What usually motivates me to start writing is the desire to move through some new stretch of emotional, intellectual, ethical country: to discover the inhabitants of this landscape, feel its breezes, take in the view from its heights... If it's country worth exploring in an essay and if I'm writing honestly, then eventually the trail winds up at the lip of a gorge—and then another and another. These are junctures where I'm forced to face the limits of my understanding, to explore beyond habitual platitudes and into the unknown.
What I Learned at Bug Camp is not a book about writing. But Rabkin delivers on that passage from her introductory essay, "Notes from the Trail." The personal essays in the book range from the title piece, a look at what science teaches us about our relationship to this Earth and its living communities, to body shape, and from sexuality to racism and the often-difficult practice of paying attention to the world around us.
Each essay takes readers to the lip of a gorge, and then to another. In "What I Learned at Bug Camp," the first lip is when Rabkin learns she has to kill and collect hundreds of insects during her summer field camp session:
I knew that studying bugs would entail killing them. Frustrated so far in my attempts to examine insects on the move, I have come to appreciate the uses of a preserved specimen... Still, I have not yet made my peace with killing. I picture the giant hand of some extraterrestrial biologist descending to Earth, in the name of space-alien science, to plunk me into a killing jar. What gives me the right to snuff out the spirit of another creature, however small, simply to assuage my curiosity?
Rabkin traverses that gorge lip, carrying readers along with her lucid and thoughtful prose, and confronts more than one metaphorical obstacle before concluding bug camp and her immersion in science:
...In spite of my science envy, I am not likely to become a science researcher. Not in this lifetime. For better or worse, I apprehend the world most readily and most keenly through the eyes of an artist, writer, a dreamer. And I can't help feeling that, like good science, these ways of knowing also contribute something essential to healing a tattered Earth.
In Rabkin's hands, they do. As she walks readers through essays on the perils of eating mushrooms, seeing eco-erotics, why we need the unexpected, cosmetic surgery in our cosmetic culture (yes, she has personal experience), growing up in "integrated" Berkeley, music therapy, teaching, and life in a world of scarcity, Rabkin's rambles yield surprising insights. She turns topics that seem timeworn into fascinating ruminations on life and how we live it, on the nature of humanity itself.
I found myself thinking about the book long after I put it down, haunted by passages like this one, at the end of the final essay, "Love and Dread on the Lifeboat":
Sustainability entails more than catchment tanks and backyard chickens; it's a matter of the spirit. If we are to make the world a less frightening and more survivable place, then stockpiling supplies is no more urgent a task than nurturing compassion and interdependence. I find strength for the struggle in the kindness of those willing to tend the sick and the dying; in the contributions of activists and naturalists, farmers and teachers; in the sustenance that my fellow artists bring to the stone soup... And while I treasure solitude and honor diligence, I crave companions who make raucous use of the music room—even before the solar panels are on the roof.
The sole jarring note for me in What I Learned at Bug Camp is the cover, a photo of a beetle in silhouette peering at readers, and the title page illustration of a giant Jerusalem cricket filling a tent. Although both images are fun and interesting, when combined with the title, they could mislead readers about the content of this book, which is a tender and compelling examination of what it means to be human, at home in and engaged with the larger world of which bugs are just one part.
Sarah Juniper Rabkin is an award-winning teacher of writing and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s and studied biology at Harvard and science communication at UC Santa Cruz. She has worked as a high school teacher, workshop leader, Q&A columnist, oral history interviewer, and freelance editor. As a volunteer activist, she has helped advocate for labor fairness, civil liberties. GLBT rights, and natural history education. She lives near the shore of Monterey Bay with her husband, poet Charles Atkinson. Read more on the publisher's website.
Check out our interview with the author of What I Learned at Bug Camp.
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