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 Spilomyia diophthalma - a wasp mimic hover fly - on the island. Photo: Fredrick Sjöberg.
Spilomyia diophthalma - a wasp mimic hover fly - on the island. Photo: Fredrick Sjöberg.
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  • Runmarö island, in the archipelago east of Stockholm. Photo: Fredrick Sjöberg.
    Runmarö island, in the archipelago east of Stockholm. Photo: Fredrick Sjöberg.
  • The Fly Trap by Fredrick Sjöberg - from the front cover.
    The Fly Trap by Fredrick Sjöberg - from the front cover.

Scarcely sublimated kleptomania

Camilla Huxley-Lambrick

25th May 2014

The Swedish island of Runmarö provided Fredrik Sjöberg with a collector's paradise of hoverflies, and the perfect setting for his passionate search through forests, ponds and swamps in the flies' pursuit. Camilla Huxley-Lambrick dissects The Fly Trap ...

... satisfaction bordering on euphoria when a rare item, or new variant, or better a kind thought to be extinct, or best of all a type new to science, is found, and the collector is admitted to the select club of aficionados.

Sjöberg has woven a quirky tapestry of the insect collector, his mentality, his traps and the vagaries of his insects.

Tracing the life of René Malaise, inventor of the eponymous Malaise trap, Sjöberg inter-twines his own experience of collecting hoverflies on a single island in the archipelago east of Stockholm - Runmarö. From his own false starts he explores the compulsion that drives collectors.

My supervisor called this compulsion "scarcely sublimated kleptomania". Making a collection has been recommended as a cure for depression and anxiety.

Sjöberg has resorted to explaining his standing in a swamp with a net as an attempt to achieve slowness - a more acceptable target than flies.

'Satisfaction bordering on euphoria'

Stamp collecting, or buttonology, generate the same anticipation of the chase and satisfaction bordering on euphoria when a rare item, or new variant, or better a kind thought to be extinct, or best of all a type new to science, is found, and the collector is admitted to the select club of aficionados.

Hard-to-place specimens are stored up for identification during the long winter evenings. And running one down brings both the pleasure of knowledge and presumably the serotonin burst that comes when a crossword clue is solved.

The engrossing process of categorization leads on to the esoteric ritual of taxonomy, the naming of parts, which can reveal the loves, hatreds and erudition of the author. Linnaeus' role is skated over - briefly: "he managed to sell an operating system, a bit like Bill Gates."

A significant part of collecting is the expedition - a formative experience for many, though the collecting part has been superseded after the war by filming.

Islands provide that essential boundary

One aspect of collectors that intrigues Sjöberg is their self-limitation, either by taxon or by geographical area. This can lead to an obstinate refusal to become interested in finds outside one's own sphere of competence.

Islands provide an ideal limitation, though Sjöberg only touches on their role in evolution. Even new discoveries about the biology of a species come to be seen as by-products of the hours of watching.

More might have been made of the behaviour and especially the frequent mimicry in hoverflies which Sjöberg weaves into the story. Another strand is the role of insects in literature, but the threads seem rather tenuous here. More vivid is the evidence that can be supplied to forensic investigation by the insects in a decomposing cadaver.

Sjöberg discerns a common pattern among collectors of childhood inspiration, followed by avid collection, leading to foreign travel and in depth writing up.

Wayward - and enjoyable

Finally a collector often turns to theorizing, this may be inspired as Darwin's, or flawed as Malaise's conviction that Atlantis solved all the inconsistencies of distribution that he had found.

Later in the book Sjöberg relates Malaise's gradual acquisition of a collection of supposedly old master paintings. He unravels a story of unproven identity, bequest, theft and loss. By assiduous searching and a stroke of luck, the lost artwork is found just before it is to be auctioned, and as the bidding rises we feel the dangerous grip of the collecting compulsion.

This is an enjoyable if wayward tale which does not require prior knowledge of hoverflies - though I was sorry not to be helped by any illustration of the flies, the protagonist, or indeed his trap.

 


Camilla Huxley-Lambrick took a botany degree at Cambridge while chairing the Cambridge Conservation Volunteers. Then she went to Papua New Guinea and worked on ant-plant symbiosis. She returned to Oxford and completed a D.Phil. on the taxonomy of the ant-plants Myrmecodia, and organized an international meeting on ant - plant interactions. She was instrumental in setting up the Oxford Conservation Volunteers. After raising a small family she joined the Oxfordshire County Council as a botanical surveyor. She set up the Rare Plants Group, of the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire. In 2013 she was given the Brian Marsh Award for Botany.

The book: The Fly Trap is written by Fredrik Sjöberg and published by Particular Books, 2014.

 

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