Jay Griffiths is the award-winning author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Anarchipelago, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, and Why I Rebel. Her new essay collection, Nemesis, my Friend: Journeys through the Turning Times, is published in July 2022. She lives in Wales.
Sometimes it is dreams that do it. Sometimes it is facts. So it was with this film.
Sometimes, half-waking, an image is given to us, just like a dream-vision. I was on the tricksy sweet edge of sleep, when I saw Tintern Abbey in its woodland home, filled with insect-angels, and the Red Rebels: in this half-dream I half-heard the voice of Mark Rylance in my head. It was the tears and the song that his voice carries. The film followed from this initial image. More, though, and years earlier, it was facts that did it for me.
Reading the studies of insect collapse made me cry for insects. The horror of it swept over me: I cried for three days. I saw in one awful moment a vision of the desolated world, a devastated wasteland. Tears are, of course, holy. They demand attention and respect. They know things, our tears, that we ourselves can be slow to recognise. I think we see better through tears. This film came about because of tears, facts and dreams.
Imagine if our food were brought to us by dedicated and almost invisible angels. Imagine them flying, effortless and iridescent, with a beauty more extraordinary than any art of ours can ever replicate. Imagine if those mysterious beings worked freely to keep alive almost the entire living world, including birds, animals and ourselves. Imagine if these angels also gently and tactfully disposed of the dead, tucking the dead back into a deep bed of earth so they can rebecome life in another form. Without them, we would wade through corpses with every step we took.
I wish that everyone who said they believed in angels would actually believe in insects.
They do not take the title of angels, being by nature bashful and unassuming: they go by other names: firefly, bee, ant, caddisfly. We humans, it seems, value irreal angels more than the priceless reality of insects.
A secret commonwealth, the insect realm encompasses more species than we have identified. The insects: hallowed be thy names, some of which are pure poetry: the orchid bee, coloured in bronze and ultramarine, purple and gold; the ladybird; the glasswinged butterfly and the emerald swallowtail.
Recent studies are clear about the collapse of the insect world. We know it directly from our own experience: gone is the windshield phenomenon whereby, driving in summer, it would be necessary to stop frequently to clean the insects from the windscreen, while the ‘moth snowstorm’, a blizzard of moths in the headlights, was the experience of every night drive.
Hidden in their very multitudes, insects are, together, a gigantic collective of kindness, dancing in constant attendance to living things. The insects pollinate three quarters of our food crops and 80 per cent of wild-flowering plants and keep the soil healthy, recycling nutrients.
From their actions flow the countless forms of life, from the apple blossom to bread and roses and the silver salmon, indeed everything that has ever flowered and ever will. And from physical life flows everything to be treasured in human life, from existence itself to the highest of the arts. The flowering of plants and the flowering of culture alike. Michelangelo salutes them. Notre-Dame bows in thanks. No insects, no Mozart. No art, no music, no beauty.
Imagining a world without wings fills me with inconsolable sorrow. A wren, hungry and songless; a swift dropping to its death; the air emptied of life. Without insects and birds, we rob ourselves of all that flight represents: the wings of mind, the flight of imagination, that mother of empathy.
Without them, there would be no chorus of frogs or birdsong: for how would a bird sing without insects to give it life and music? To them we owe everything: my life and yours and yours and yours. Without them, starvation would stalk the land for almost every kind of creature, including ourselves.
Please tell me you understand the immensity of this. And if you don’t, please think, alone and quietly perhaps, of the unfolding ending. Let me speak simply into the simplicity of your heart, then, and let me just ask you what you love, what makes you happy. Is it a child? Is it your partner? Do you love your friend or, Little Prince, do you love your rose? Do you love your dog, your cats, your church, your home, your garden? Your books, perhaps, or the poetry you make, or the music?
And this love, then, this happiness that you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so utterly pitiless?
I don’t want to be lyrical now. I just want to swear. The collective stupidity renders all my craft useless. What writer’s art can ever convey the vast, deadly and deliberate slaughter, with all its consequences that are, in sum, the sum of it all. The Everything. Where to go with this gigantic stupidity? What the fuck did we think we were doing? Why the fuck are we still doing it? Intensive agriculture is killing us by killing the insects.
If I sent a tweet, I would write only this:
Mass use of insecticides leads to mass death of insects.
And I’m, like, DUH? Who knew? Insecticides should be made illegal overnight. Every scrap of land turned to organic agriculture and rewilding. Every shred of mental energy requisitioned for love, essentially, the love of life.
Writers sometimes tell their readers when they struggle for words, when they experience writer’s block. That admission is a touching one, a truth so precious that I do not use it lightly. I use it now. The magnitude of this situation silences me. The words I lean towards are not enough. Tears, maybe. The raw scream of rage and pity, perhaps. But what words do you suggest I use here? Annihilation? The end of worlds? The last generation? Absolute apocalypse? If you were looking this full in the face, what expresses it sufficiently? And a savage anger overcomes me. This is not a game. Nature is not a hobby. It is the life on which we depend.
Jay Griffiths is the award-winning author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Anarchipelago, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, and Why Rebel. Her new essay collection, Nemesis, my Friend: Journeys through the Turning Times, is published in July. She lives in Wales.