I’ve spent all but one of the last twelve August bank holiday weekends at Greenbelt, a medium-sized arts festival that is held in and around the grandstands and paddocks of Cheltenham racecourse. Whilst it is by no means a bad site for birding* – there’s almost no place without some potential, if you’re looking hard enough – my focus during a tightly-programmed weekend inevitably shifts towards the musicians, authors, speakers and artists we’ve paid to go and see.
The trouble is: I’m not that good at giving undivided attention to somebody on a stage. My gaze begins to drift around the tent,** seeking a distraction, even if the talk or music is quite engaging. Fortunately, on a weekend spent camping it is hard not to pick up a few unwitting passengers, generally six- or eight-legged ones, and these tend to emerge from somewhere out of my bag or on my person during the course of an event. In this way the distractions, happily, come and find me.
This year’s cast of visitors seemed more diverse than ever before, either as a consequence of the most invertebrate-friendly summer in seven years or because I’ve only learned to put a name to most of them in the last few years.
Most numerous in 2013 were ants, mostly the common or garden variety but a couple of diminutive, bright yellow meadow ants joined the party from time to time. Also notable was a truly minute beetle, probably no more than 2mm in length, which flew in from a place unseen as I was lounging on the lawns next to the (comparably) not-that-Tiny Tea Tent. Whilst I chased it around my knee, a barkfly dropped onto the other leg and teetered back and forth on uncertain legs for a few minutes, all spotted and bug-eyed.
Some kind of rotund, dark fly was also ubiquitous – I would have potted one to take home and identify, but was content for once to let my new friends live unmolested by ‘science’. Taking insect specimens has a negligible impact on populations, but it’s good for an entomologist’s soul to offer clemency once in a while, or so I reckon.
The only regular attendees I thought down in numbers were money spiders. However, this may have been because I seldom wore my usual broad floppy sunhat, from the brim of which they are fond of abseiling into the unknown on invisible gossamer safety lines. Flat caps, now my headgear of choice, are clearly less spider-friendly.
Although festivals are usually frantic affairs, at some stage over the weekend I inevitably wind up at a loose end for a couple of hours. When that happened this year, I headed to the main grandstand for my annual appointment with one of the finest views in England. Halfway up the concrete stairs, a scuttling movement on the ground caught my eye. Stooping, I found a little pea weevil, of a similar kind to one I’d been shepherding around my knees during a talk earlier that morning.
On a whim, I coaxed it aboard my finger and carried it the rest of the way to a good vantage point. The tiers of the stand dropped precipitously beneath us, meeting a plane of grass at the bottom which spread out beneath Greenbelt’s temporary tent city – a pandemonium of colour and human life – and away towards the broad swathe of classic patchwork countryside draped along the flanks of Cleeve Hill.
I doubt the weevil could perceive any of this, the explanation for which lies within my skull. The unfathomably vast network of neurons encased there generates a plausible picture of reality that must nonetheless be unique to me. For how can I be sure the Cotswold edge looks precisely the same to anybody else? In the same way, a weevil will conjure its own illusions. Whatever passes for a brain within its body attempts to weave and filter an array of sensory information into a coherent picture of the world. Constantly scanning for an image of reality solid enough that it will know by instinct just what to do next.
For this particular weevil, the multiplicitous colours, sounds and smells of the festival below proved bewildering. Or maybe it was disoriented by the lack of nearby plant refuges and potential food sources. It paced hesitantly back and forth on my finger, raising and lowering its wing cases with each turn. At last it leapt and flew, not over the edge of the grandstand and into the blue green beyond, as I had romantically hoped, but back towards the very literal concrete reality of the floor behind.
I can’t blame it for turning away from the unknown. Insects are bolted together in a fundamentally different way to us vertebrates, but their wants and desires, so far as they can be said to ‘want’, are not so strange. Food, shelter, comfort, the chance to reproduce: these are the grails for any and every organism on earth.
By instinct they experience a universe of which they are the pivotal point, the star player. In this way they are very much like humans indeed, the only difference being that the insect lacks the consciousness necessary to perceive that its grandeur is a delusion (as, I’ve no doubt, do many of us). So inasmuch as the life of one individual beetle lacks any cosmic or even ecological significance, I wonder if in observing one in close detail – a remarkable, intricate, questing being – we become more open to the possibility of purpose in a life without meaning, and to finding beauty in the everyday. Coming to terms with our own inconsequentiality and learning to live fully within it.
There I was, assuming I had merely been daydreaming in the grass. Was I in fact performing a spiritual exercise all along? Maybe I’m getting carried away, but I wonder if there’s a parable out there, as yet unwritten, that might begin:
Consider the weevil…
*Favourite Greenbelt birds over the years include passage chiffchaffs, late swifts amongst the regular swallows and house martins feeding over the racecourse, the occasional buzzard or raven drifting across and, best of all, the call of a common sandpiper migrating by night over the campsite.
** Or comfy carpeted room – being held at the racecourse with its grandstands, events halls and hospitality suites means Greenbelt boasts levels of venue and toilet sophistication seldom seen at a festival, albeit still with a healthy dose of mud.