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.

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.

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.

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. 


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