Where the wild things are...

There are innumerable parallel universes in each plant, bush, and tree.

Published : Oct 06, 2022 09:20 IST

Ropalidia marginata

Ropalidia marginata | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

One of the binaries which makes it easier to navigate life is the idea of the home versus the wild. In literature, culture and in common sense notions, one is frequently the conceptual opposite of the other. The home is the known space—domestic, comfortable and inviting, with everything ordered (relatively speaking) and in its place. No nasty surprises. And the other is everything home is supposedly not—the unexpected and, frequently, the unsettling. Most often when one confronts something new, the experience is invariably tinged with an uneasiness that confronting the not-known brings.

But, sometimes, what you think of as a domesticated space is actually anything but. The known place that you take for granted can be stranger than you think. Not only are there monsters and more under one’s bed, they are everywhere, in every nook and cranny. Creatures and things you don’t normally notice as you go about the business of living. You don’t see them because you are not looking for them in the first place. The “data” you notice in your surroundings are strictly all that are needed for you to survive the day. Also, we are used to noticing things that are on a human scale. Anything that is physically outside the human range of vision, the truly gigantic, and the extraordinarily tiny, falls naturally outside the grasp of our gaze.

It is a truism that “nature”, for want of a better word, seeks to thrive everywhere, even in the most hostile environments. Even in your typical city apartment, there are creepy crawlies, spiders, and innumerable bugs inside crevices and behind dark places. There is a full-blown jungle inside every hole, behind every crevice, each beating to a different rhythm. And if you are fortunate enough to live in a house with its own garden, however small it may be, there are practically innumerable parallel universes in each plant, bush, and tree.

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To paraphrase what a famous bard once said, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in science. Ironically, it is the tools of science that help us now to broaden, and deepen, our vision to include the cosmic and the microscopic. Things so fantastic and kaleidoscopic that you wouldn’t imagine them in your wildest dreams, as if a drunk impressionist just discovered Photoshop and went to town with it. The images splashed across world media from the James Webb Space Telescope are one such instance and once again helped to reinforce our sense of wonder in the vastness and the sheer scale of the universe.

Tropical tiger moth

Tropical tiger moth | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

Curiously, in the images from space telescopes and microscopes, the galactic and the diminutive become indistinguishable, mirroring each other in their palette of colours and shapes. A photo of a core of a galaxy, for example, to a non-specialised person, looks uncannily like a photo of cells under the electron microscope. But, part of the sense of wonder they together evoke stems from the fact that they actually exist, are very physical, very much real, but nothing like you have ever seen.

You can only trawl the universe virtually, but it doesn’t take too much to physically observe the spaces around you. You may not have the Hubble or the Webb, but you do have your cellphone and camera. And that is more than enough once you desync yourself from normal ways of seeing, where you usually see what you want to see, the comfortable and the reassuring. Once you look at these spaces with a fresh pair of eyes at what they really contain, they reveal themselves to you, and the amount of tiny lives you can discover is amazing.

Lean lynx spider

Lean lynx spider | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

Especially in a garden, which is far removed from the idyllic place it is usually made out to be. Where survival depends on how fast and how much you can eat (frequently another smaller being), how forbidding you look to stave off predators and where microdramas of death and survival are staged every minute. Spiders, the most numerous arachnid in our gardens and sought after by birds, have markings and are coloured in such a way that they can blend in with their surroundings. The masked crab spider, for example, was found on a drumstick tree where it could pass off for a flower of the tree.

Brown tussock moth caterpillar

Brown tussock moth caterpillar | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

Some caterpillars, too, mimic their background so well that they go practically undetected. The mango tree, for instance, is the host tree for the common baron butterfly. It lays its eggs on its leaves and when the eggs hatch, you can’t tell whether you are looking at a caterpillar or the leaf of the mango tree. 

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Caterpillars, in their own right from the word go and in a stage of their development lifecycle when they are the most vulnerable, are the punks of the insect world. But life can be hard when you are defenceless at the bottom of the food chain and at the mercy of every passing bird. So they have developed their own defence mechanisms—markings, patterns, horns, multi-coloured spikes, colours and false “eyes” on their backs—that make them appear threatening if you are a predator looking for a juicy lunch.

Bicolour ant mimicking jumping spider

Bicolour ant mimicking jumping spider | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

These, along with bees, wasps (with their typical Hollywood alien looks), hoverflies, centipedes and millipedes, not to forget the many kinds of ants, are some of the everyday wildlife you can encounter in your garden. There must be many more lives quietly being conducted beyond the edges of our sight, or even specialised knowledge. In time, we will acquire the tools to see those too. But first, you have to want to see them and, by corollary, give them the necessary conditions for them to live, if not thrive. That will happen when you realise that, as with everything else, the wild things are really inside you, but if only you can muster the courage to acknowledge, accept, and befriend them. Then, may be, they will reveal themselves as not really wild, just as you were not really as domesticated as you thought you were...

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