The wilderness ideal, nature writing and disability

“Mountains and disabled people have something in common, they both get stereotyped as inspirational”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

On the whole, the ideal nature person fits into the wilderness ideal which I will come on to but first I wanted to mention the one image of a disabled person in nature, and that is the supercrip.  Supercrip stories tend to be about an individual overcoming their disability through hard work and perseverance in order to do something spectacular.  There is a sense of transcending not just nature but the body itself.  This is a person who ‘overcomes’ their disability in order to scale a mountain or someone who uses a wheelchair but skis.  These people are often the exception and whilst what they do is great, it can’t be the only vision of disability within nature thinking.

Back to the typical wilderness ideal though… There is a particular body type – white, male, fit, ablebodied – who can have the elite, transcendental experience and be a bona fida naturalist.  Having this ideal means you have created the opposition, the person who is not welcome in nature.

Alison Kafer explains that there are “complicated histories of who is granted permission to enter nature, where nature is said to reside, how one must move in order to get there, and how one will interact with nature once one arrives in it”.  Additionally, not only do you need to be in the wilderness, but you should be alone and off any tracks or trails.  And people who can do so are generally cast as better nature people.

As the disabled person has been cast as the antithesis to the wilderness ideal, there are no images of disabled people in nature, let alone a stereotyped image of a ‘normal’ disabled person within nature.  This absence is referred to by Jaquette Ray as the “disability-equals-alienation-from-nature trope” in her writing.  She finds “the only place for the disabled body in the wilderness ideal is as an invisible, looming threat – symbolic rather than actual”.

It seems to me like there is a hierarchy of moral superiority with the wilderness ideal at the pinnacle of the mountain and disabled bodies at the base, unable to climb up unless they happen to fit the supercrip model.

I have a separate post planned about ableism within the environmental movement and will expand on this idea of moral superiority in that context but as a way of seeing this in action, think about this:

There is a hierarchy of species that you interact with as well as where you interact with them.  To see a rare plant or rare creature comes with more status, as do megafauna and exotic species.  This by default means that connections with more common species is seen as lesser, especially if you interact with them outside the wilderness.

Within the wilderness ideal trope, we find the narrative of technology as an antithesis to a good experience.  We are told to leave tech behind in order to have a more embodied experience, one that is more about presence but this ignores the value of tech.  Technology allows electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids to experience the world, phones include apps that enhance the experience and provide a safety net for those of us who cannot be alone without backup on hand.

Writer Edward Abbey took this rejection of technology to the extreme and positioned electric wheelchairs with cars, and both as alienating us from nature and the wilderness.  He pressed the issue by telling people to get out of their electric wheelchairs and that unless one walks, one cannot experience nature.  The only way to know nature is to move through it on foot.  Whilst Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published in 1968, the thinking is still very present in many people’s minds.

Extending this narrative to nature writing, we are told that writing with pencil and paper is somehow better than writing on a computer or speaking into a dictaphone.  Again, this way of thinking pushes writers with disabilities out of the picture, assuming we even managed to get into the scenic nature photograph in the first place…

“There is a long tradition in ecological writing that defines people with disabilities as the opposite of environmentalists.”
– Wheeler

Much nature writing is first person and may touch on a bit of health but often as something to overcome either through nature or so one can return to nature.  Often it is a short term condition, or one at least that can be managed well.  It might be cancer or depression and this isn’t to make light of those serious conditions but there is a difference between something you can recover from and having a chronic, long term health issue or disability.

“First person nature encounter narratives generally focus on the interaction between one specific body and one specific landscape.  A narrow focus can eclipse the possibility of other body types and other landscapes.”
– Wheeler

Many nature writers talk of the personal transformation or spiritual experiences that comes when you are alone in the wild or having reached the summit of a mountain, something clearly not accessible to everyone, disabled or not.

Polly Atkin wrote in the New Welsh Reader about what has been called ecocrip.  She writes particularly about poetry but obviously what she has to say extends to nature writing more generally.

“As ecopoetics has become established, certain practices and expectations of ecopoetic process and content have also become established.  These predominantly presuppose able-bodied practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both poetic process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem.”
– Polly Atkin

Miranda Cichy said that “a lot of nature writers seem to believe that you have to go our alone and on foot in order to write about it.” But this doesn’t have to be the case.  A genre needs many voices, many perspectives and disabled people can add their own experience.

“The love of nature does not require specific bodily abilities.”
– Wheeler

I have written about my own way of interacting with nature and I do hope some of the examples I’ve given help other people to feel inspired and to value their own experiences, even or especially when they differ from the norm.  Kafer affirms that “the experience of illness and disability presents alternative ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the environment.”

I wanted to end with some quotes that I find inspiring and that validate my way of interacting with nature and encourage me to share the way I see the world.

“Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation.”
– Kathleen Jamie

“Dominant stereotypes and ableist narratives tend to overlook the richly textured ways in which people may experience nature; not to master it or to overcome impairment but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel part of nature.”
– Bell

“Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness… but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bring other ways of seeing this human-nature connection – not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquillity, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture and identity.”
– Melissa Tuckey

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.”
– Tupac Shakur

Reading

Within her essay, Atkin mentions a few ecocrip writings:

I’ve just bought all three so maybe that’ll be the basis of a future blog post.

My interactions with nature

Since become disabled, my interaction with nature has changed.  My last couple of blog posts have raised some of the issues that come with this but it has given me an opportunity to reframe how I interact and create new ways which give me a new intimacy.

There are subtle changes in weather which once were easily overlooked – throw on a coat, grab an umbrella and so on – but which now act as a backdrop for the play that is my life.  Rain and electricity don’t mix well, so I have to be aware of this when I’m going out.  The level of precipitation dictates where I go, how I get there and even if I can go out.  Ice and snow and ungritted pavements go about as well as you can imagine.  Then there is the effect of weather on my body itself.  Warmth helps my pain levels, cold does the opposite and worst of all is when days are noticeably warmer than nights and my pain levels flare up.  Hot days stresses out my autonomic system, making me feel faint, breathless and generally yukky.

The way that the weather plays out in my life, on my body, means I am much more aware of it than I once was, much more attuned to it and by extension to the changing of the seasons.  I also find I am more aware of light levels, possibly in part because I tend to spend my morning drinking tea in the same seat.  A seat which faces into the sun as it rises over the houses and then later in the day, it reaches me from the other side, through my kitchen window.

When I am outside, whether its considered wild or not, I struggle to lose myself in my environment in the way that many people speak of doing in the wilderness.  It is not possible to engross yourself in the land around you if you are always scanning for roots and holes and puddles to avoid – this also doesn’t fit with the image of the romantic ideal of nature

“Detailed scanning of the environment is part of disability culture’s everyday adaptation and troubleshooting”
– Elizabeth  A Wheeler

There is, necessarily, a constant adjustment and awareness of the environment, a sensitivity and responsiveness to changes.  In man made worlds, that might be an intimate knowledge of where the drop kerbs are, where the pavements get too narrow for a wheelchair or where the path is in need of repair.  Take that same intense scanning into a more natural space and you will find the intimate relationship now becomes about roots and twigs and soil.  This is not capital N Nature as some people see it, but this is personal and is another model for being in nature.  One that often focuses on the smaller things in the landscape, and in doing so can mean you are attuned to other beautiful aspects such as fungi and leaves.  Back in that man made world, I see the tenacious plants that weave through the cracks in pavements and the feathers that have floated down to the tarmac.  It is a different experience, but different does not mean inferior.

“Disability narratives can widen the emotional repertoire of possible responses to nature”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

Another way in which I connect to nature in an intimate way is through the birds that visit my bird feeder.  I have predominately house sparrow visitors and have been able to watch the parents rush back and forth taking food for their babies.  I have seen those babies venture out to sit on the bush by the feeder, waited on by mum and dad until they are old enough to get food for themselves.  One little baby pushed this and, even though I knew it could feed itself, still begged some mealworms from mum… Unless I had seen this family virtually everyday, I wouldn’t have known that was the case.

Aside, although I tend to call the sparrows my babies or the sparrow family, the correct name for a group of sparrows is a flock, but can also be called a knot, flutter, host or quarrel… I think my birds might be best described as a flutter…

Similarly, there is a single starling that has been visiting since it was a chick.  I have no idea why it has ventured here alone but it’s been incredible watching it grow and develop it’s iconic starling markings.  There have been a few scuffles between this starling and the sparrows but I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months a peace agreement seems to have been made.  Yes, it does seem like they both give each other sly glances and they aren’t going to be best friends any time soon but on the whole it makes for a much more serene experience.  Except when the lone starling was joined by about thirty friends… It’s only happened on a couple of occasions but I did think that maybe the apocalypse had arrived… Thirty black birds descending on one small feeder less than a metre away from me, with only the window between us… The sparrows looked horrified – yes I may anthropomorphise my little babies – and because the starlings were just fighting for feeder real estate, none of them actually got any food anyway… On the last occasion, when the mob left the feeder vicinity, they joined a black cloud of other starlings and I was slightly concerned an entire murmuration might descend… thankfully they didn’t, I’m not sure the window would have stood up to that…

As well as being a great and accessible way to engage with nature, whatever the weather, bird feeders help people become more aware of their local wildlife and the types of birds that visit.  Watching them eat means I’ve got to know the different beak shapes and the different ways they use them.  Feeding birds has also been shown to change human behaviour, for example being more concerned about cats that visit the area or being more aware of a sudden increase in the number of birds.

“These human responses were in some cases tied to people’s emotions about their observations, particularly anger.”
Observations at bird feeders

If you’re thinking about getting a bird feeder, there are different options out there, some will work better than others for you and for different birds.  I currently have two bird feeders, one which is a hanging feeder that is attached to the back fence and gets filled with fat balls, and one which is stuck to my living room window and is filled with mixed seed and mealworms (it took a while to find the food that my birds like, they’re surprisingly fussy…).  I also have a couple of ceramic poppies which collect rain water, or can be filled with water in the summer.  If you’re lucky and have some privacy in your bird feeder location, you could add a camera!  I did research, it’s not ok for me to point a camera at my feeder because it takes in a large view of the pavement and street… boo!

Anyway, I hope that by touching on a couple of ways I engage with nature, I have made an argument that having a disability does not mean your interactions are inferior.  I also want to make the point that more inclusive ways of engaging with nature are more accessible to people who might not go hiking or bird watching otherwise.

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

img_20191102_181956_3368796504457551970824.jpg

I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

Pigs: a history of mixed feelings

“Pigs and pork have, throughout history, been used to divide and unite people”
– Pia Spry-Marques

This will be the start of a few posts on pigs, mostly because there is so much to say about them.  It is because of this that I wanted to look at the pig its own right, not just as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot deck, the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’m also going to do a post that focuses on that specifically.

Our history with pigs goes back about 18,000 years and starts with the boar.  Boars are the ancestors of domestic pigs with spots and stripes that helped them blend into their environment.  These vanished, their tails became curly and their ears flopped as we domesticated them. Their tusks also disappeared and our attitudes towards them changed dramatically, shifting from a devil like enemy to a vital provider.

The domestic pig was bred from eurasion wild boars about 9000 years ago in Eastern Turkey and China simultaneously (some sources suggesting there were other domestication events at around the same time elsewhere but it’s complicated stuff).  As they were adaptable, had large and regular litters, were tough and were in close contact with humans (they would raid fields) they were a good candidate for breeding compared to other types of boars.  Pigs were also important compared to other domesticated species; they like living in groups, they are adaptable and they eat pretty much anything.  This meant they essentially looked after themselves and ate what we threw away, making them important to the history of agriculture and farming.

Today, pigs are widely distributed around the world, both down to their natural wanderings and human involvement.  From steamy rainforests to dry savannas to snowy woodlands, pigs are one of the most successful mammals on earth.  Evolution and human involvement has resulted in over 500 breeds of pigs today, but it isn’t just the pig landscape that has changed because of man.  The reverse is true, without the man-pig relationship, human history could have looked very different – exploration and civilisation were aided by the pig.

“Pigs are ubiquitous in the modern world, whether we are talking about the more than one billion domesticated pigs on the planet or the countless representations of pigs and ‘piggishness’ that circulate through most of the world’s cultures… Pigs have been structurally and symbolically significant in the making of human society and culture across the globe.  Pigs have fed us, entertained us and provided us with ways to think about our relationships with each other on this porcine planet.”
– Brett Mizelle

Despite this universality, pigs suffer from mixed reviews.  Whilst they have provided us with food and have been praised and celebrated, they have also been cast out and seen as dirty and smelly.

“The persistent uncertainty about whether pigs are good or bad animals is connected to the lived relationship between humans and pigs.  These attitudes reflect a moral ambivalence about the killing of pigs and ideas about pigs themselves, both of which are often factors in conflicts between human social groups.”
– Mizelle

Pigs provided a way for different classes of society to distinguish themselves and due to the association with lower classes, the pig increasingly became ostracised as a symbol of poverty, dirtiness and slothenlyness.  Mizelle also asks whether our conflicting feelings towards pigs may arise because of our similarities.  With pigs both physically near and physiologically alike, our treatment of them may induce feelings of guilt which we then transferred to the pig.  In order to treat it as we do, to keep it confined and to butcher it, we must psychologically distance ourselves from the pig.  And we can see this clearly in how we talk; male chauvinist pigs, pig ugly, smell like a pig, greedy pig and so on…

“There is a long history of porcine proverbs that describe efforts to convert the useless to the useful, the ugly to the pretty.  The maxim ‘You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ dates back to the mid sixteenth century.”
– Mizelle

Returning to the similarities between humans and pigs, we see also the need to distance them in order to eat them, calling the meat pork and talking of chops and bacon instead.

Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, with over half of it consumed in china.  Whilst I am not going to look too closely at meat, as Mizelle says:

“Different groups have consumed different cuts of pork over time, making pork consumption a useful lens into race, religion and class.”

And for more information about this, we can look to Mark Essig:

“The reputation of pork depends upon the life of the pig. In early medieval Europe, when most pigs foraged in the woods, pork was the preferred meat of the nobility. By 1300 most forests had been felled, and pigs became scavengers. In a medieval British text, a woman explains that she won’t serve pork because pigs “eat human shit in the streets.” Pigs also dined on human flesh, which was available because executed prisoners, among others, were left unburied.”

Even within the context of food, it’s clear that there are many views about pigs throughout time and space.  Stepping away from pigs as food, we have Aristotle who (despite almost certainly eating pork) called pigs “the animals most like people” because of their similarities to humans; little did he know just how alike to us they are.

Physiologically, pigs are very like humans and because of this, they play a key role in human medicine.  We have made use of them in skin grafts for burns, in making insulin for diabetics and we have pig heart valves.  Pigs have been used by medical students to practise their skill and researchers have utilised the similarities.  One horrific sounding experiment used live pigs to study the effects of atomic blasts and radiation during the Cold War.  Unfortunately for pigs, they play a life saving role in today’s medical landscape.  As pigs heal in a similar way to us, unlike rodents, they have been useful for medical experimentation.  They are also used in less obvious ways such as in gelatine for pills, in sponges used in surgery, in some blood clotting medicine and in wound treatment.

Beyond medicine, pigs are also found in make up, biodiesel, toothpaste, antifreeze, bone china, glue, in the manufacturing of train brakes and even in cigarette filters…

Whilst you might think this is all in recent history, medical experimentation using pigs actually has a long history.  As far back as ancient Greece, they were being used because human dissection wasn’t allowed at the time.  It was through a ‘squealing pig’ experiment that Galen found it was the brain, not the heart, that controlled actions and thoughts.

Pigs have proven useful and have helped to develop civilisation and scientific knowledge.  They have saved lives and we have rewarded them by casting them as dirty and smelly.  We love them and we hate them.  And I am struggling to think of any other animal which is subject to such conflicted feelings…

In later posts I’ll be looking at pigs the animals, the beliefs around pigs and I will do a post looking at the pig in the queen of pentacles animal totem tarot.

Useful resources:

Love is in the air!

Spring is coming and soon love will be in the air!  Whether it’s the pheromones of animals or the pollen of plants, the air around us is positively brimming with the scent of reproduction.

Winged creatures like butterflies often engage in courtship flights, dancing around each other as part of a pre-copulation ritual.  The courtship ritual of the bald eagle involves locking talons and tumbling toward earth…  And then there are insects which engage in aerobatic sex, mid air, such as flies and dragonflies.

When it comes to humans (and other animals) we all have a unique smell, a chemical signature that we refer to as pheromones.  They play a role in who we are attracted to which I think is fairly well known, but also, probably lesser known, is that they also help us to identify people we are related to – useful if you want to avoid sleeping with your secret cousin that no one knew about… Having different genetic make up means healthier children and less inbreeding which is why we’ve evolved to detect this.  Couples which are more genetically similar have fewer orgasms which sounds pretty rubbish but things go one step further and couples who are more genetically alike also have a higher rate of cheating…  Basically, evolution is doing everything it can to reduce the chance of inbreeding.

Pheromones are also used to help a guy to detect where in her menstrual cycle a woman is and his body releases testosterone according to ovulation status.

However, the use of hormonal contraception appears to be changing how humans react to these chemical signatures.  When taking birth control pills, the natural ability to distinguish between males who are genetically alike and genetically different is disrupted and instead, women are attracted to the males who are most similar.  Verdolin gives a great example:

“I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!”  She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills.  Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.”

Aside: pheromones are found in underarm hair and public hair so maybe go au naturale if you’re seeking a partner?

Animals use pheromones to communicate with each other, to mark their territory and to induce aggression.  They are also used in parental bonding, to keep group behaviour in check and of course to attract mates – some creatures can even smell out virgins.  They are also used to mark your mate in order to keep away other potential mates.  Squirrels secrete pheromones onto their partners onto their partner to tell other males that she’s taken.  Queen bees use pheromones to control hive behaviour and stop workers from reproducing.  Plants use pheromones to attract pollinators, for example a kind of orchid can mimic bee pheromones to pollinate them.

Male lemmings can not only sniff out a female who’s ready to mate, but they can also distinguish between those who have mated already and those who have not.

“From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.”
– Verdolin

A large number of male creatures will include anti-aphrodisiac pheromones in their bodily secretions so that the female they are mating will have less interest in sex.  The pheromones can also make her less attractive to other males.

What of other ways that love is in the air?  Well, plants can reproduce in a couple of ways, both involving the air; insect pollination and wind pollination.  The latter means that large amounts of pollen are released to the breeze in the hope that they find another plant to fertilise.  Whilst this does mean hayfever for many of us, it’s nice to think that it’s all in the aid of making baby trees and flowers!

Suggested reading:

“Mum, who do you love best?” – Parental favouritism in the animal kingdom

Whilst this is a question we tend to think of as being asked by a child with siblings, it turns out, animal parents have favourites too…

For example, there’s a species of budgie that regurgitates food for its young and males will feed in response to chicks begging whereas females will seek out the smallest offspring and prioritise them.  In bearded vultures, it really does pay to be the favourite; it’s common for parents to only feed the first born chick…  But it’s not just size and birth order that parents prioritise.  Sticking with the bird world, let’s have a look at a few more examples.

Eastern bluebird dads favour their sons, protecting them from danger whilst exposing their daughters.  But sons aren’t equal either, the baby which is brightest in colour will garner dads protection more so than his duller brother.  Mums on the other hand didn’t discriminate.  If we turn to coots, we find much the same, with parents preferentially feeding nestlings which have ornamental plumes over their duller nestmates.  But it isn’t always about how attractive the offspring are:

“In birds, female blue tits, for instance, are better parents to the offspring they had with sexy males.  Not only that, but if the male they have mated with has his colouring dulled, the equivalent of being made less attractive, the female will actively reduce her efforts to feed their offspring.”
– Verdolin

So, what’s going on with parents?  Why do they play favourites with their children?

Well, what resources are available is an essential part of understanding this.  If you have five chicks and food is scarce, you could split it all equally and end up with five slightly less healthy chicks, or you could allocate them in an unequal way and thus play favourites with your children.

With chinstrap penguins who have more than one chick, they will make their kids chase them for food.  The chick that wins the race gets the food and the one that lags behind will ultimately die.  It sounds incredibly harsh but if you only have enough food for one chick, you need to make sure it goes to the one who has the highest chance of surviving to adulthood and having their own chicks.  This explains why parents tend to favour the fastest and strongest of their young, but what about those eastern bluebird dads and the female blue tits?

This type of favouritism, based on appearances, is again about trying to ensure that your lineage will continue.  With the blue tits, sexy males mean sexy children who in turn will have more sex and hence more chicks themselves.  By putting more resources into caring for the chicks from the sexy male, the mummy blue tit is worker harder to ensure her young will become healthy, sexy and successful breeders themselves.  For bluebirds, the females prefer to mate with brighter males and thus in the example above, where dad is trying to protect his brightest son, he is attempting to protect the son who has the best chance of mating when he grows up.

You might be wondering though, why are daddy bluebirds so concerned with their sons and not their daughters.  It’s not just that bluebirds want to have daddy son time, it happens in other species as well.  For example, wandering albatrosses feed their sons more than their daughters and I’m sure there are many more examples out there of dads putting their effort into ensuring their sons grow up to be big, strong, sexy adults.  Essentially it comes down to wanting to continue the family line and sexy males (in species where an individual male has more sex than an individual female) will achieve that.

But it’s not even just after birth that parents play favourites, in some species there can be a disproportionate ratio of males and females born, taking the idea of parental preference to an extreme.  One example of this is the red deer which has more sons if mum is in good condition and more daughters is she is afflicted by parasites, ill health, in a lower rank etc.  This means that more dominant females have more sons than their non dominant counterparts, something that we see with macaques as well.

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis suggests an explanation for this favouritism.  The hypothesis is that with conditions are great, females should give birth to and invest in raising sons over daughters.  When conditions are poorer, the reverse should occur.  As with the other types of favouritism we’ve looked at, this is about ensuring that your children have lots of children and your line continues.  To understand why the Trivers-Willard hypothesis might hold, we need to note a few things:

  • If a mother is in great condition, she is more likely to have a child who is in great condition.
  • If a child is in great condition, they have a better chance of surviving to adulthood.
  • If the species is such that males have the potential to produce more offspring than females, then being sexy is important. If you aren’t a sexy male, then you might not attract any females, thus you won’t have any children and essentially the resources that your mother chose to give you are wasted.  Basically, mum would have been better having a daughter.

Essentially, a male in great condition will have significantly more offspring than a female in the same condition and thus is a better investment.  A male in poorer condition will potentially have less offspring than a female in the same condition and so is a bad choice to invest in.

Whilst it may not be of comfort to you if you aren’t the favourite child, at least you know you’re not alone… And just in case you were wondering, its thought that two thirds to three quarters of human parents favour one child over another…

Suggested reading:

A recipe for life

“Hence without parents by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth”
– E. Darwin, 1803

Spontaneous generation is the idea that life can arise from non living material at any given moment and one of the earliest references I found to the concept was from Anaximander in the 3rd century BC.  Not long after, Aristotle was writing in the 4th century about eels.  They troubled him as he could find no trace of their sex.  He concluded that eels “proceeds neither from pair, nor from an egg” but that instead they were born of the “earth’s guts”, that is spontaneously emerging from mud.  Aristotle believed that worm casts were actually embryonic eels boiling out of the ground.  Pliny the Elder had another idea, that eels would rub themselves against rocks and the scrapings would come to life.  Other eel theories included young emerging from the gills of fish, from dew or being created by electrical disturbances.  The reason that eels caused natural history such issues is because of their lifecycle which starts out at sea, away from the eyes of man.

Aristotle also thought that spontaneous generation applied to a few other creatures, often small, including flies and frogs, which were considered to be lower life forms.  Some were thought to be produced in putrefying mud and dung, in wood, in excrement, and dew.  Later, naturalists would claim that insects spontaneously generated out of old wax, vinegar, damp dust and books.  Even decaying larger animals were thought to generate these smaller lifeforms.  Horses were thought to be transmogrified into hornets, crocodiles into scorpions, mules into locusts and bulls into bees.  Rats were said to come from garbage, aphids from bamboo, flies from sweat and ants from sour wine.

Athanasius Kircher included ‘recipes’ for life in his 1665 book, for example, to create frogs, you needed to collect clay from a ditch where frogs have lived, incubate it in a large vessel, add rainwater and voila!

Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century tells us how to make poisonous, predatory arachnids; fill a hole in a brick with basil, cover with a second brick and leave in the sun.  To make mice, he instructs us to place wheat and water in a flask, cover with the skirt of an unclean woman, leave for 21 days and there you’ll have baby mice.  Another mouse suggestion was that they emerged from the earth and in some places you could see them fully formed as far as the breast and front feet, the rest still just mud.

To make flies, you collect fly cadaver’s, crush them slightly, put them on a brass plate and sprinkle with honey water.  You can make bees by killing a bull, putting the corpse on branches and herbs during spring and by summer you’d have your bees.  Oysters would grow from slime, cockles from sand and salamanders from fire.

Whilst all of this sounds absurd to us today, if you put yourself in their shoes, I think you’d struggle to find a better theory.  After all, caterpillars don’t have parents that resemble them, and when they die (turn into a chrysalis), they create a butterfly.  Mushrooms grow from dead logs, mould appears out of nowhere and then there are the ‘annual’ fishes of Africa and South America:

“Their lifestyle is almost magical.  They live in puddles, ponds and ditches that dry up for part of the year.  When the puddles dry up, they die.  Only their eggs survive, buried under the dried mud, waiting for the next rains.  Collect mud, add water – and presto, you get fish.  You can see why people believed in spontaneous generation.”
– Olivia Judson

Over time, the idea of spontaneous generation began to be questioned.  In 1646 a sceptic was ridiculed for questioning the idea but Francesco Redi would seek to disprove the idea that maggots grew out of raw meat with experiments in the 17th century (he still believed that living matter could create other living matter eg trees creating wasps and gallflies).  Unfortunately, his results were questioned, holes were poking in the methods and John Needham would go onto ‘prove’ via another experiment that spontaneous generation was of course real.  Needham’s experiment took gravy and heated it, then sealed the end of the flask and the idea was that nothing could survive the heat or get it as it was sealed.  When life started to form, Needham was validated in his belief.  However, he hadn’t heated the flask high enough to kill the bacteria enclosed in it so they survived the process.

Other people would work at disproving spontaneous generation including Lazzaro Spallanzani who built on the work of Redi, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came onto the scene in the 19th century that the theory was conclusively disproved.

Ultimately, by investigating the theory of spontaneous generation, we would come across pasteurisation and the field of microbiology would be born.

Suggested Reading: