When I read memoirs, I find that I can generally connect with the author as long as he or she is passionate about something. It doesn’t particularly matter what the author is passionate about, as long as that passion and enthusiasm is conveyed in a way that draws me in and makes me care. This book is a wonderful example of that – Fredrik Sjöberg is passionate about hoverflies.
I like reading nature memoirs (think Annie Dillard or Bernd Heinrich), but I have no interest in entomology in general, or in flies specifically. Yet Sjöberg made me care. He writes with genuine warmth and depth about wandering through meadows and pastures in search of hoverflies. He describes nature as a language—and collecting and studying as a way to understand that language more deeply.
To be fair, the book is about more than just hoverflies. Sjöberg talks quite a bit about the psychology of collecting (or “buttonology” as he calls it). Why do we collect? What is the attraction? Is it for the sake of having a complete inventory—for organizing the world around us in our heads? Is it to have the most rare and exotic pieces in our collection? Or is it just the thrill of the chase? He talks about how most collectors latch on to some sort of boundary in their collecting to keep from getting overwhelmed—for himself, he only collects flies (even more specifically hoverflies) from a single island. He can dig in as deeply as he likes on this particular island, but the sea on all sides gives a definition and boundary to his search.
As with many nature memoirs, Sjöberg’s love for the scenery around him comes through—even the scenery at its most banal. I was struck by this passage: “…I am drawn to gardens—and to meadows, the few that are left. For me, they are wilder and richer and much more fun than nature undisturbed by human beings. And so are pastures, avenues, churchyards, roadside ditches and, in the woods, the abruptly clear-cut galleries for power lines. That’s where you find flies! Untouched nature has its merits, certainly, but it rarely measures up to lands that people have disturbed.” With as many paeans to untouched wilderness as exist in literature, it was curious and intriguing to read his perspective of humanity’s touch interacting in a friendly way with the natural world.
A long segment of the book is devoted to stories about another Swedish entomologist from a bygone era—René Malaise. As Sjöberg chronicles Malaise’s trek into the wilderness of Russia during the 1930s, we see Sjöberg himself searching through Malaise’s story for meaning in his own pursuits. The parallels and counterpoints in their journeys as entomologists make for compelling reading.
It’s an unusual book. But one that has stuck with me after I put it down. The writing is simple yet lyrical, and Sjöberg’s dry humor punctuates the narrative perfectly. His stories of encounters with curious tourists as he collects, his musings on history and the drive to collect, his personal connection with his research on René Malaise’s life—they all combine into a beautiful narrative that is well worth reading.