‘When I did pause, sometimes, to consider what I was doing on that field I could not fail to feel the enormity of my act. The shining blade crashed down through the centre of a city built up with skill and labour; the inhabitants were thrown into confusion; then another flash and crash of the blade, and another, till bits of the home were flying through the air … My power of destruction over this ant-world was really prodigious, as if a giant with legs the height of Snowdon and arms as long as the Sussex Downs were to throw London away in an hour or so.’
There then follows a little essay on the parallels that have been made between ants and men – their rigid hierarchies, waging of wars, keeping of slaves etc. - which concludes that these parallels are not, in fact, that useful:
‘Consciousness is the miracle of man. That is his whole significance, and the meaning of his imperfection, and his promise. Because it has broken in, because he does not possess it, then it will evolve in him as it has already done, it will go on evolving; this burden of apartness and semi-understanding which he often feels too heavy to bear, will be lifted; he will attain a higher state of consciousness and enter again into the unity that he has lost. He should not turn to the animals for directions. He should not go to the ant. He should fix his gaze steadily upon this human gift that makes him unique, and see in it, and the evolution of it, the key to all his set-backs and the meaning of all his suffering.’
But my favourite insect-contemplation piece is probably Virginia Woolf’s ‘The death of the moth’. One day in 1941, while she was reading in her study, Woolf spotted a moth fluttering frantically against a window pane, putting its body and soul into the effort and eventually dying of exhaustion. ‘Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body,’ she wrote. ‘It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life, and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life … One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.’
Woolf’s essay is a lovely meditation on the fragility of existence and the way that life counts for nothing but itself. But I have always wondered why she didn’t just open the window and let the moth out.