Following a freak vacation decision in 2013, I found myself hiking an Arctic glacier with other eco-tourists. In this magnificently strange environment, I learned a new and very useful word: umwelt
. It means an animal's experience of its surroundings, and a German fellow-traveler taught it to me, following a slightly uncomfortable exchange (perhaps familiar to many writers) in which she politely asked exactly what I was working on. I told her. She frowned. "So... it's all set in a beehive? And everyone in it is... a bee?"
I nodded. My book was still stacks of paper in my writing shed, a distant concept in a distant country. I had no agent, no publishing deal. She took pity on me and asked no more. We clomped on together over the ice, listening to the chafing of our high-tech fabrics. Suddenly she put her wadded mitten on my arm and smiled. "Ah! You are writing the umwelt of the honeybee! Great!"
She told me about the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1920s Germany, who championed the theory, which revolutionized how animals were studied. Before, they had been considered only as passive objects, but with this new concept of the umwelt, researchers began to look at them as sentient beings whose consciousness affected their behavior. She remembered the umwelt from her degree in life sciences. I asked her what she did now, and it was her turn to look uncomfortable. She had just quit her job as PR for a tobacco company because, as she said, "I can no longer pretend certain things."
Writing is pretending, imagining, and the throwing of the consciousness into the fictive life of another person. And we read to magically inhabit that person and live that life — if the writer has done a good enough job. Children have always naturally understood animals as sentient beings, and my book has been honored with comparisons to Watership Down — a literary landmark in my life. Now as we can watch extraordinary natural documentaries and fetishize the ever-diminishing wild world, the idea of animals as sentient beings no longer seems strange — unless we are in the supermarket, when we might quickly traverse the red-slabbed aisles with their heavy plastic trays, and focus on safer thoughts.
Back in England I looked up umwelt again, and decided to use it as a tool to engage more deeply with my worker-bee protagonist, Flora 717. I had already done quite a lot of reading (though the wealth of bee literature means I have but skimmed the surface), and I had visited hives, bothered biologists, tasted many honeys, and watched bees wherever I could. With the idea of umwelt in mind, I would engage in a more intense observation. The year before I had planted a lavender bush in my front garden, surely bred from triffid-stock as it had achieved colossal growth. Now its woody stems shoved aside other plants and its huge purple haze of bloom burst through the black iron railings and out across the path. More than one neighbor had suggested I clip it back and I had agreed I would — but while it swarmed with bees and butterflies, I could not bear to do it. Instead, for the next two days, I took a cushion outside, sat down, and just observed.
Sustained attention is a very powerful thing. I passed through various states: acute self-consciousness as people walked past staring, then cramp, then losing feeling in my body as my focus narrowed and the lavender bush became my entire sensory field. Enveloped in its scent, I heard the sustained humming of all the insects and the changes and variations of register as different bees, hoverflies, even wasps and flies came and went. The bush moved in the wind, but it also had its own inner motions from the heavy bouncing of the flower heads as the many species of bumblebees visited. I admired close-up the bright plush of their well-upholstered bottoms — the red, white, black, and gaudy gold tailed varieties, with contrasting fur jackets like fashionable boleros.
Most of all, I noticed the honeybees. Smaller and in quieter colors, they were the most energetic workers. One after another after another traversed the bush, but one bee caught my attention. She was more diligent than the rest and I watched her progress across the florets, investigating particular blooms ignored by other insects. Apparently she could often still draw nectar. Then she stopped, and I saw her feet shift as she clung on to the petals. Her sides were heaving, and for the first time since I'd been watching her, she had left her tongue unfurled. Because she was so tired. I felt it as I watched her.
I raced to get back to work, and did not really consider the magic word umwelt again until now, as I prepare for the publication of The Bees. My personal umwelt centers on my writing shed, with the thud as a squirrel jumps onto the windowsill to collect the nuts I probably should not leave it, and the radiator under the desk which I have just switched on, because what started as a bright sunny spring day has turned chilly and grey, like the English Channel that is a five-minute walk down the hill from here. Sometimes I have stood on its pebbly beach and tried to imaginatively connect it with other water it must somewhere join — the fluorescent turquoise of the Caribbean, or the navy satin of the Baltic. But I cannot do it, because I am back in my own, emphatically real, home environment. Just as I often find it easier to understand a fictional character than a real person I am close to — perhaps because of all the unconscious negotiations of human relationships.
Far easier to enter the umwelt of another person, through the paradoxical distance of art. Edvard Munch's painting of The Scream transmits emotion, and anyone who has been moved to tears or felt their blood pump harder through music has shared the psychic world of the artist that made it. Jakob von Uexküll's term was originally used to mean the surrounding physical world of an animal, but human animals must also include psychological representations of reality. From the brands we buy, to what we habitually watch (rolling news?), to deeply held belief systems like politics and religion, and then the mental shackles of social media.
The term umwelt feels overstretched to contain everything that shapes human experience — but it worked very well for the beehive, with its powerful architecture, transmission of information like the most sophisticated social media, feudal hierarchy, and division of labor. It was the ultimate shared environment, and umwelt. It was the heaven and hell of family life, it was a corporation, a cathedral, a factory. And it was deeply sensual.
I went to the Arctic to feel disoriented, buying a postcard-sized taste to enjoy in relative safety. But one of the most riveting things was to learn that even in long-designated marine parks, whale and walrus herds shun apparently well-favored inlets and beaches, though food is abundant. No animal has any experience of the historic massacres of their kind that