How we tell stories about the natural world informs so much of our understanding.
I only started to learn about moths this summer. There are hundreds of different kinds, and I was familiar with a few of the day-fliers, but until recently most moths were just dusty night things and I could not identify any of them. I have a long way to go.
I’ve been to two moth walks, and seen quite a few of them now. They have a subtle beauty – many of them spend their days on tree trunks, cunningly camouflaged. Some have the option of flashing colourful underwings to see off predators. Where there are moths, there are also usually bats feeding on them, and my bat identification skills are not what they could be.
There are different ways of knowing and learning. We can acquire tick-box knowledge, putting names to shapes, but little else. It’s good for showing off, especially if you can do it in Latin. Rather than connecting us to the world, abstract facts can just reinforce a sense of superiority. That which you can name, you have power over, and nature does not get to name itself.
Other kinds of knowing are all about the context – knowing how what you are seeing lives, where it fits with other things, what it feeds on, what its cycles are. The cinnabar moth and the ragwort share a story which in turn has implications for livestock. Some kinds of knowledge help us see the relationships, the interdependence and the fragility. Being able to spot a cinnabar caterpillar is one thing. Knowing the plant it is sat on can make your horse sick, is another.
We’ve constructed ways of learning about nature that reinforce our sense of dominance over it and our belief that we are entitled to exploit. Other stories are available, like the stories of how moths, bats and trees all relate to each other.