#Yggdrassil: The World Within a Tree

Biology, ecology, emergence, entemology, folklore, insects, mythology, nature, scicomm, science fiction

“We live in a Universe that seems to be unsure of its rules sometimes. Is everything preordained, folded and tucked into the very tiny recesses of whatever quantum realm underpins our own world? Is everything an emergent property, constantly cycled and coded in real-time? Writers and thinkers have pondered this question and its countless variations since thought began. I’m not arrogant to declare I have the answers, and honestly, at this point in time could anyone? 

Whatever viewpoint you have on the universe and how it all stacks up, there are some things no body can deny. Everything works the way it works, no matter what explanation you put forward for it.”

Staring at traffic gets me in a pensive mood sometimes. It makes me wonder (as an aside) how much thinking is done at windows, watching the world rush by? Right now I’m thinking about several hours just spent at some local wetlands. Just near my home, they have been virtually rebuilt by local councils over the last fifteen years or so, in a bid to clean up the environment a little bit. It isn’t really a token gesture. The wetlands have been a beacon of success amid the constant flood of tales of environmental woe. I visit them all the time when I get time off work, and love nothing more than wandering for hours at a time, taking photos of insects and whatever else takes my fancy.

You see, I really like science. I even studied it, slogging through five years of university, so I could get a nice big certificate to put on my wall. It was fun, but I’ve realised that for me science is all about wandering around in lonely places and just paying attention to things that others sometimes don’t see. It’s all about where you feel at home, and I’ve always felt at home in my imagination.

Today’s walk took me through the Paddocks Wetlands. They’re an area set aside by local government for environmental remediation. They constitute a fairly large chunk of land, set behind factories and commercial precincts.

The open space didn’t interest me today. I was armed with a bunch of cameras and a cheap little macro lens for my smart phone. Today, I went bug hunting. I went yesterday as well, just a boy and his smartphone.

Today’s trek through the wilderness was initially not panning out. With some pretty miserable weather, insects seemed to be sleeping in that day. I was getting a little bored. I was streaming my walk on Periscope, and getting a little distracted, clowning around for the viewers.

Then, a tree happened.

Trees hold a powerful place in world mythology. The mighty Ents of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are derived from ancient European myth. Trees are sacred in many cultures. This probably found its greatest expression in Norse mythology, with the World Tree Yggdrasil.

Die_Eiche_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heine

Rooted in Eurasian mythology, Yggdrasil continues its hold on modern imaginations.

According to Norse legend, Yggdrasil was a mighty Ash (sometimes Oak) tree, whose branches extended beyond the heavens into the nine realms of existence. It’s roots extended far below, into the homes of Gods and demons. I personally have always loved this tale. It’s always given trees a certain mystique. When I was younger I used to believe they could think and feel just as we do, and wondered what secrets they kept to themselves…

In a way this assumption wasn’t far off. At the paddocks wetlands today I was able to focus on a single tree, finding a host of life and drama within.

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This quiet unassuming tree became my main focus for the day.

This wasn’t just some boring old gum tree. On walking past it, I immediately noticed something I don’t see very often:

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This praying mantis, about 4 cm long was lurking quietly among some drooping Eucalyptus branches.

I was truly excited to find this little beastie. It was in the midst of eating the still twitching halves of a European wasp. It’s not every day we get to see nature at its violent best, and my camera was at the ready. The mantis was on to me, I’ll give it that. About the only important thing to heed when trying to photograph or film insects is that they are 1: extremely alert, and 2: extremely timid as a rule. They’ve been around for a very long time, and they’ve been on everyone’s menu for a long time. They’ve become very good at evading big clumsy beasts like myself. If you are, however, very quiet and move really slowly, you can get decent shots.

Or at least Twitter worthy shots.

The tree was home to so many. Dramas were unfolding before my eyes, and that was what was so great! From blood thirsty evisceration amid large gum leaves hanging like drapes to the aftermath of pitched battles:

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Sometimes, no one wins.

Yggdrasil continued to unfold before me. Fire ants were foraging in the tree branches, coming down to investigate the praying mantis. The mantis actually tossed the wasp away, on realising I wasn’t going to leave it alone! That, and the inquisitive ants coming down to assess the situation and the mantis went into lock down, assuming it’s well-known posture of supplication. As I’ve said, insects are incredible survivors. On turning away for a few moments to further explore the tree the mantis was gone forever, melting into the greens and browns of the branches drooping down to the ground.

Note: My identification of these ants may be completely wrong. Feel free to correct me. 

The ants only numbered in the dozens.  They were like a scouting party, sent from their command centre to gauge the lay of the land before invasion day. One explorer to another, I watched them go about their business.

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When going on these kinds of walks,  I have found that you can’t go out intending to find something. Most times the only times I find things worth capturing on film is when some random glance leads me to a new discovery. Even knowing where to look is not enough sometimes. Insects are extremely elusive. Their size and alertness has kept them alive for hundreds of millions of years. Like Tolkien’s Hobbits, it seems that insects and their arthropod cousins will only be seen by us big folk when they want to. This is when we go out using only our eyes to look.

One tree was full of dramas and epic struggle. A fight for survival, a loser vanquished by a stronger foe and rent asunder like a bloody trophy. The first tendrils of conquest, seeking new worlds, coming into contact with the natives. These first contacts not going so well for some; even for combatants from both sides. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for those who care to see it.

For these tiny creatures, this eucalyptus tree was their world. Like the Norse stories, the tree was their Yggdrasil, their entire cosmology. Branches swept up out of sight into the heavens, where only the foolhardy would ever travel, risking swooping birds. The tree’s roots grasped deep, clenching around the foundations of their universe. Some branches were reaching out, entwined with those from other universes, where brave travellers would cross over, meeting inhabitants of the neighbouring universes. Unknown to them all, they were all being watched by higher powers, hovering over them.

Or, were they unaware?

Insects up close

entemology, folklore, insects, mythology, scicomm, science fiction

I have discovered something about myself as I get older.

Bugs are really interesting. Ever since my first purchase of a cheap little macro lens for my smart phone I literally cannot resist the urge to photograph or film every bug I encounter.

No, I’m not a professional photographer and I am NOT an entemologist. You don’t need a degree in something though to be interested in it, or for your interest to be irrelevant. Insects are one of the “pandas” of the science world. Panda? You ask, wondering what the heck I mean. What’s a panda?

…..

I’ll forget you asked that. No seriously. Does anyone notice that when people are spouting conservation and such to the person on the street, they will hold up pictures of so called “charismatic megafauna”. That is, cute or majestic mammals or large creatures: white tigers, elephants, gorillas and, you guessed it, pandas. These kinds of creatures are the pin ups of the conservation world. In a similar fashion dinosaurs, outer space and insects are the huge drawcards,  the “gateway drugs” drawing people into science.

Insects are eternally fascinating. They constitute the vast majority of  terrestrial life forms on Earth. Beetles alone constitute about sixty percent of all terrestrial species, leading Charles Darwin ( or was it J.B.S. Haldane?) to utter a famous quote regarding God and his “inordinate fondness for beetles”. Whoever gave us this immortal quip, the message is still correct.  Insects in all their forms are everywhere. It’s easy to find a bush, tree or other corner in your back yard and discover an entire world right there beneath your nose. It really takes a minimum of effort; albeit an indifference to getting dirty.

Me, I’ve got no qualms about that!

No expensive equipment is required. I have been doing a lot of photography and filming of insects, spiders, even marine arthropods: crabs etc. All of this has been done with a smartphone and a cheap little clip on macro lens. These lenses are ridiculously cheap and easy to obtain:

I’ve got several videos worth of material to put together for my little YouTube channel, so I look forward to working on and sharing those with you.

And there is no shortage of subjects to film!

Insects have had a special place around the campfire of humanity’s imagination since our ancestors came down from the trees. At times they have been welcome guests,  at times they have been the subject of nightmares, lurking deep within our ancestral memory. Few creatures inspire as much dread and horror as these utterly alien and bizarre denizens of backyards everywhere. Perhaps no other organism inspires so much terror as the spider. No, not an insect but an arachnid I know. In the eyes of arachnaphobes though the difference is essentially nothing.

Insects even populate the darkest corners of fiction. Anyone who has seen the “Alien” franchise must have been struck by the Queen xenomorph, nothing more than a murderous queen bee, atop a mound of carefully laid eggs; overseeing the slaughter of hapless humans at the hands of her hive. It is this cold, metallic, insectile aspect that gives these creatures such hold over our fears.

“Get away from her, you BITCH!!”

Film makers and storytellers know how to make us uneasy. That’s for sure. Fortunately no such creature exists in good ol’ reality. Could you imagine it?

But insects play other roles in the human psyche.

Ancient Egyptians believed that dung beetles were sacred.

Ancient Egyptians believed dung beetles to be sacred, performing the cosmological task of ensuring the sun never strayed from it’s predestined course, making it to sunset. In other words they fancied the sun as a ball of dung, being rolled across the heavens by this celestial beetle!

Bees have a a special place in world mythology, even playing a part in the creation of the first human in some cases.

Ancient Greek bee goddesses. Image: Wikipedia

So insects have a long, sometimes love – hate relationship with humanity. They play every part: aggressor and bringer of plague to custodians of secret knowledge and wisdom- at least in our very human context.

Do you find insects interesting? I’d be keen to hear your tales.Whether you’re just a hunter like myself, chasing the best shot possible, or a scientist or STEM professional working with these ancient creatures for the betterment of humanity. Leave comments below, and it may turn into a conversation!