Dear Readers, when I was writing my piece about starlings yesterday it seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people. ‘What’s happened to the starlings, and the sparrows?’ they asked, with genuine distress. There’s now a word for this, solastalgia – it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005, and it describes the feeling, akin to homesickness, that we get when something in our home environment changes. It can be something as dramatic as a earthquake or volcano, or even when someone has built all over your history. This happened to me when I returned to my home town of Stratford in East London after Westfield and the Olympic Park had been built, and I could barely find my way from the old shopping centre because so much had changed. However, the deep meaning of the word is the sense of being disconnected with where we live because the natural environment has changed.Increasingly, we’re mourning for the fall in abundance and the loss of species of creatures that we shared our childhoods with. For me, there’s a real sadness about the woolly bear caterpillars, technically the larvae of the Garden Tiger moth. Although we had a tiny garden you could guarantee to see some of these furry beasties galloping across the cement path, in search of something or other to eat. If you picked them up, they curled into a little ball, just like the one in the photo, but if you were patient they’d uncurl and head off up your arm. You could feel the difference between the little suckers on the back legs and the hooks on the front ones. Every so often, the caterpillar would lift its head and wave around in search of a plant to munch on. I would always pop them back after a few minutes.
I don’t remember the last time that I saw a woolly bear caterpillar in London.
These are not particularly picky eaters, and they’d certainly gobble up most of the ‘weeds’ in our garden. If I remember correctly, they had a particular taste for docks of all kinds, and could sometimes be found in the little patch of nettles right in the corner. So what’s happened to them? Butterfly Conservation blame weedkillers and the habit of ‘tidying up’ everything from hedgerows to gardens. It makes me happy that more and more people are tolerating wild corners in their plots, because these are just the kinds of spaces where caterpillars of all kinds thrive. While it’s nice to have plants for adult pollinators to feed on, they also need places to lay their eggs and for their larvae to feed on.
It would be lovely if the next generation of children could also make friends with, and learn lessons from, invertebrates of all kinds. These creatures are on a child-friendly scale, and children seem to have a natural affinity with creepy-crawlies of all kinds, at least before they get older and a bit more squeamish and easily influenced by ideas of what’s cute and what’s not. We had a fungi walk in Coldfall Wood this weekend, and the children were enthralled with a leopard slug, and even more fascinated with a blob of slug eggs. That curiosity and natural empathy might be what saves all of us, in the end.
I would not want to diminish in any way the scale of the environmental challenge that faces all of us. To return to the starlings that I wrote about yesterday, the size of the murmuration at Brighton Beach has dropped from over 100,000 individual birds to just 8,000 in the past forty years. But I have to believe that it’s possible to help by the pressure that we put on our governments, the way that we live and the opportunities that we provide in our homes and gardens and parks for animals and plants to make their home. Tomorrow, I’ll write about the creatures that have appeared during my 60-odd years, animals that I would never have dreamed of seeing up close and personal when I was a child. In the meantime, let me know what has been lost of the creatures that you used to see. We can honour and grieve them together.