wild star shape of this mushroom. It’s a great reminder of how an organism’s shape can inspire stories, and how tempting it Is to understand an ‘alien’ creature by comparing it to something else — something more familiar.

A star, yes. An English mushroom expert in the 1800s said that earthstars aspire 'occasionally to leave this earth'; inspired by someone who found a specimen 'on the very highest pinnacle of St Pauls' (Cathedral)!’.

There are different kinds of earthstars, and they appear in different stages as they unfold from the ground. And so, somehow, in the 1600s they were recognised as little human figurines:

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 5.31.30 PM.png

Earthstars are sensitive to moisture. The “barometer earthstar” opens up when there is plenty of water, but as soon as it gets too dry for them, they fold their star rays back up, closing up to protect themselves. If you’re curious what that looks like, check out this time-lapse.

How different am I to an earthstar? I recognise my own thirst in them. It just manifests differently.


Sources of folklore and illustration:

Brian Spooner & Thomas L˦ssøe. The folklore of ‘gasteromycetes’. Mycologist Volume 8, Issue 3, August 1994, Pages 119-123.

Badham, C.D. (1863) A Treatise on the Esculent Funguses of'England. Ed. 2. London: Reeve.

Seger, G. (1671), Fungus Anthropomorphos. Miscel- lanea curzosa Medico-physica academiae nature cur- iosum 2: 112-113.