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)

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

Hooks & Webs: Hover Above Void

Some fail to fall because they cling on tightly (with tiny hooks on their legs)

Even without legs, some cling on with leg-like features and tiny hooks
seeds suddenly seem like arthropods.

Spiky ‘leg’ hooks of seeds and arthropods. Excerpt from Legless Travel, 2018

Others fail to fall because they get stuck on their way down.
wasp in web — pine needles caught in resin of their own tree.


All there was left to do

was fall.

let go, drop down.

but it wasn’t as simple as that.

even when you fall you

can get stuck on your way down

caught in web, hover above void —

immobilised by sticky resin.

Do you fall or not?

is it because you get stuck on your way down, or because you have a crafty way of clinging on?

and which one is better? Sometimes it’s better to let go, even if it means you fall.

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


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

Music for Moss and Mushrooms

In a previous post I explored ways to tell ‘creaturely’ stories through music and moving image.

How would this work for creatures that do not move much to the human eye? Can mosses and mushrooms, who seem so static at first glance, inspire ideas about sound and image, flow and rhythm?

Various people have thought musically about these lives. Silence and the barely perceptible are important notions. Moss expert Robin Kimmerer wrote in her book Gathering Moss:

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Artist/musician John Cage was very much inspired by mushrooms:

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom”

He explained this in the “Music Lovers’ Field Companion” (1954). The experience of finding hidden mushrooms, was for him similar to the experience of hearing quiet sounds. And of course, there is the amazing Czech mushroom composer Václav Hálek, who has transcribed thousands of melodies straight from mushrooms.

Knights Bush, near Clutha river, New Zealand

For me, it’s important to not isolate a mushroom or a moss, but notice them in interaction with others. In my audio/video experiments I look for ways to capture rhythms that can be perceived in real time, without speeding up time like in a time-lapse. I look for spontaneous and almost accidental encounters, not trying to establish a perfect match between audio and visual. Through improvisational music and multispecies interactions (a person touching a wobbly mushroom, a spidermite walking through moss), I found a way to express something about the dynamisms of a mushroom and a patch moss.

Music, visual narratives & creatures

Visual narratives are multisensory invitations.

I’m interested in a biological synaesthesia. How to create stories about insects, trees, mosses, mushrooms, that are not just a bunch of static images for eyes alone, but also blend with textures, movements, sounds — to convey something about their expressive and dynamic lives?

One way into this is through music. There is close affinity between sounds and visual narratives, eg. as discussed for comics here and here. Sequences of images can have a rhythmic quality, and music can be visualised in many ways. Can a sound be a comic? Maybe. Sounds can certainly tell a story. Looking at visual narratives broadly, nature documentaries often use sound to create interesting illusions. Sound effects are used as if they were the real sounds of insects munching (hugely exaggerated!), or to present a seamless harmony of a sneaky melody with a sneaky lion that slowly approaches their prey. It’s tempting to see nature that way. But it’s also important to remember that they are constructs.

I’ve started recording insects and spiders around the house, and made music for them. We might not understand each other very well but we do live together — to a degree, we might even process the same indoor sounds. These are synthesizer experiments; tiny stories through silence & sound, harmony & mismatch. Music and creatures were recorded indoors: both are part of the home environment.

Adventure of a jumping spider in the kitchen and on me.

It’s not so much about finding rhythms and sounds that are a perfect harmonious match with the images. It’s more about capturing something about their expressive mystery. A way to ‘give voice’ without speech and with plenty of imperfection. After all, what seems a neat harmonious match from a human perspective, how could I possibly know if it’s anything close to a harmony from a spider perspective? The point is not to claim to understand them; I can only hint at their experiences through my own expressions. In these micro compositions there is plenty of silence and mismatch.

a weak bumblebee consumes a drop of honey, but only barely.


Sound to give ‘voice’, video to give ‘face’. And they are rather cute, no?

These sound/image narratives only begin to approach an answer to nature sound illusions. How could we present an honesty about nature constructs, a self-awareness that takes responsibility for the fantasy*?

*Philosopher Timothy Morton discusses this issue in his book Ecology without Nature.

Note: I briefly touched upon biological synaesthesia through the paintings and notes of Hilma af Klint, whose observations of ‘moist moss’ and ‘cool trees’ led to colourful works of figurative shapes (plants, shells, flowers) in combination with abstract geometries. Music provides another angle for creating a sensory & visual language to express something about creatures and humans alike.

Comics, scientific illustration & sleeping insects

What do scientific articles have in common with comics?

Well, they can both use arrangements of images to convey ideas.

Abstract comics expert Andrei Molotiu inspired me to keep an eye out for their overlapping approaches. He gave compelling examples of how “natural, physical phenomena can be structured by human activity to seem to echo, or be echoed by, abstract comics. For example, visual records of various scientific processes are usually arranged for publication in sequential art form”.

This is not only true for abstract comics — abstract forms that morph, meet, grow outward or shrink over time; it also happens in more figurative depictions. Image arrangements can suggest the movement of time, or can represent a kind of mosaic that gives an overview of different situations.

In two lovely studies about sleeping behaviours of bees and ants I learned that not only do insects sleep, they may also dream.

Source  link

Source link

A sequence that shows how an active bee (A) becomes a sleeping bee (D): time moves on as you ‘read the panels’.

Source  link

Source link

A ‘mosaic’ that shows different states of ant activities: awake and asleep. A contrast-and-compare puzzle. Note the differences in antennae and mouth. A dozing fire ant queen sleeps with her mouth open and antennae slightly raised; a queen in deep sleep has her mouth closed and antennae folded inward. When her antennae start to quiver in deep sleep, it may be a sign that she’s dreaming — kind of like rapid eye movements in larger dreaming animals, such as humans.

Knowing this, insects become ever-more mysterious yet relatable at the same time. These types of studies blow my mind, and also provide good starting points for how to convey aspects about these little lives through visual narratives. Yep, there is a comic in the making here.

Collective Consciousness: ants, mushrooms, bees, humans

A tiny city on a branch, or is it a dragon, serpent, snake?

log in Herbert Forest, New Zealand

log in Herbert Forest, New Zealand

All these tiny mushrooms are in fact the reproductive organs of a bigger underlying body, the mycelium. They are what apples are to the tree. In a previous post, I asked the question if we better think of mushrooms as one larger organism, or if each mushroom still contains a sense of self. Today, I look at a range of examples of collective organisms that can remind us of the blurry line between individual and collective, with implications for even human identities.

Mushroom enthusiast Paul Stamets speaks of “collective fungal consciousness”.  And this collective notices you as you walk across them:

The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer, or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature… These sensitive mycelial membranes act as a collective fungal consciousness.

At the same time, a mushroom is a spore, a fruiting body. Fungi trouble the distinction between singular and plural. This is exactly what the entertaining writing experiments of Anna Tsing get at: she takes the voice of a spore, and constantly shifts between ‘I’ and ‘we’.

“…I hung precariously in the gills of a mushroom, waiting for the breeze to lift me. What a sense of anticipation! What longing I felt to fly. But before that, I was the mushroom, or, at least, a part of it, feeling the tension and joy of our great expansion as we coiled together, filled out, and at last emerged from underground shelter to the bright world all sharp and vast. [.…] For the moment just consider that the ‘I’ that tunnels, erupts, and flies is neither singular nor plural, so don’t assume you have my number”.

No matter how we look at it, we don’t know what it feels like to be a mushroom. What kind of ‘I’ or ‘we’-ness they experience. It’s all so completely alien to humans. Or, is it? 

These foreign intimacies can somehow still feel familiar, remind us of our own lives. They raise bigger questions of identity. Mushrooms can help us to think about what it means to be an individual, human or otherwise, and can inspire us to remember that all bodies participate in the macro and the micro. Individuals are composed of smaller parts; larger structures are only possible by the smaller components. Humans and the microbiome; cities and citizens; bees and beehives; mushrooms, spores, and mycelia. Fungi and plants. They need one another. Hybrid. And, as Anna Tsing’s spore reminds, mycelia grow and change their whole lives, a kind of freedom, as they literally grow into new situations. Us humans might not be that flexible with our bodies, but at least we can let fungi flex our imaginations. Who could we become? We could learn from a mushroom.

The illusion of individuality is also discussed by author David Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen. Just like trees grow better when they exchange nutrients with fungi in underground “conversations”; so do human minds do better when they are “feeding from a pool of shared resources”. Let yourself be inspired and fuelled by others, rather than (impossibly) figuring things out all on your own.

“Our minds are like trees — they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.”

The idea that humans could learn from other collective structures in the natural world has been around for a long, long time. Typically, the beehive is given as an example: like the collective ‘hive mind’, could human societies also work better as a more coherent larger organism…?

medieval bees. source unknown.

medieval bees. source unknown.

I do like these kind of comparisons, but let’s not forget about the individual. Even here we shouldn’t too easily assume that individuals in these societies are mere ‘cells’ that fuel the larger ‘body’. Just like mushrooms, it still makes sense to acknowledge social insects as both individuals and collectives. Social insects like bees and ants have flexible behaviours and rich experiences. For example, bees can learn unusual tasks, like recognising the difference between a Monet and Picasso painting; they recognise faces, make decisions, take lots of naps, and experience the world in multisensory ways. Who knows, they might experience some kind of sensory pleasure as they encounter a good flower. In his book Emergent Ecologies, Eben Kirksey even suggests that some ants might experience empathy for the caterpillars that they protect, as they are aware of the caterpillar’s needs. Instead of superorganisms, he writes, perhaps it’s more appropriate to think of ‘ensembles of selves’ (conscious agents). Almost humorously, this also applies to humans: “the self-as-ensemble includes one’s clothes and house, one’s ancestors and friends, one’s nail clippings and excretions, one’s body, soul, thoughts, and ways of being in the world. Actions oriented to the care of beings and things enlist them in the ensemble” 

Let’s end with something visual. Things like consciousness, minds, thoughts, decisions, imaginations, they’re all pretty hard to grasp. Could we visualise something about them to make things slightly more tangible? Are they also composed of some kind of collective structure? Well, kinda. At least when you look at ant brains. Ants keep their memories in “mushroom bodies”, structures inside their brain that are shaped like fungal caps, according to Russian biologist Zhanna Reznikova. Mushroom-brained ants. I found this example of an ant brain structure:

(Source link)

Even though creatures are all so overwhelmingly strange and different, looking at forms and shapes can bring some sweet relief, some kind of connection, pattern, a reminder of shared forms. And human consciousness? Yes, our brains are shaped like walnuts, but I like to think of our thoughts and imaginations as ensembles of abstract shapes and colours. Some are isolated, others will be connected by bridges as our thoughts make unexpected connections:

the imagination.jpg

Surely, big imaginations are born from the same structures as tiny imaginations.

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Sources:

Anna Tsing (2014). Strathern beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture & Society. 31 (2/3), 221-241

Paul Stamets (2005). Mycelium Running. How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

Eben Kirksey (2015). Emergent Ecologies.

Secret traditions: visit the flower before you die

I notice a lot of bumblebees resting or napping in flowers. They also seek out flowers as a resting place shortly before they die. A flower might give some food and shelter from the elements, but is it enough? Might the bees have additional reasons for choosing the flower as a resting place?

Could it be that they find some kind of peace, comfort, or pleasure in the soft, colourful, fragrant shapes of the flower?

Thinking along these lines, it almost sounds like a religious, spiritual or cultural tradition….

and so, she disappears into the light.

You might think all of this sounds crazy, but there is some serious research looking into questions of beauty and the sensory perceptions of nonhumans, including insects (eg. as discussed here). There is even research that asks if animals might have culture or folklore.

I’m fascinated by the idea that animals can have aesthetic preferences. That they know beauty. Not (or not only) because it serves some kind of function (like an indicator of health, vigour or nutrition), but just because there are things they feel attracted to — which are not always explicable. Why is something beautiful to you? Beauty is elusive to humans, too. 

a final drink

To me, it makes sense that we should no longer think of insects as automatons that just carry out tasks and respond mechanically to their surroundings. Instead, we can think of them as agents who experience the world in multi-sensory ways, and are attracted (or repulsed) to the smells, textures, colours and shapes around them.

Beauty, a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. 

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My thoughts are inspired by feminist writers Hustak & Meijers — this is a good read:

Hustak, C. & Myers, N. (2012) Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters. d i f f e r e n c e s: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23 (3), doi 10.1215/10407391-1892907

Flower: an insect perspective

We often appreciate flowers as still life. But they're not still.
This video captures something that may be closer to an insect perspective: the flower on the move.
Flower and wind in real time. Blow your head, poppy.

Flowers are expressive and sway. I tried to capture this with music. Insects need to consider the movements of a flower when they plan to spend some time together. Hold on tight.
This is a landscape where I’d like to spend some time, even though it’s hectic. Inviting textures and shapes, intimate internal structures, deep colour.


Below is my discovery of the day: sunflower and dandelion have spiral shapes in common.

And this: a dandelion on its way out looks like it’s about to burst into flames.

Winged Soldier Cleaning Rituals

Rituals.

a happy accident filming the soldier fly’s grooming session at the human dinner table, in harmony with the background soundtrack of daily human rituals. Mundane yet oh so satisfying. Could it be that this is what coexisting is all about?

Who is this whistler?