Only A Six-Spot Burnet

George Monbiot wrote an interesting article in the Guardian recently, entitled “In Memorium”, and available on his blog1. It concerned how we can so easily forget the names of creatures that have grown less common over the years, as consequently we come across them much less frequently.

In his case it was the name of a caterpillar, now virtually relegated to obscurity by intensive farming, overuse of pesticides, and tons of weedkiller, that taxed his memory. The brain tends to file unused items deeper in its vaults, sometimes never to see the light of day again. Recall becomes even more difficult with aging: the name of a caterpillar or wild flower may trip from the tongue at age twenty, only to be perplexingly absent when not needed for the next thirty years.

I sympathise with George, an ardent naturalist as well as an excellent journalist. His article continues to lament the loss, or radical decline, of so many species native to the British Isles, and he outlines the often obvious reasons for their demise, not just in Britain but throughout the world.

He concludes the article by stating:

We forget even our own histories. We fail to recall, for example, that the Dower report, published in 1945, envisaged wilder national parks than we now possess, and that the conservation white paper the government issued in 1947 called for the kind of large-scale protection that is considered edgy and innovative today. Remembering is a radical act.

That caterpillar, by the way, was a six spot burnet: the larva of a stunning iridescent black and pink moth that once populated my neighbourhood and my mind. I will not allow myself to forget again: I will work to recover the knowledge I have lost. For I now see that without the power of memory, we cannot hope to defend the world we love.

But George has failed to realise one vital fact. It’s not just our own failing memories that are at fault here. Those of us who have already lived most of our lives still have many memories ranging from childhood, through adulthood, to seniority. The sum of life’s experiences have provided the memories held in our brains. For me, a love of wildlife from a very young age helped to fuse many related memories into my brain cells, but they will die with me.

Generations past, before our age of technology and social education, such memories were transferred by word of mouth from father to son, mother to daughter, grandparent to grandchild. In today’s world it is rare for a child to have access to such information. Parents are too busy working to spare time for that type of home education, grandparents no longer live under the same roof as their grandchildren, and schools today are particularly bad at disseminating the sort of information once passed on from generation to generation in the home, being more concerned with facts relevant to examination success.

If we were born with the sum of all the knowledge in our parent’s memory already in our brain, we would be a totally different species. But we’re not. Children born in just a few year’s time will no more be able to relate to an orangutan than we can to a dinosaur or a dodo. The sight of a swift drinking in flight…

…or a hen harrier hovering as it searches out prey…

…will be unknown to them. Consequently, they’ll not miss such things. They may come across the creatures in books, even view old video on their computers, but they won’t relate to them because they’ll be gone forever. Their world won’t contain them anymore. After all, I’ll readily admit I don’t miss dinosaurs, or dodos.

That knowledge, that appreciation, will be lost forever, taken to the grave by those of us fortunate to have witnessed such sights and marvelled at the natural wonder and complexity of a world rapidly becoming far less wonderful.


[1] “In Memoriam” monbiot.com, July 2nd 2018

2 Replies to “Only A Six-Spot Burnet”

  1. Sad, and true, RJ. These youngsters will, though, have things to deal with, and to learn about, that we older generations cannot even visualise , so space must be made in the young brain box.
    Perhaps the same applies to nature. Perhaps space has to be made in nature also for…I dunno… some new discovery or incoming species of creature, due to emerge during the next century.

  2. Twilight ~ it seems likely space in the young brain box will be necessary – to learn how to survive in a heat-soaked, flooded, world, perhaps?
    (Sorry for the delay in responding, this being retired is hard work. I don’t get a minute to myself! 😉 )

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