Tag Archives: Peter Boyle

Thinking Like a Mantis?

Is it appropriate to be finding goodness in ecological systems? Many people say ‘no, absolutely not’. ‘We can’t look to nature for guidance in human values’, they say. ‘We are humans, nature is different.’

Mantis, Jaybird (CC)
Mantis, Jaybird (CC)

I had a colleague once who was very keen on this point. He was utterly convinced of his basic view that we cannot and must not try to derive values from nature. His clinching argument was the praying mantis. The reason: because after sex the female kills and eats the male. His shudder was thoroughly genuine!

Well, I have to agree that this is not a good model for human life. From a biological point of view, though, it tells us something interesting about mantises. There are over 2,000 mantis species (Mantodea) on Earth, and in all of them the female lays her eggs and then walks away and leaves them. There is no nurturing of the young. She puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can lay lots of healthy eggs. And given that a female can lay up to 200 eggs, a lot of food has to pass through that little body.

Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)
Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)

Females can eat, for example, sixteen crickets per day, and in addition to their preferred insect food, they are known to eat mice, frogs, birds and newts. In the time of egg-formation, the female has two main needs: to develop her own strength and to attract a partner to fertilise the eggs. Once that is all in place, death is the next step: lay the eggs, walk away, die and be done with it! After eggs and sex both partners are expendable.

There is no way humans could live like this even if we wanted to. Our young require years of care. It is true that a child can be raised without a father, but it is equally true that it takes a community to raise a child. We are not alone in requiring social co-operation to raise the young. Many mammals do likewise, and so too do many birds. None of us creatures who care for and socialise our young for long periods of time would be wise to take lessons from mantises.

The meaningful division in this context is not between humans and ‘nature’ but between high levels of care and low levels of care of offspring. Both strategies are viable, but they are in no way interchangeable. Scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r).

The r/K difference positions humans as a ‘K’ type of creature; we are like some creature and unlike others.

To return to the joy of sex mantis-style, recent evidence offers a more complex and therefore more interesting story. For a start, it turns out that female mantises only eat their sexual partners if they are hungry. The experiments that showed cannibalistic females ripping into their mates used mantises that were starving. Research outside the lab in fields and gardens did not discover strong evidence for cannibalism.

Males want to copulate every bit as fiercely as females want to lay strong eggs. If there is to be a new generation, the female needs both nourishment and sex. It is rather a happy adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. They actually can continue their sexual activity, and may even copulate more rapidly, when their head has been bitten off!

Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)
Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)

Most creatures are choosy about who they mate with, and mantises are no exception. Females put out a pheromone to announce that they are ready for males, and then it is up to the guys. Male mantises do approach females cautiously. Scientists describe courtship rituals for some species in which the male comes toward the female waving his antennae and wiggling his abdomen. The two of them stroke each other and then mate, perhaps for up to six hours. However, other species take a fly-in-fly-out approach, with the male arriving, having sex, and departing as rapidly as possible.

Mantis in action, Mike (CC)
Mantis in action, Mike (CC)

Out in the garden mantises are doing what mantises do, but inside a high-powered research institute a scientist shudders at the thought of ruthless and predatory females. The insect femme fatale is a prevalent gender stereotype, and apparently a fearsome one. In her human form, she is a beautiful ball-breaker, intent on destroying men while taking all she can from them. Thanks to feminist analysis we now understand that such gender stereotypes are part of patriarchal power. They rationalise control over women, excluding us from full humanity, and they embed the imagery in the realm of nature where it can seem to be incontrovertible.

There is always a fine balance between prejudice and humour. Character types and popular imagery are a significant part of our cultural lives, and a lot of them can be quite funny. I’m rather taken with the kinds of lessons we could share based on male mantis behaviour. Most of us will be aware of the fly-in-fly-out type, of course, and who could fail to recognise the brainless guy who would go on fucking even if his head did fall off!

We learn a lot about humans by examining the stories we tell about nonhumans.

Surprisingly, though, there is actually a lot of positive mantis lore in the human world. In a completely different frame of reference, a northern Chinese style of martial arts known as Tang Lang models itself on mantises. It recognises that mantises are fierce little predators. They are swift and precise, shift from immobility to action instantaneously and take their prey completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia, ‘One of the most distinctive features’ of Tang Lang ‘is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to divert force (blocking), adhere to an opponent’s limb, or attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points).’ The basic idea is to work with the principle of overcoming weakness with strength.

Praying mantis training, © Kungfu-Republic
Praying mantis training,  Kung Fu Republic (CC)

So, is there a problem with finding goodness and other blessings in nature? The question goes beyond stereotypes and joking. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world, but learning should not be confused with mindless mimicry. The fact that some females kill their sexual partners is no more a guide to human behaviour than is the fact that some males take an f-i-f-o approach to sex.

The most interesting examples, like Tang Lang, show humans carefully observing and translating other creatures’ knowledge and behaviour into forms that are suited for human life.

Along with martial arts, let us think about translation arts.

When poets translate poems from another language, they have to think about the meaning of the words in the poem and about how to bring that meaning across. At the same time, a poem has sound, rhythm, tone and other characteristics that are part of its power as a spoken form of art. The ‘soundscape’ or ‘music’ is integral to its overall poetic effect. Can a soundscape be brought across from one language to another? Is it better to have a literal translation that closely follows the words but loses the music of the poem? Or should the act of translation try to recreate the music, perhaps changing the poem radically in order to do so?

There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions. Each poem in translation is a unique event. The main point is that translation is itself an art, and thus requires thought, creativity, passion, and strong understanding.

Thinking like a mantis requires far more creativity than simple copying. Interspecies translation is like poetry translation.  When humans seek to learn from nature, we need to work like poet-translators and think in terms of art, not imitation.

Think of Earth creatures and systems as poems in languages that are foreign but not entirely incomprehensible. Our task as humans is to translate: to find the meaning and the music, the ways of life and life’s poetry. For we are part of the music of Earth and our capacity to join in harmoniously depends on both the accuracy of our knowledge and the skill of our translations.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Keith Kissel (CC)
Keith Kissel (CC)


There is a highly informative documentary about mantises, and although the narration is astonishingly anthropomorphic it is nevertheless fascinating (view here). It describes itself this way: Published on Aug 26, 2015. Taking a close look at almost hundred days of a Praying Mantis’s life, the movie tries to bring about some incredible images of the creature’s lifestyle, as well as eating and reproducing habits. It covers the whole cycle of laying the eggs, hatching and growth of the insect. This feature changes a lot of theories that have been set about the Mantis.

To learn a bit more about the feminist analysis of mantis-stereotyping and to see some hilarious cartoons, visit this site.

To see ferocious predators in action, watch Nature’s perfect predators.

Wikipedia has two articles on praying mantis martial arts, northern and southern. The quote is from the article on the northern style. For more detail see the Kung Fu Republic.

The field of translation is huge. I have learned something of the arts of translation from my partner Peter Boyle, a poet who also translates. For analysis of translation issues, a classic text is the 1921 essay by Walter Benjamin in which he worked with the idea that translation is itself an art (read here). Willis Barnstone provides an interesting and accessible overview of poetry translation issues (read here).

There is a fascinating field of biomimicry which finds technological inspiration in the natural world; it is not the focus of this essay.

r/K selection theory has undergone numerous critiques and refinements since it was first posited. It remains a useful tool for drawing broad comparisons.


Perhaps the funniest words on Earth come from Mundari, a language spoken by tribal peoples in east India, Bangladesh and Nepal. One of the greats is ribuy-tibuy. It means ‘the sound, sight, or motion of a fat person’s buttocks rubbing together as they walk’. Another fine term is rawa-dawa, ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no-one is there to witness it’. The Mundari terms belong to a terrific word category that seems to be lacking in English – the ideophone. These words encode sight, sound, smell or feelings within one encompassing term.

Human language is a marvellous capability, both biologically based and socially learned. One of the markers of our being a species is that we humans can all learn each others’ languages. Along with that capacity comes the sense of kinship – we (all of us human language participants) can appreciate the others – their humour, their complexity, their obscurities, their differences, their occasional bizarreness.  And of course we appreciate (or just as often grumble about) the changing vivacity (or, to some, the lack of respect for tradition) of our own language(s).

speech bubble

The capacity for learning is built into our brains, just as the capacity for speech is built into our larynx and windpipe. Actual languages, though, are incredibly diverse in both their structures and their vocabularies. There are languages that pack whole sentences into a single complex word, languages that use sounds that are difficult both to make and to distinguish, languages like signing that don’t use sounds at all, languages that have whole categories of words that other languages don’t have, and a thousand other variations. Of course we love our languages! We learn them and develop our skills with them throughout life; we play with them, and express many of our deepest thoughts, fears, loves, emotions and dreams in them.

In many ways we become ourselves, as individuals and as members of cultural and social groups, through language.

Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)
Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)

It is not surprising that for many people language is another of those markers of a boundary erected to separate humans from other living beings. But here again, not all humans take a human-centric view of languages. One of the books I keep coming back to is The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Alphonso Lingis takes this broad and inclusive view of language:

‘Of course the language of gregarious insects, ants and bees, is representational, is governed by correspondence with the layout of things, and is a kinesics of truth. But language begins with the evolution of organs for vocalization among insects not socialised into colonies, whose vocalizations consist entirely of a seductive chant. Their organs … [are] reiterating and reaffirming the forces of beauty, health, and superabundant vitality.’

In brief: human language is one mode of expression within the wider eloquence of Earth life.

Many of the Aboriginal people who taught me were quite clear that other creatures have their own languages. It is not surprising that we cannot understand them; they are who they are and we are who we are. Thinking of them as language creatures is part of the wider mode of understanding the others as creatures not so unlike ourselves.

'Brolga Talking' by David Jenkins (CC)
‘Brolga Talking’ by David Jenkins (CC)

Not only language, then, but other forms of culture as well may be part of Earth life. One of the old people from whom I have learned so much in North Australia was Doug Campbell. In his words: ‘birds got ceremony of their own – brolga, turkey, crow, hawk, white and black cockatoo – all got ceremony, women’s side, men’s side, … everything.’ Plants are sentient too, and, according to many Aboriginal people, the earth itself has culture and power within it. In this line of thought, we are all culture-creatures: we are intelligent, we act with purpose, we communicate and take notice, we participate in a world of multiple purposes. It is a multi-cultural world from inside the earth right on through.

My friend Richard Nelson spoke with and from Indigenous perspectives in his recent speech on Earth languages (view here). In totally engaging manner and style, he was making the profound point that Earth’s expressivity includes much that is not alive in the usual sense of the term, like wind and ice. He concluded:

The whole Earth is one great language family.

I can almost hear the sceptics saying that at the very least, our languages are more complex than those of others. Perhaps this is so. A major new study of human languages concludes that we are the only known species whose communication system varies fundamentally in both form and content. The caveat is that very little is known about other nonhuman languages. But does it follow that love of our kind of language means that it is somehow the best of all possible languages?

The poet Peter Boyle addresses these questions as part of a fascinating article called ‘Being Job – In Three Parts’. He is musing on the Biblical Book of Job, and reflecting on the fact that Job addressed G-d, and G-d answered Job. But in what language? Peter writes:

‘It seems reasonable to suppose that G-d has no intrinsic preference for English over Urdu, Pashtun over Aramaic, Sanskrit over Pitjantjatjara. The language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands would seem as close to his heart as Homeric Greek or old Slavonic. It would be difficult not to assert that G-d would be equally at home in the elaborate grammar of turtles as in the speech of finches, that the soaring discourse of the eagle carries no more and no less charm than the meditative vibration of hornets.’

As with G-d, so with Earth: expressivity is the way of life, and we are all part of it.

If language is a mode of expressing and affirming forces of beauty, health, and vitality, as Lingis tells us, must we limit our attention to sounds? After all, some human languages are soundless, so why not other creature-languages as well?

Martin Burd is an evolutionary ecologist at Monash University. Recently he published a report on research carried out by an international team: ‘Colourful language – it’s how Aussie birds and flowers “speak”’. He notes that much of the colour we see in the nonhuman world adorns flowers and birds. But, he says, ‘we are accidental eavesdroppers on the visual conversations in which they are engaged’. Colourful birds are signalling to potential mates. Colourful flowers also search for mates, Burd tells us, but they do so by first communicating to pollinators, many of whom are birds.

The flowers that appear red to humans have evolved to appeal to the visual system of honeyeaters. Burd concluded that: ‘… many flowering species had evolved to “talk” to birds using a very particular set of colour “words”.’ The scientists concluded that this convergence of flower colour and bird visual system had probably evolved independently far more times than would be expected if it were random, and the next phase of the research will investigate these relationships on other continents with other bird-flower mutualisms.

'Honeyeater Heaven', by John Powell (CC)
‘Honeyeater Heaven’, by John Powell (CC)

I love the thought of us humans being ‘accidental eavesdroppers’. It is such a wonderful reminder that the great communicative, expressive Earth is not all about us. At the same time, of course, some creatures do, from time to time, address a human. The invitation to play is well known, while the growl that says ‘back off’ is a readily identifiable example of a great scheme of expressive messages saying ‘don’t touch!’. We are probably hard-wired as mammals to get many of these messages without having to stop and think too closely.

Much of our engagement with the expressive languages of Earth, though, calls on our imagination, knowledge, and, as Richard Nelson would say, our wisdom.

To be part of the world in which others also communicate in their own languages is, for the human, an opportunity to imagine one’s self sharing worlds with others. We do this all the time with stories, jokes, songs, images, and, of course, poetry. Most of the time, it must be said, we do it on our terms.

One of my favourite poems by Peter Boyle refuses the temptation to draw others into our worlds. ‘Cicada’ comes from the prize-winning book Apocrypha. This is a complex book in which poems are presented as the work of various imagined poets whose own imaginings find their way into both lyric and prose poetry. The great theme of expressiveness runs through all the work. The (imagined) author of ‘Cicada’ is Irene Philologos, and her poetic imagination takes her into an insect world.

Hanging upside down
perched in its own
the cicada sings:
“I have eaten and am full.
is good.”
Does it sing for us?
If we too have been touched all over by fire
If we have balanced for hours
on the infinite porosity of earth
and know what it’s like
to be the casket of a time-beat
ticking away at metamorphosis
If at times our head and arms have wavered
like a delicate carapace flooded
by all the sky wants us to take in
If we can imagine the dryness of wind
caressing our black shell
all through the hot days
all through the fire of nights
when our eyes are beads of hard blackness
and our frame
breaks open to the homeless language of wind
If we can imagine ourselves
an assemblage of shell and flesh
scattered by the serene indifference of life
If we can call all this

(from Irene Philologos, A poetic journal of ten years in Boeotia © Peter Boyle)

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
ResourcesInformation on human languages is drawn from an article by Evans and Levinson (read here).
Peter Boyle’s essay on Job is found in the book Sacred Australia: Post-secular considerations. Information on Peter Boyle’s book Apocrypha can be found here.
Alphonso Lingis: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common
Martin Burd’s fascinating article can be found here.
A few years ago I wrote an essay with my colleagues Thom van Dooren and Stuart Cooke called ‘Ravens at Play’ in which we reflected on some of the dilemmas of being addressed by others. (view here)

The Republic of Poetry ~ Trois Rivières, Quebec

The opening ceremony of the 29th Festival International de la Poésie took place in the Maison de la Culture, at the heart of Trois Rivières, a medium-sized city halfway between Montreal and Québec City, Québec Province, Canada. Gaston Bellemare, the organiser of this miraculous event, was described by one of the speakers as the President of ‘La République de la Poésie’. His presidential style is incomparable; thanks also to the director Maryse Baribeau, there has never been a more hospitable festival. From 4 October to 13 October, 2013, the city of Trois Rivières gave itself over to poetry, and our days here have been a blessing. Poets have arrived from Finland, Senegal, Egypt, Peru, Benin, Argentina, Brussels, France, China, and many more places. Some have dual origins, announcing complicated lives of resistance and exile: Iraq/Spain, Egypt/ Québec, Cuba/ Québec, Syria/France. Australia is represented here too: Peter Boyle is an invited poet, and I am on a holiday surpassing all dreams. In this Francophone culture, poetry, eating and drinking go hand in hand, day after glorious day.

But to go back to the beginning: on the stage in the auditorium where the opening ceremony took place was a small dais, and on the dais was an empty chair. One spotlight remained on the dais throughout the evening. The empty chair was conceived by PEN International (originally Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The oldest human rights group in the world, PEN was founded in London in 1921 with an international mission. It has become clear over the years that in many troubled areas of the world writers are targeted for imprisonment, torture and assassination. PEN has taken the lead in defending writers everywhere. The empty chair is for our brothers and sisters who are in prison or other places of torment.

Outside the Maison de la Culture, others are also remembered. The absent, the forgotten, the poets whose lives we will never know, are uniquely represented in Trois Rivières by the world’s only monument to the Unknown Poet.

The festival continued as it had begun: the opening ceremony concluded with an invitation to step out into the foyer for wine and beer. The speaker urged us to enjoy ourselves by making reference to Rabelais’ great observation that there are more old drinkers than there are old doctors! From there on it was non-stop multi-sensorial pleasure. As the program unfolded we learned that the festival was almost completely decentralised, taking place in foyers, cafes, patisseries, restaurants and bars all over the city, and even in a few religious settings. There were readings and discussions over breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, apéritifs, dinner, early night at the bar, and late night at the bar.

Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant 'Le Sacristain'
Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant ‘Le Sacristain’

Each reading included four or more poets reading just a few short poems. We always had time to think about what we were hearing, we always heard several poets, and we never had to go back to the auditorium to find ourselves looking at each other across a barrier created by the contrast between spotlight and obscurity. Rather, we were together in intimate spaces, reading, listening, discussing, joking, eating and drinking. The audience included other poets, of course, along with residents of Trois Rivières, people from the province and the nation, and some from overseas as well.

For such a festival to succeed, internationalism must be more than a list of countries of origin. The cosmopolis of poetry achieves its vitality through both diversity and conversation. Here in Trois Rivières we were telling stories along with reading poetry; we were sharing lives, histories, and passions; we listened attentively, and the poets spoke eloquently. We had occasion, day in and day out, to laugh together. Sometimes there were tears as well.

Our conversations developed into fascinatingly mixed smorgasbords, with French, English and Spanish predominating, often mixed together in unexpected ways. The official language was French, though, and every poet brought works that had been translated into French, if they weren’t written in that language to begin with. Every poem was read both in French and in the poet’s own language. My French is not good enough to allow me to appreciate many of the subtleties of poetry, and I missed a lot, but at the same time, I was thrilled to hear the sounds and cadences of other languages, catching emotions and intensities borne by the human voice in one of its most expressive modes.

Postcard: an afternoon in the church

Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres
Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres

I became entranced with the Arabic poetry of Ahmad El-Shahawy before I could understand it. It wasn’t until the afternoon reading in the Saint James Church (Anglican), the only event in which English was the primary language, that I was able to appreciate both its meaning and its impact.

Ahmad El-Shahawy
Ahmad El-Shahawy

Ahmad is a journalist in Cairo, as well as a poet. His work has won numerous prizes, including the UNESCO Prize for literature in 1995 and the Cavafis Prize for poetry in 1998. As well, he has been the subject of many MA and PhD dissertations. He loves Egypt: its long history, its greatness, its ancient civilisation, and the possibilities for a future that remains faithful to that ancient cosmopolitanism. As I listened to him, I thought about the fact that journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in times of political troubles. I admired his courage, and I was enthralled with how he allowed his love of life to speak for itself, and implicitly to become an act of resistance in a place threatened with extreme repression.

The poem I filmed is from ‘The Book of the Dead’ (1997). Clouds, sky, ashes, stars, earth, and wind flow through the poem. Birds and trees inhabit it, as do angels, and light, and roses, and a woman who is loved. In this garden of life and death birds and trees talk to their gods, and the hoopoe, the sacred bird of ancient Egypt, writes verses in its own Koran. Love flows through this sacred place, and loss, while part of the flow, is also a wound. The poem is read first in English by Peter Boyle, and then in Arabic by Ahmad.

Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle

 Postcard: lunch at the Maison de la Culture

On many occasions the Festival included music along with poetry. Musical improvisation was the main mode; there were many moments of unexpected and beautiful intra-action.

The most captivating performances took place over two sessions of ‘World Music and Poetry from Afar’. The group was Afroworlbeat, and most of the poets were from beyond North America. Many of the poets selected readings that worked with intra-actions across times and places. The three musicians engaged gently and thoughtfully with the reading. The depth and liveliness took our breath away.

Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat
Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat

One of the readings I filmed was by Peter Boyle. He was born in Melbourne and has lived in Sydney most of his life. He is the author of numerous books of poetry which have won many praises. He translates poetry from French and English, and was recently awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for translation. Peter read his poem ‘Berlin Buch’ in both French and English, while Afroworlbeat carried rhythms and short melodic lines of wonderful intensity.

How does it happen? Across languages, histories, lives, continents, dreams and nightmares, revolutions, wars, bombs, migrations, exile, injury and love – across all these distances and experiences, we were brought together in transformative moments that felt and were miraculous.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)