DO NOT TOUCH!
(Photo by Tato Ventocilla)
[Or the importance of allowing, and even encouraging, little ones to express their curiosity about tadpoles, fireflies, butterflies, beetles, and other types of bugs, considering this is a tropical, diverse region and not a desert, with all due respect to deserts ]
By Jorge Ventocilla
What planet will we leave our children,
and what children will we leave our planet?
October: bugs, bugs and more bugs at Biomuseo! This newsletter combines my thoughts and the thoughts of some friends regarding these organisms. Humans, with some exceptions, have a natural curiosity for the natural world, including organisms like bugs and plants.
I know that some people would say something like “my kid does not touch anything with legs” or “the only animal allowed in the house is the dog, if any.” With the excuse of protecting our kids and, mostly as a result of learned fears, we constantly put limits to this natural curiosity and teach our kids not to touch them, unintentionally making them grow afraid and estranged from that natural world.
When this inquisitiveness is embraced and fostered by adults (by parents, but not just by them, as we will see below), it can lead to a close, conscious and rewarding relationship with Nature.
It was long ago when I was a kid. Although there is still some of that, deep inside, in me. As a kid, I used to think the world was there for my own enjoyment! The toads croaking at my neighbor’s backyard, the doves I had on the roof of my parent’s house, lizards at the pier, and the mulberry tree that is still standing…all these solidified my bond with Nature. These were the resources that were available to me in the city. At school, we used to take a yearly field trip. Missing it, for any reason whatsoever (bad behavior, sickness or other), was catastrophic. We also had family trips to rural areas. These trips lasted one or a couple of days. Fortunately, we had several of those on weekends or during school vacations.
In my opinion, I would have missed out on a lot of things had I not been surrounded by bugs while growing up, both in the city and on the countryside. They were close enough for me to experience with them, and I was not taught to stay away from them. However, things change (for the better, in some aspects, of course!) and now we have more than double the amount of people that we had when I was a kid. More than half of that population lives in cities of different sizes: we are more urban than rural now.
How much contact with Nature does the average kid have today? Are these life experiences considered as important by their parents and teachers? These questions are critical.
Foto por Arvind grover (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I have asked several environment and bug lovers, to tell me about their experiences as kids. The question was the following: How is it possible that you still keep that interest for bugs, when commonly it is lost when growing up?
Their answers? Very interesting, to say the least, and comprehensive. They gave me material enough for a couple of newsletters. I will start with Eyra Harbard, practicing attorney. She specializes in human rights and public policies for women. She works at the Instituto Nacional de la Mujer (National Women’s Institute) but, above all, Eyra is a poet, and she writes beautiful, insightful poems. Here is her answer:
“Dear Jorge, I was happy to read your e-mail message. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your work. I was born in a place that is surrounded by the sea and the forest. This place is called Bocas del Toro. People tell me that I used to collect small fishes in a bucket, I would later release them back to the ocean, of course. They also tell me that I was always running around, looking for fruit. Later, while growing up, and thanks to one of my dear aunts, I had the chance of learning more about beetles, and the crucial exchange between them and plants. I also learned about the powerful presence of Dentrobates, (frogs that can be found in the forest). That relationship between the worlds of water and earth, which definitely involves contact with living organisms, or even watching a plant grow slowly, makes us think that although we are different from each other (physically), in relation to other species, we are all part of the same origin, the same nature […] Had I not have that kind of contact with the world of bugs, I would now be an “odd bird” or an “odd fish” (a barely functional human being) going through life ignoring that, beyond things and gadgets, there is a constant dialog involving fire, water, air, earth, bugs, animals and plants. It is precisely that curiosity for the environment, the quality of being amazed by it, the friendship with all forms of existence, that allow us to build relationships with other forms of life in the planet.
Adults need to let their kids play under the rain, they need to ask them to close their eyes in order to feel the sun or the breeze, touch the soil and allow themselves to be surprised by the wonderful life of bugs. That is the key to personal liberty and harmony in the world, the only secret to actually building peace.
On the other hand, Jorge, I will never forget the vision of your daughter holding her enormous toad friend. I remember her carrying it to her room in Gamboa. That was one of the most memorable sights I have been witness to in all my experiences with nature. Sublime!”
What else can I say? Not much. Perhaps just one more thing: friends are of great help in keeping memories alive. I had forgotten about this experience of my daughter and her amphibian friend.
Who has not played with pit traps excavated by the larvae of the ant lion (commonly known as “toritos”, doodle bugs in English) in Panama? Who has not tried to trap fire flies in a jar just to watch them glow at night? And who has not felt the sting of electric ants (little fire ants)?
Photo by Brian Gratwicke (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Francisco Herrera, a renowned anthropologist and historian in Panama, has lived in urban areas in Panama and Colón, and in suburban areas like Río Abajo, Sabanitas, and Chorrera. He recalls his experiences when the boundaries of the acceptable and the unacceptable regarding wildlife were very clear. He also emphasized the differences, by gender, in response to the dichotomy of the imagery of bugs.
“I have lived in different urban and suburban areas. I have lived in wooden houses with large backyards. At different times in my life, I have lived surrounded by many animals, a sort of Noah’s Ark: parakeets, parrots, deer, goats, dogs, cats, doves. At one of the houses I lived in, there were many trees: mango, Malay apple, coconut palm, peach palm, mamey sapote. By the way, I was in charge of cleaning and mowing the grass around the backyard. This definitely helped me in keeping the interest and curiosity alive.
I assimilated the good and the bad of urban culture regarding bugs. In other words, the “civilized world” must be spotless, and bugs represent the bad, the ugly, the negative. The dichotomy, the Manichean imagery lead us into thinking that bugs are the representation of the worst there is. My mother-in-law, although she grew up in the country, was terrified by spiders; my wife, by cockroaches. Some women cannot stand seeing a lizard. I think that women are strongly taught to react negatively to bugs, in comparison to men. This is especially true in times when health authorities have focused on campaigning against some species because, indeed, some species are indeed disease-carrying animals.”
“My parents and grandparents always respected my curiosity and, in fact, encouraged me to get closer to bugs by giving me pliers, test tubes, and magnifiers. I don’t recall them scorning me with the harsh “Do not touch!” On the contrary, they were by my side, watching over my experiments, while I ventured into grandma’s backyard. Later I learned to differentiate harmless ants from those that are not. I also learned to avoid being close to beehives and that, If I remained perfectly still, I would be able to catch a dragon fly (which I would later release) …”
Karen is the Executive Director of Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann (a foundation for the preservation of birds). Her work in the promotion of environmental awareness in Panama is crucial.
By gathering information, both scientific and popular, about plants and animals that live around us in this urban space, we can also teach others about the conservation of the environment. With this, we will help our biological resources to be valued, cherished and cared for by everybody. This should not, however, prevent us from learning about harmful species. Finally, I would like to mention the valuable contribution of Biomuseo regarding these education efforts.
We will talk more about bugs next month. See you soon!