Working late at night in his upstairs room in New York City, Hugh Raffles hears rustling. "It's not the leaves blowing up against the windows. It's not a mystery. I know what it is. It's the big water bugs, the American cockroaches ... doing what they do, going from place to place, up from the drains, not really wanting to be here, a bit lost, looking for something."
As an anthropologist who spends his life studying human beings, Raffles maintains a keen if unlikely respect for those creatures at the near-opposite end of the evolutionary spectrum. What excites him about insects is their diversity: "So prosaic and so exotic, so tiny and so huge, so social and so solitary, so expressive and so inscrutable, so generative and so opaque, so seductive yet so unsettling."
His new book Insectopedia, which he discusses at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, April 3, is a highly personal bug travelogue that examines cricket-fighting in China, locust-eating in Nigeria, stag-beetle faddism in Japan, balloon flies in Switzerland, and dozens more points of intersection between two-legged and six-legged creatures.
In some chapters, Raffles studies people who study insects, so we meet Tokyo entymologist Yajima Minoru, who dates his interest in bugs back to a horrible day when, as a fourteen-year-old boy during World War II, he watched a dragonfly calmly lay eggs amid a bomb crater's smoldering wreckage. And we meet Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a Swiss painter whose devotion to charting the effects of radioactivity on insects — missing legs, stunted antennae, bizarre growths — took her to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and nuclear power plants all over the world.
Other chapters roam the chambers of Raffles' own head, connecting his hopes and fears with real-life insect facts. That bugs appear in his nightmares so frequently is no surprise. "There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. ... There is the nightmare of awkward flight and the nightmare of clattering wings. There is the nightmare of entangled hair and the nightmare of the open mouth. There is the nightmare of long, probing antennae emerging from the overflow hole in the bathroom sink" — which brings us to that rustling in the night. Raffles says he has to kill cockroaches on sight, because they terrify his wife.
"She freaks out when she sees one; she hides, she shakes, her body goes into spasm. Once she sees one, I can't just pretend to have killed it." Even as he slays them, Raffles — who won the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing for his previous book In Amazonia: A Natural History — can't help but admire his tiny victims and their kind, because "they are so busy, so indifferent, and so powerful. They'll almost never do what we tell them to do. They'll rarely be what we want them to be." 4 p.m., free. MrsDalloways.com