Caught by the River

The Fly Trap

4th September 2014


The Fly Trap; by Fredrik Sjöberg
Particular Books. 288 pages, hard cover. Out now.

Review by Malachy Tallack.

I can remember watching my father turn over rocks and examine what he found beneath them, his tiny, silver loupe held tight against one eye. I can remember, too, the faint buzz of his moth trap light, and the flutter of wings in the gloaming that encircled it. I can remember the smell of warm treacle and beer, with which he would daub the garden fence: a sticky feast for nocturnal Lepidoptera.

He was, by hobby rather than by trade, an entomologist, malacologist and occasional botanist. Insects, molluscs and plants, those were his thing. I was a child then, and so never thought to question those interests. For a child, crawling in the undergrowth and looking at bugs is a perfectly normal thing to do. It never occurred to me that, for adults, this might not be so.

Before he died, my father knew a great deal about the fauna and flora of Ashdown Forest in Sussex. He also knew more about the slugs and snails of Shetland than perhaps anybody else alive at the time. ‘This group of invertebrates’, he once wrote, is ‘one of the most interesting and most often overlooked.’ Overlooked, certainly, is true. But interesting? To the extent that other peoples’ obsessions may be a source of amusement and fascination, perhaps. In and of themselves, perhaps not.

The same, surely, could be said of hoverflies, creatures about which most of us know little more than can be deduced from the two halves of their name. And if we do know more, it is usually only that they can look like other things, thus making them even easier to disregard: “Some of them look like hornets, others like honeybees … Several species resemble large, bristly bumblebees, complete with in-flight drone and coats flecked with pollen. Only the expert is not deceived. We are not many, but we grow very old.”

That a book about hoverflies should become a bestseller (in the author’s native Sweden, at least) is therefore remarkable. And it is made only slightly less remarkable by the fact that this book is about much more than that. Early in The Fly Trap, Fredrick Sjöberg, who began his working life in Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, suggests that these insects ‘are only props’. But immediately he recants. ‘No, not only, but to some extent. Here and there my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know.’

Sjöberg is an expert on hoverflies, and only hoverflies. On his home island of Runmarö – fifteen square kilometres, with a population of just 300 – he has recorded 202 different species. That is as many, he notes with evident pleasure, as have ever been seen in the county of Surrey. ‘One day, I think, I’m going to write one of those local field guides. In English. Just to show off. No other reason.’ In order to achieve this success, Sjöberg has dedicated years of his life to studying and hunting for these insects. He has stood still in baking meadows with net in hand; he has crouched in ditches with a pooter to his lips; he has leaned into his microscope, hour after hour, to examine and to identify.

This book attempts to answer an obvious question: why? What is the point of all this? What precisely is the attraction for those who devote themselves to flies, to molluscs, to plants or to birds? In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov – surely the most famous of lepidopterists – offered his own response, and in doing so proved just how difficult that question really is. For him:

“the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal.”

Which is fine, but not entirely satisfying. That ‘something else’, that ‘momentary vacuum’, that ‘sense of oneness’, that ‘thrill of gratitude’: for the uninitiated these are hardly more accessible than a list of Latin names. They do not cross the gulf between those who feel them and those who don’t. Sjöberg is mindful of that gulf. His answer is less exuberant; it unfolds rather than explodes. It wanders and wonders about itself. It pauses for breath. It looks in the mirror and laughs.

On summer days, when the island is full of people, Sjöberg is often asked to justify his strange behaviour by onlookers, bemused and intrigued by this man and his net. Sometimes he does so, and finds himself delivering an enthusiastic lecture on the natural history of hoverflies, or else conversing with someone who vastly overestimates their own expertise. ‘“Those are wasps”’, one man tells him, examining a pair of Temnostoma vespiforme inside the collector’s jar. ‘“Wasps! And don’t you forget it!”’ Sometimes though, ‘I get tired of explaining and start lying instead, like a hitchhiker … It can be very taxing to stick to the truth for a whole day’.

The word on which Sjöberg has most often relied to explain the appeal of his hobby is ‘slowness’. It is a word that people understand, and to which tourists in particular are drawn. Everything is too fast, they agree. Technology, communication, the workplace: just keeping up is exhausting. Looking for insects, then, is a means of escape, like taking a holiday. And just as the island itself is a haven, a place to withdraw from the relentless gallop of modern life, so too are hoverflies. It is an explanation that works because it bridges the gap. It talks the language of the listener. And just as for the angler, who claims to sit all day beside the river ‘for a bit of peace and quiet’, there is truth in it. But not the whole truth. That ‘something else’ is still missing.

There is a state of mind that anglers know and that fly hunters, it seems, know too. It is a state of intense concentration and focus that is accompanied, without contradiction, by a feeling of being untethered. All senses are heightened. Every movement is noticed, every sound is heard, every change is registered. And yet the mind drifts. It imagines and recalls. It wanders without purpose. It is a feeling that is surely akin to what practitioners of ‘mindfulness’ are seeking, except without the need for a yoga mat. It is a peculiar and rather pleasureful sensation, into which one slips with the ease of a sigh. Hours pass, as meaningless as minutes.

Sjöberg describes this state as ‘concentration and obliviousness’, and his prose mirrors that duality, focusing then relaxing, drifting, digressing, then returning to the point in hand. Its principle digression, amongst many, is the life and work of René Malaise, a Swedish entomologist born in 1892, who discovered thousands of species previously unknown to science and who invented the fly trap of the book’s title: a tent-like contraption, into which insects are drawn but cannot find their way out.

Malaise specialised in sawflies, but seems to have dabbled in more or less everything. He spent years collecting in Kamchatka in the early Soviet era, his life threatened by wolves, scurvy and earthquakes; none of which succeeded in dimming either his cheeriness or enthusiasm for the task. In the 1930s, after a brief time back in Sweden, he travelled again, this time to another of the world’s most unexplored regions, Burma. Though this trip lasted only two years, Malaise returned home with a collection so vast that it has still not been fully catalogued today. One hundred thousand insects, most of which were new to science. And it wasn’t just insects. Hundreds of fish, plants, birds and mammals came back with him, pinned, pickled, pressed or stuffed.

Though he returned a hero, his photograph on the front of every newspaper, Malaise did not die a hero. He ended his career on the wrong side of the debate over tectonics. A proponent of the theory that heat rather than movement was to blame for geological changes, the expert biologist then spent years arguing for the existence of a now-sunken continent in the mid-Atlantic. Like his fellow countryman Olaus Rudbeck, three centuries earlier, Malaise became obsessed with the idea of Atlantis. His reputation, once unassailable, was demolished.

There is a lesson here, Sjöberg suggests. Think small:
I have no idea what’s new here on the island, and I don’t care. There are certainly hundreds of unknown species … and many of them, probably, have already been caught in my net, but I’m only interested in hoverflies. There are, of course, some other groups that I’ll collect for future use – jewel wasps, bee flies, wild bees, soldier flies – but I’d go crazy if I tried to include everything. For people like me, limits are an essential part of life.

The pleasures (and wisdom) of limitation are a central theme of The Fly Trap. The pleasures of specialisation, of islands, of time limits and of staying home: these are not sufficiently appreciated, Sjöberg argues. Not by adults, anyway. But just as children understand the joys of bug hunting, they understand, too, the importance of edges. Put them on an islet, he observes, and the first thing they will do is walk around it, to discover its limits, before beginning to explore the interior. Introduce a child to someone new and they will ask: “How long are you staying?” To adult ears it sounds rude and unwelcoming, but that is not the intention. The point, rather, is to understand in advance the space that is to be shared, in order to enjoy it better. Boundaries bring us security, certainly, but they also offer freedom. Life, without limits, would be indistinguishable from hell. And besides, ’For an entomologist, fifteen square kilometres is a whole world, a planet of its own’.

On the 27th of April this year, a rather beautiful little bird called a Cretzschmar’s bunting was found in Fair Isle, Shetland, an island just slightly smaller than Runmarö. It was only the fifth time this species had been seen in the UK (though three of those individuals were found on that tiny, extraordinary island). That same evening, also in Fair Isle, a Caspian stonechat was spotted. Here was another very rare and very lost bird, and another fifth record for Britain. The finds sparked huge excitement among twitchers, some of whom chartered planes from as far away as the south of England to come and see these creatures for themselves.

Despite the commotion though, there is a difference between Cretzschmar’s bunting and the Caspian stonechat; the former is a unique species, the latter is not. At least, not yet. The Caspian is a sub-species of the Siberian stonechat, a comparatively common bird with at least one British record every year. But most of those who know and care about such things believe that some day soon the two will be split, and a new species created. Once that happens, those who have already made the effort to see it will not have to go looking again. Another bird can be added to the list without any effort required. This is what’s known as an ‘armchair tick’.

From the outside, taxonomy is a fetish disguised as a science. The division of Siberian from Caspian stonechat is as much about list-making as it is about biology, and is of interest only to those who keep such lists. One thinks again of Nabokov, who destroyed his eyesight by examining the genitalia of butterflies beneath the microscope, obsessed, always, with distinguishing species and finding new ones, and sometimes succeeding. August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, coined the term ‘buttonology’ to describe trivial matters that are given scientific weight through systematisation. Buttons, like birds, can be divided again and again into smaller categories, by size, by colour, by material, by number of holes. And in Strindberg’s satire, those who learn to divide them can become professors. Amateur taxonomists – birders, botanists, entomologists – are easy targets for such ridicule. They seem to teeter, at times, on the cusp of buttonology.

Fredrick Sjöberg acknowledges that the science does not come first. Important research is done by amateur naturalists, of that there is no doubt; and such research can be claimed as its own justification. The arrival of species into an area in which they have not previously been recorded may tell us something about climate change. So too may their disappearance. The effects of habitat destruction, of agricultural chemicals, of other, untold environmental disasters: much can be gleaned from the work of those who observe, count and collect. But to pretend that is why is they do it is just that, a pretence. Before the science comes something else. As Sjöberg writes: ‘No one learns to tell the song of the woodlark from that of the skylark in order to make it easier to detect approaching catastrophe. All of that comes later’. What comes first is the joy of knowing.

To read a landscape, he argues, and to understand the natural world, there is ‘a language to be learned’, and that begins with telling one thing from another. Anyone who can distinguish Chrysotoxum vernale from a wasp ‘can already read, but it gets really exciting only when you can distinguish it from Chrysotoxum arcuatum. And by my soul, that’s not easy’. Like literature, like art and like music, landscape and nature may be appreciated for their beauty. But that appreciation can be deepened through familiarity and through knowledge. The real pleasure comes when we move beyond the aesthetic gaze and begin, more fully, to read. Then, we may encounter ‘hidden subtleties’. Then, we may find beauty in unbeautiful things – in slugs, in snails, in decomposing trees. For most of us, it is childish curiosity – the kind of curiosity that causes us to turn over stones and to hunt for bugs – that leads us towards that discovery. Most naturalists are made young.

When I walk, as I often do, along the path that runs beside the White Cart river at the end of my road, I do my best to notice. I name to myself the birds and plants I know, and search for those names I have lost. But it’s not much. I am confronted always by the extent of my ignorance, by the limits of my knowledge. A fly is a fly is a fly (or possibly a bee). Reading this book, that ignorance became less tolerable than it ever has been before. It became an absence. Sjöberg describes several times his distaste for travel and for adventure. He becomes ‘tired and gloomy’, he writes, when surrounded by unfamiliar places, and by voices he cannot understand. ‘The easiest days are when I meet a fellow Swede, as if the invisible codes of language and culture were the combination to a a lock’. Reading this book, the world beyond my doorstep seemed both more foreign and more fascinating than it ever had before. I found myself longing for a new vocabulary.

Malachy Tallack is a founding-editor of The Island Review.