The journey from being a literature student to declaring myself a naturalist took only the words of Gerald Durrell, but going from there to working in the Entomology department of the Natural History Museum was altogether more extreme and unlikely behaviour. For me, this was a giant leap across the yawning chasm that separates my world of Dickens and Shakespeare from a world of people with names like Linnaeus and Fabricius.
Just a few months after I had been writing a dissertation on narrative theory, Max Barclay – curator of Coleoptera (Beetles) – was welcoming me into the beautifully alien environment of an Entomology department. I was introduced to Alex Greenslade, another volunteer (but one with a Masters in Entomology), and asked if I would like to have a go at mounting dung beetles from Ecuador. I did.
As Alex tried to explain to me the methods of mounting a beetle I was reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel. I might have been allowed into the department and to actually work with the specimens, but I definitely could not speak the language. However, I had already crossed the Rubicon between art and science and I had to know everything about these beetles and their relatives. So, over the next few weeks, as I would invariably be trying to reattach the head of a tiny specimen that sat looking up at me from the other end of my microscope, Alex would translate his science lexicon into more usual words for me and teach me everything an amateur Entomologist ought to know.
The project I was now involved with was part of a study being conducted by a man named Trond Larsen, from the Smithsonian Institute in America. His study – in the simple terms in which I understood it – was to see if dung beetle populations were migrating uphill in response to increasing temperatures relating to global warming. This meant that all the beetles he had collected had to be carefully mounted and individually labelled, so anyone looking at the collection would know at exactly what height, location and in what kind of trap on what date, the individual beetle was collected. After a good few months of mounting and labelling, the beetles then had to be identified. Learning that there are around 30,000 known species of Scarab (although not all found in Ecuador), I realised that what I took to be a tray of the same species could easily turn out to be five or six individual species. Identification therefore entailed hours of staring down the microscope to find tiny characteristics that identified a specific species; ridges on their pronotum (the top side of the middle section), a certain number of tarsi (segments in the foot, basically, like the tarsi in our own feet), or a certain kind of microscopic pattern on their elytra (wing cases). Bear in mind, too, that although some of these species were a good few centimetres long, some were just millimetres.
Not being an entomologist, or a scientist of any kind, this was a real challenge. I studied plenty of books, but even these were largely unintelligible to me. Even a picture of a beetle is pretty alien when it’s magnified by 300 times. But because of the new things I was learning, and the challenges of working so far out of my usual territory, I found this hugely exciting, interesting and rewarding work.
I felt like I had been offered the privilege to swim in the Entomological deep end, but after 6 months I realised that I had mistaken Entomology for merely a pool of science when it is in fact rather more oceanic in its proportions. My privilege had been the opportunity to paddle in Entomology’s shallows and survey its vastness. I know I will never be an Entomologist, but engaging in the work that the department was doing has opened my eyes to another world. If this small area of science is so mind bogglingly vast, complex and important, imagine what is hidden behind other unassuming doors of the science community.