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Convocation Address, How the Light Gets in 1998

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Celebrate Black Fly Day!

Celebrating Black Fly Day

An excerpt from the chapter “Mother Mary Comes to Me: Insects as Creators and Bodhisattvas” in Eat the Beetles: An Exploration into our Conflicted Relationship with Insects (EWC, 2017) by David Waltner-Toews

We’re in love and it’s a buggy day.

Good nutrition. Ecological sustainability. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Are those black flies singing? Is this a fantasy?

In the United States, Black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving, is a frenzied, greed-driven, chaotic shopping day. In 2012, Doug Currie, Vice-President, Department of Natural History and Senior Curator of Entomology at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, launched Black Fly Day as an antidote to the toxic commercialism of the day. Currie’s 1988 Ph.D. dissertation was on black flies, and he has done extensive research into the diversity and biogeography of northern Holarctic black flies. His book on the Simuliidae (black flies) of North America, co-authored with Peter Adler and D. Monty Wood, won the 2004 Association of American Publishers Award for Best Single-Volume Reference in the Sciences. So the proposal for a Black Fly Day was not necessarily a frivolous pun. But still, one might ask: why would one want to celebrate such a terrible pest?

Black flies are infamous in many parts of the world, mostly because of a few blood-sucking, death-dealing, river blindness–bearing black sheep (if black flies may indeed be said to have black sheep) in the family. But some of them can be seen from a more ambiguous perspective. Globally, humans have been rapidly blundering into and destroying many of the earth’s most important and stunningly complex ecosystems. Who has protected the few remaining natural refuges from the depredations of humans? In the Arctic, in those few weeks that aren’t butt-freezing cold, those great eco-warriors have been black flies.

In North America, home to slightly more than a tenth of the approximately 1,800 species of black flies, they are mostly nuisances with benefits. The larvae are fastidious and only live in fresh, flowing, oxygenated, pollution-free water; so if you see them when you go swimming, it’s a good sign. The males drink nectar and pollinate flowers; they are the Ferdinands — the flower-smelling non-fighting bulls — of the bug world. Four species of male black flies have given up sex altogether, and the females reproduce parthenogenetically. In those species where the females have a taste for mammalian blood, they prefer nonhumans. Females from eight of the nine species restricted to the Canadian tundra don’t even have the necessary blood-feeding mouthparts.

So, are they good? Are they bad? Like all of us, they are a complex mix, to be celebrated, feared, and, in the spirit of biophilia, loved.

Between Parasites and Planets: Memoirs of a Scientist in the Muggled Middle

Over the next weeks and months, between working on murder mysteries and an alternative history-novel, I plan to post 42 essays and talks I have given over the past few decades that reflect my (changing) view on life, the universe, and everything. A few are reworked adaptations from my books, but the narrative thread is not disease, or insects, but my evolving work as a writers and scientist and how it has changed my worldview. Stand by as I try to figure out how to use this technology.

A Post 911 Anthem: the Morning Shower Version

I wrote this anthem post-911. I woke up this morning and sang it again.

 

I sing of myself in the shower

the water tumbling like an ad

for soapless soap and tropical fantasies.

I celebrate my armpits, the grassy gullies

of my upstretched arms, voices splashing

down my chest and belly. I sing

to the rabbit in my loins,

to your body next to mine, the hillocks

and the warren door.

 

I sing in tears of love

of my germanic heritage, four-part,

six-part multi-hearted harmony:

beethoven, bach, my grandparents,

bonhoeffer and einstein,

the millions who were massacred,

and the millions who made us who we are

because they lived. I celebrate the mennonites

who would not kill and the anarchists who killed them.

 

I am a cornucopia of history’s compostibles:

recycled rage, wisdom, control, chaos,

a parade of brash brass bands blasting

ayatollahs, borks, falwells, herzogs,

netanyahus, arafats, stalins, maos, john-pauls

john and paul, francis and frankenstein,

I trumpet osama, guevera, mandela, gandhi,

macolm, martin, fidel, and fidelio.

 

I sing of roots, equality, peasants, pageantry,

leaves, earth, & never again,

from generation to generation.

 

I hug my arms around me in the shower

to bring you close, bring into me old

wrinkled men and blue-skinned girls,

the raped and the rapists,

the free traders and the prostitutes, those with sad

livers and despairing immune systems,

the starving mothers, the alcoholic glue sniffers

the bank presidents who make them possible.

 

Oh the delight of our efficiencies! I sing to

the weary oil workers of shell and exxon,

the otter-slickers who give us jobs,

and the sleek auto-makers who take us to them.

Praise to the nigerians and arabs we sacrifice.

Praise to the desert storms

that swirled our skirts up to new self-

indulgent heights.

 

I waltz buck naked with clasping tree-huggers,

a threesome with buff-muscled tree-cutters,

tight-wad men in tailored suits

selling their children for another year

of labour lost.

I hum of the saws and the green chain,

my sleepless body, my aching back,

the teachers paid from this store

of fallen trees,

the students at the wooden desks,

the poets scribbling wisdom and garbage

on these sacrificial leaves,

the grandchildren who will inherit

the dregs of our wine.

 

Praise to the righteous

who remind us with guns, crosses, and sickles

of gods within and without.

Praise to the preaching neo-Darwinists

who snort to us of non-God

from logical pulpits.

Death comes to us all,

and life, illogically.

Praise to the french for giving us

a nuclear underground and future to protest,

for wine to help us celebrate and to forget,

for arrogance to make us feel humble.

Praise to the nazis the stalinists the taliban the 700 Club

for making us seem like the good guys.

And oh the chinese japanese

javanese how can I thank you enough

for the wonders of your orchids your walls

your sand beaches your stereo sets your batik

the rain forests you have devastated

the gold and nickel and oil

that enrich and enrage us

the jaundiced jokes you have given us?

 

All that I am is thanks to you.

 

I shout white is fine and

black is beautiful.

I belt out the happy blues of the half breed,

the dilly-dallying sperm, the twisted tongue,

the sugar babies franglophones métis

flat germans mulattoes creoles.

 

Let us create a movement and call it

one-quarter chinese one-eighth black

some part indian-semitic-arab a pinch of aboriginal

some russian mongolian a bit of monkey

and a little white

is beautiful.

 

Let us wiggle our butts,

sing the delights of our impurity,

dance our despair,

love ourselves,

all of us, in the deluge,

in the shower.

 

Sing now, at last,

to the lambs we were,

what we lost sight

of, have become,

little tigers, burning bright,

our might undone, down

on our knees,

 

in awe, the sky a shivery cerulean,

the cracked sun, sunny side up,

still sizzling, as we rise up,

bleary-eyed and bright as dung beetles,

to face another raw Ra day

Legos and Violence

When playing Legos with my 3-year-old grandsons, I tried to convince him that anyone could build something that was fast and noisy with lots of weapons; the really cool and advanced techno-skills were the ones that could build slow-low-silent-flying planes that ran on solar power and didn’t scare the animals. You could actually see the world that way, and not destroy it.

I showed him pictures on line of the Solarpulse2, (http://www.solarimpulse.com/) which was setting new records for round-the-world flight using no fossil fuels….and was not covered by the mainstream media.

Rather than building warriors, I built two veterinarians, Dr. Piña Colada and Dr. Cheesecake, who healed people, other animals, and broken airplanes.

Then my 6 year old grandson introduced me to Lego books from the library. It was a shock to discover how violent they had become, and how the books, and on-line and TV stories were marketing tools for Lego wars. In one book, the brains were the evil ones; the good guys (Ninjagos) were the ones with the most sophisticated weapons. They were presented as being “community minded” because they visited the little middle class city they were protecting from evil, and signed autographs and talked to people like sports-and-war heroes.

This reminded me of work done by a friend and colleague of mine in the 1990s with the Stockholm Environment Institute. Gilberto was part of a team considering possible global futures – what they called global scenarios. Two scenarios they developed are what are called barbarization scenarios. One of them is “Fortress World”. According to the Global Scenarios website “Fortress World features an authoritarian response to the threat of breakdown. Ensconced in protected enclaves, elites safeguard their privilege by controlling an impoverished majority and managing critical natural resources, while outside the fortress there is repression, environmental destruction and misery.” (http://www.gsg.org/index.html)

This was the scenario being promoted by the new Lego worlds. This also reminded me of a recent article in the NYT about the Humanitarian Summit in Turkey, which very much reflected this way of thinking.

Lego really needs to get better, less fascist, more creative story-tellers, rather than reinforcing the worst of all possible dystopian futures.

Archipelago in London

LoveBugSalad Chocolate-Covered Grasshoppers

 

 

 

 

The short night from Toronto to London, followed by the Heathrow express and then the crowded metros to the small hotel near Regent’s Park left me aching & a bit queasy. It was almost noon. I had a 1:30 lunch reservation at the Archipelago Restaurant, which is known for it’s exotic and eclectic menu, including several dishes that feature insects. I figured the hour-long walk in the bright sun across the park and some light bug dishes would help me get my feet back on the ground. http://www.archipelago-restaurant.co.uk/

I only got lost once or twice, and when I asked directions, I was told with some incredulity that where I was going was really really far away. Not so far, actually – 2 or 3 miles, but I guess for Londoners that’s far. Entering the Archipelago is a bit like walking into a 19th century curiosity shop, chock-a-block with peacock feathers, buddhas, wooden Indonesian Wayang golek puppets, a collage on greens, reds, pink, brown, wood, glass, cloth, brass.

MyLunch CompanionAfter telling them the password they had given me to hold my reservation, I was offered a table near the window, and a glass Buddha with a reddish translucent body, a grey head, and a crown of golden curls for my dinner companion. He didn’t say much but seemed to enjoy the ambiance. There was one other person in he restaurant, a clean-cut 30-ish American studying archaeology in England. He too was trying all the bug dishes, announcing that he was probably the only adventurous eater in the small Michigan town where he’d grown up. I asked him how he liked the insect dishes, and he was enthusiastic.

My lunch consisted of Summer Nights (Pan fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit), Love-Bug Salad (Baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil,  chilis, lemon grass, & garlic), Bushman’s Cavi-Err (Caramel mealworms, bilinis, coconut cream and vodka jelly), Medieaval Hive (Brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce and a baby bee drone & Chocolate  Covered Locusts (white, milk & dark), served with a small glass of sweet white wine. I ordered a glass of Malbec, which complemented the flavours well.

I chatted with the guy serving me, an Australian who had once been an event organizer at the Sydney Opera House, and more recently had led tours around the UK and Europe. Himself an eclectic world traveller, he fit right in. The restaurant had been started by a guy from South Africa, who had seen a need for the kinds of “exotic” meats on offer – zebra, crocodile, pythons – in his home. Insects had been on the menu from the start, and so was not part of the “new wave.”

HoneyIcreCream&DroneThe food was all excellent, the insects adding the usual crunchy texture and subtle flavours. I want to say “delectable” but that makes me sound higher brow than I am. Archipelago had more sweets on the menu than I have seen elsewhere, which, with their mix of chewy and crunchy, and understated flavours of honey, caramel, nuts (in the Bushman’s Cvi-Err) and chocolate, surprised and delighted me. The insects clearly present, but not in your face, a more relaxed, perhaps “normal” feel to it than that Public or Billy Kwong, and certainly not at all like Uchiyama’s hunting and cooking flare, which, for a westerner, bordered on street theatre.

If you are in London, the Archipelago is a great place to have an interesting and relaxed lunch.

I got lost a few times on the way back, but not seriously so. And expect to sleep well before an intense two days debating with field researchers from around the world about how to understand and manage the ecology of diseases people get from other animals, often transmitted by insect pests. Trying to get linear-thinking, disease-focused people to re-imagine the world in complex, uncertain, multiple ways, and to promote high quality constructive conflicts and arguments.

Bugs at Billy Kwong’s, Sydney, Australia

Wonton&Crickets@KwongBilly Kwong Restaurant Oct 20, 2015

The flight from Melbourne to Sydney was smooth until the muffled announcement that the Sydney airport closed because of a major storm. We were assured that although we would need to circle for a while, we had enough fuel for this, which was only partly reassuring. Why was our fuel supply even an issue? We landed just before 7 PM, about half an hour late. Since I had an 8 PM reservation at Billy Kwong’s restaurant in Pott’s Point, I rushed out – to wait in a long line for taxis. Eventually got a cabbie that didn’t seem to know the “well-known” street and hotel (Macleay Hotel) to which I was going. About $60 later we got there (via tunnels and toll roads), and I rushed in to shower and change clothes. Fortunately Billy Kwong’s was just next door.

Having read a 2013 interview with Kylie Kwong about integrating varied and delicious insect dishes into their Australian-Chinese eco-friendly cuisine, I was excited to try it. In that interview, which emphasized her journey from entomophobe to a champion of insects as a sustainable and delicious food source, she had said that “They’re all an integral part of the Billy Kwong menu now.” http://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/food-and-drink/article/dishing-insects-kylie-kwong-billy

A warm (25 degrees) Tuesday evening, and the darkly-lit place was bustling: young, beautiful, svelte, ever-warm-and-friendly waiters, bartenders and various other workers slipped and danced smoothly past each other, among patrons, into and out of the wine cellar, the bar, past the open kitchen, never colliding, a ballet of blackly clad grace, food and alcohol. The atmosphere was warm, friendly, cosiness without claustrophobia, inclusiveness without intrusion. I was shown to one of the few open stools at the bar. I looked over the menu and didn’t see any bugs.
Miranda, my slight, light-footed waitress was quick and friendly and asked what I wanted. I said I was from Canada, working on a book about eating insects around the world and its evolutionary and cultural contexts. I had made the reservation months ahead (in early July), explaining exactly why I was coming, so that I could sample Kwong’s internationally advertised dishes that included insects, and compare it to what I was seeing elsewhere in the world.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said sweetly. “We don’t have any insect dishes right now. Is there something else you would like?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Listen,” I said above the din of voices and constant, hip, music, “I came here specifically for the insects. It’s the only reason I am in Sydney. I have visited restaurants in Paris, Vientiane, and Tokyo and will be going to Public in Brisbane, and now I am here. I am writing a book about insect dishes, and I only came to Sydney for the insect dishes advertised at this restaurant.” After I had repeated the same information several times, in different ways, with different emphases in the sentences, she finally said she would go check with the chef. Would I like a drink?”

At that point, exhausted from travel and sleeplessness, I certainly did need a drink. Fortunately, “Billy Kwong’s special gin” is excellent, clean, not-too-sweet. I asked the bartender if this was crowd was unusual. No she said. The place was even fuller on weekends. What nationality do you think I am, she asked slyly with a slight non-Germanic European accent, and don’t say French. I was really tired, and annoyed, so despite her tall, Slavic beauty, the high cheekbones, the slightly-bemused, somewhat widely-set brown eyes, I said Belgian. Czech, she said: Lenka Vosmikova.

I looked around at the groups and couples along the bar and leaning in to each other, laughing, engaged in conversations. I had a brief, wistful twinge about not being forty-years younger, and realized that I would have been as much a stranger to this crowd then as I was now. I wouldn’t have even been an observer of this lifestyle at that age, being poorer, less confident of, or comfortable with, my place in the world, and more earnestly engaged with looking for meaning in other places.

I think I was on my second gin, trying to keep my anger and anxiety down, WTF was I doing here? when Miranda came back with what she described as “fantastic news”: the chef (not sure if it was Kylie Kwong herself) would make me crispy fried wanton and sweet chili sauce with crickets.

The wanton were indeed a crispy fried pastry wrapped around prawns – and a light sprinkling of cricket bits on top (see photo). I had to take out my iPhone and shine the flashlight on the dish to find them. Well, I thought, they really did kill them when they were little. The wanton were perfect combination of crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle (as the polar bears in a Gary Larson cartoon said of an igloo). I ordered a plate of the crispy fried wantons with prawns and no crickets, just for comparison. Really the only difference was the sprinkling of cricket bits over the wanton, with no discernible difference in flavour. I asked my waitress if this was how the chef usually prepared insects, and she informed me that they had to be subtle about introducing such new cuisine to Australians, so yes, she only included small amounts.

I was disappointed. Why would anyone come to Bill Kwong and order the cricket wanton? So they could go with a good eco-conscience and big wallet to a classy restaurant with lively ambiance, genial company, locally grown pork, prawns, warrigal greens and wallaby tails, but at the same time tell their friends that they had eaten “bugs”? Adventurous eating without the adventure?

Later, Miranda brought me a small dish of roasted mealworms – about a teaspoon full. They were crunchy, “slightly nutty” as they say, not at all greasy –and not worth travelling the world for. A package from Next Millennium Farms in Ontario would have done as well.

I watched Lenka vigorously shake up a drink that looked like a Pisco sour, complete with egg whites. I asked her what it was:  “Angelino Come Back” – named after a favourite bartender who had returned to his Italian homeland. Gin fused with jasmine, honey, ginger, lemon and egg whites. Very refreshing (well, after two of Billy’s gins, I suppose many drinks would have seemed that way). Over the course of the evening, I supplemented the alcohol with two litres of sparkling water and a large pot of mint-ginger tea.

Stepping out into the warm evening of what was clearly a “hip” district, even mid week, I found Lenka out front, stuffing a full black garbage bag into the trash bin. It occurred to me that she had been traveling the world with an apparent confidence and ease that I never had when I was younger. Some of that I can chalk up to a (charming?) naivete I had back then, and – thanks to the simple, blinkered world of the hitch-hiker –  an obliviousness to the diverse worlds that comprise the “one world” we aspire to. The worlds back then seemed simpler, less dangerous. Today, thanks largely to the internet – within and among the post-911 worlds of danger, terrorism, plundering neoliberal and state businesses, refugees, wars, extreme poverty – the many other micro-worlds we inhabit invade and alter our minds and perspectives daily, even hourly, and offer many alternative journeys around the planet. There are the young and beautiful, travellers and activists, neo-urban farmers raising chickens and bees and permaculture, re-invigorated and redefined indigenous nations. It’s not clear to me yet where the “new entomophagists” fit into this inchoate mix of evolving global cultures; in some ways, coming from the margins of all these cultures, they will find many homes, some where crickets are a garnish, and some where they are the main protein source.

For people like Lenka and others who worked in a restaurant that virtually champions insect cuisine but seems to soft-pedal it in practice, I am not sure where such issues register, if at all. I wished her well, and returned to my clean, white & black modernist room at the Macleay, less angry than I’d been a few hours earlier.

I stood for a while at my window, looking out over the beautiful city skyline. I was – and am – puzzled over the high profile insect cuisine carries internationally and virtually, especially in some circles, and the low, near invisible profile it carries locally, in daily lives of most people. This has to do with the ways in which social media have often reinforced fragmented understandings of the world; there are implicit – and false –  assumptions in each isolated group that others are working from the same visions and knowledge.

I recall attending a conference, in Alexandria, of that massive global initiative of the early 2000s, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The title of the conference was “Bridging Scales and Epistemologies,“ and emphasized the challenges of listening across cultures, having mutually respectful communications across different world views, and creating effective linkages that could encompass individuals, villages, governments, and, indeed, the whole earth. If the world of insect-eating is any indication, it seems to me that the important conversations to begin designing these bridges has barely begun.