IN THE YEAR I turned four my father bought a gramophone. It was a particularly dreadful piece of furniture, standing high on four imbuia ball-and-claw feet, and had a large loudspeaker that pointed to the floor. The dealer, possibly hoping to secure the transaction, threw in a number of heavy shellac 78rpm records, which included ones of Richard Crooks singing “The holy city” and Erna Sak, the German nightingale, singing “Ciribiribin”.
I was captivated by the immediate sound of the human voice, with a passion that abides to this day. On Sunday afternoons I used to lie on a cushion directly under the loudspeaker, while next to it there was a round hole in which a tiny spider lived. Right there, as I lay transfixed by sound and a morbid fear of the spider, the seeds of my life as a naturalist were sown. Pavlov would surely have loved this tale.
I grew up on a large property with a compost heap, a chicken run and a garden packed with fynblomme(delicate flowers) and fruit trees, all bordered by a village stream. Buzzing, crawling, flying and burrowing through our property were the bugs of my youth, the very catalyst for my future career.
As I matured as a scientist and lecturer, it gradually became apparent to me that life on Earth does not function as a pyramid with large and visible organisms as the ecological gatekeepers. Rather, this pyramid is inverted, starting with the small, the invisible. It is the small things that matter. Underfoot and mostly invisible, myriad creatures perform life-giving functions which keep our planet working as an integrated system.
For every living person, there is estimated to be at least 1.4 billion insects on Earth, and this excludes the so-called micro-organisms such as bacteria, tardigrades, mites and nematodes. This silent suite of life alone is responsible for the fertility of the soil from which we derive our food, water and natural products such as timber. These tiny critters fix carbon from the atmosphere, improve the permeability of the soil and buffer it from erosion. And while they’re doing all that, the fungi of our world release oxygen. Life as we know it would be entirely impossible without this teeming workforce.
These days, when I’m asked to lecture schoolchildren, I no longer rely on passive droning. Instead I take them out, anywhere. I arm them with tweezers and a small plastic bag and send them out looking for any bug, of any size. Flushed with excitement, they return, proudly carrying a rather predictable assortment of snails, spiders, worms and beetles. Only when we start to discuss the hidden connections between all life on Earth does the light come into their eyes. Silently they nod, now knowing for the rest of their lives.
We need to look afresh at small things, the silent providers of free services. Can you imagine a world without pollinating bees, without the grizzly scavengers that quickly decompose dead material, without the earthworms that blindly and soundlessly enrich our soils? Can you imagine a world without honey, silk, wax or lacquer? Cicadas, locusts, mantises, grubs, caterpillars, crickets, ants and wasps provide free and nutritional supplements to millions of people round the world and it is confidently predicted that, as land available for cultivating red meat is degraded or lost to climate change, Western societies will soon adopt this diet.
Since we know the Earth’s ecology and biodiversity are under threat from climate change, pollution and the destruction and fragmentation of habitats, now is the time to go small, rather than big. I have always maintained that if we were to nurture and care for all things – even the invisible – our intertwined and larger world would be able to survive. Tread carefully and lovingly upon the Earth, for underfoot live the unseen and fundamental building blocks of life.