"My ambition is to make everyone love insects!"
Anne makes a little ironic laugh about her hairy goal. She knows how utopian it sounds. To make people, not just like, but actually love six-legged creatures? Those who sting, bite, suck and buzz around our ears. Yeah, good luck with that. Then she turns her blue eyes towards me and becomes very serious:
“Yes, because that is actually the goal.”
From a lamp in the ceiling, there hangs a butterfly made out of green cardboard and pipe cleaners. A large, framed image of a beetle is leaning up against the window. On the table lies an insect box with mounted butterflies and in the bookshelf there are meters upon meters with books on natural science, as well as a handful of copies of her own book, ‘Extraordinary Insects’. Several diplomas for research dissemination hang on the walls. The office leaves little doubt that in it resides Norway’s foremost conveyor of enthusiasm for tiny critters.
Professor. Scientific Advisor. PhD in conservation biology. Lecturer in natural resource management. Blogger. Regular guest on national radio. And now, author with the book ‘Extraordinary Insects’, which is celebrated by the reviewers. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson has become an important voice for nature lovers throughout Norway. With entertaining stories and an ability to see the amazing in every little thing, she has opened our eyes to the wonderful world of insects.
But how did it all start? Where does this all-consuming fascination come from? Anne turns distant.
“Yes, I have thought a lot about that. I do not really know. It is a bit random, really.”
It almost sounds strange. That someone who has such a keen interest in nature virtually stumbled upon her career as professor.
"I've always been fond of being outdoors. We had a summerhouse in the woods when I was little. Or perhaps cottage is the better word, it was a log cabin where we spent weekends and summers. The only available entertainment was sticks and cones. There was simply not much else to do."
As a child, she was fascinated by Robinson Crusoe. She built complete communities out there in the forest with the materials she had at hand.
“I built small log houses, founded iron mines and kept leeches as livestock.”
The latter ran off quite quickly, because they move surprisingly fast.
To live off nature. As a communicator of natural science and professor in conservation biology, she sort of lives off nature.
“I have always been interested in nature. We were always outside with my family and I thought it was fun. But that it should be possible to create a living from it was not on my mind at all. It never occurred to me that it was possible to have it as a job.”
Between high school and university, she spent a year at post-year liberal arts school. She ended up on the program ‘outdoor and adventure’.
“I do not know if I learned so much, but one thing was certainly fun, and that was having Jostein Gaarder as my philosophy teacher.” (Author of the book ‘Sophie’s world’, editor’s remark)
She describes Gaarder as "super inspiring", and that he was, then as now, very enthusiastic. His philosophy classes were some of the best parts of that year.
"He was a nice, bubbly and talented teacher. He showed me how important it is to burn for what you communicate, to reach people.”
She was supposed to study social science. Humanities. She left high school with a particular interest in history. Now, thirty years later, she draws parallels between the enthusiasm for history and the commitment to ecology. In biology, ecology is the teaching of the interactions between organisms and the environment. The ecologist looks at nature's interplay.
“I realize that what I think is fun with history is kind of the same that I think is fun with ecology. It is a big and broken picture where you have to see patterns and contexts. In history, events in one country affect events others. In ecology you have to puzzle the pieces together across species’ boundaries.”
She makes a hand gesture, first with one hand and then with the other. It is as if she is standing in the woods and pointing at her surroundings.
“These insects over here are linked to the trees and the fungi over there. Everything is connected.
That is why I think ecology is exciting.”
Most people may believe that those who work with the natural environment as a profession also know everything about all the species they see, including their names. That is not the case. Such people are actually quite rare. Anne laughs dryly.
"I am not a species nerd. I am not particularly good at naming anything. It is not that it isn’t interesting or useful, there are just so terribly many things that are interesting. I am more preoccupied with how the little creatures live and influence each other, than to say exactly what kind of species they are.”
After high school, her path turned to the United States on a Rotary scholarship. She ended up at the University of Georgia, studying journalism and mass communication.
"The American university system is completely different from ours, and even more than now. I took a lot of different courses. Everything from Greek tragedies to scuba diving.
"It was very useful, especially speaking English all the time; I have benefited a lot from that later. I would not have been without it.”
When she returned to Norway after her year in the States, the plan was to enroll at the University of Oslo, studying media and communication. At that time, it was a new program that only started in January.
"I was back in September, so I had to find something to do in the meantime.”
She started doing mathematics. During the fall, she changed her plans and switched to biology. The communication studies never happened.
"There have been many coincidences," she said.
"It is quite a stretch, though. From biology to journalism. Do we see the urge for communication already here?”
Anne straightens herself in her office chair.
"I have always been fond of text and writing. And then I have been particularly fascinated by language as a system.”
How easy can languages be created and still work, thus moving understanding between users?
In secondary school she worked with Esperanto. Esperanto is an international auxiliary language, created by the Polish doctor Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. His ambition was to facilitate communication and understanding between different peoples. He believed that all the world's many languages were one of the main reasons for war and enmity. Estimates indicate that there are about two million users worldwide today, making it the most successful of the constructed languages. Anne chuckles at the thought of the teenager who taught herself Esperanto in her spare time.
"It was probably considered pretty weird.”
It is not just the written word that captures her. For many years, she also had an amateur radio license. At the time, knowing Morse code was a license requirement. She had to be able to send and receive one sign per second. She describes the Morse signals as a continuous stream of sounds. In the beginning, there was only noise - an impenetrable sound barrier.
She snaps her fingers.
“It came so suddenly. The sounds had meaning. In that moment, I heard the words in my head. It is a bit like cracking the code for how to read, I suppose.”
“I have always been fascinated by languages. Communication and words. When I was six years old, I was a little infatuated with being able to say words like ‘onomatopoeia’. Words with long, difficult syllables.”
However, it is not languages themselves that fascinates her the most. It is more the system behind.
"I'm certainly not particularly good at learning new languages.”
Again, she compares it to ecology. System thinking. To see links crisscrossing.
She likes to play with words and concepts. Buddy fungi, heaven-shrimp, the oak’s gourmet restaurant, beetle bonanza, pet crickets, the busboys of the messy garden... And not just letters and languages either. When her children were young, there were a lot of games and role-play. Together, they played dress-up, staged Harry Potter-events and lived in the Stone Age for a day. They picked chanterelles and barbequed them on the beach, and ran around with bow and arrows and hunted balloons. For their birthdays, she baked beetle cakes instead of football and princess cakes.
The adults around her also get their share in the fun.
"Anne is a playful person," colleague and co-blogger, professor Tone Birkemoe, says.
A couple of years ago, the university was preparing for a visit from the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway, and the insect enthusiasts were asked to put together a stand promoting insects.
"When I got to work one morning just before the royal visit, Anne had been at it the night before: I was met by a path of toy bugs from the hallway into the office and all the way to my desk chair,” Birkemoe laughs.
This resulted in the stand having a lovely insect path beautifully mounted on a black wall. Anne's idea was too good not to be used for a larger audience.
In her texts, she makes connections that few of us would manage to replicate.
”I think that is what makes the book work. I pull examples from mythology. History. Popular culture.”
The goal is to make it more recognizable to average Joe.
She makes her self-ironic face again.
“For most people, this is just plain weird! A guy who came up to me once and said, ‘I do not understand how it is possible to say so many amusing things about insects!’"
"I realize that not everyone thinks they are very entertaining.”
This says something about the usual distance between her and the recipient. From the self-proclaimed insect lover to someone who has hardly given them any attention at all. Or maybe even dislike them. Very few can agree on everything, but if there is something that can make most people intensely annoyed and get them out of the bed in the middle of the night, it is the sound of a mosquito buzzing in their ear.
There is a handful of voices that disseminate knowledge and enthusiasm about nature. Anne calls for even more contributors.
"It can only be a good thing to have many voices communicating biology. It takes an infinite number to get people to care about nature.”
Then her switch for mass communication turns on.
"Because it is not the case that we compete with each other! We reach different audiences. On all topics, it is necessary to work parallel on multiple levels. We are different people and do not share the same opinions on everything.”
The lunch that she started eating at the beginning of the interview has been consumed inbetween anecdotes. Because there was no question of setting aside time to eat before the interview. Absolutely not.
"I forget to eat,” she mumbles.
The last few days have been quite symptomatic of her everyday life: speaking to a parliamentary group on Friday, the Holmenkollen Race in Oslo on Saturday where she ran for her publishing house, lectures at the Literature House Sunday afternoon and teaching university students the following morning. Her eyes are drawn towards the stack of master's theses that are waiting to be read.
“How do you balance your busy schedule? Especially in the exam period when the field season is coming up next?”
Anne rubs her face with both hands.
"It is a lot sometimes, there is no denying it. But the dissemination is pure enjoyment for me. I think it has to be. Spending a couple hours one evening writing a blog post about something interesting I have read gives me energy.”
When people around Anne describe her, there is particularly one phrase that keeps popping up, and that is her immense work capacity. It seems she gets much more out of the 24 hours than the rest of us.
The energy she gets is spent on a variety of activities. Like ultra-running.
"You get a lot of energy from that too, actually.”
A marathon is 42 kilometers, or 26 miles. The definition of ultra-running is that it is ‘longer’. On average, Anne has participated in a couple of such races per year in recent years. But she emphasizes that she is not one of the extremists.
"I've run 51 miles once. That was in the Alps, with 8500 feet rise in elevation. I am never doing that again!”
"The nice thing about such challenges is experiencing that you can manage fix something that is tough. That is transferable to other things than just running. You are capable of running considerably longer than you think. It is all in the head. My legs hurt after twenty kilometers, after that it is just in my head.”
She tilts her head and stares into the air.
"It is not a masochistic trait. It is rather knowing that I can handle more than what is readily available. I can do it outside of the comfort zone. It has a transfer value.”
Speaking of the Holmenkollen Race.
“I ran the longest leg, which is 1.7 miles. It was fun, but horribly painful. You have to run so fast. It hurts in a different way. I am not running fast when I run these long races. I run super slow. And I walk uphill.”
For that is a necessity in ultra-runs. Uphill stretches are used for eating.
"It is a challenge. But it is social with a lot of fun. People are not so busy, so they have time to talk, unlike the Holmenkollen Race. You talk while you run.
The corner of her mouth curls.
"I am usually the last one over the finish line. I am no way near winning or being good at it. But that is not the point. If you have signed up, you have to keep in shape. It is easy to remain a little too long in front of the computer. This is one of the few things that can tear me away from work.”
She has so much to tell about the tiny beings. Weird and strange stories. The goal is a friendlier everyday life. For the insects.
“If one has a friendly disposition, then the wish to care about them comes from the inside.
She does not believe in waving the moral finger. In the book, that element is deliberately moved to the last chapter and only there.
“It's not an ‘environmental book’. It is supposed to be a book about insects and us. I want people to laugh and chuckle. Think: ‘wow! That is so cool!’.”
"Most people do not go around thinking they should read a book about insects. Then they would probably rather read about themselves, in the form of books about the brain, the gut or the vagina. That is probably the book’s biggest challenge: to get people to start reading it. It has to be part of the mainstream buzz to get read.
But people do read it. And they like it. Positive reviews have flowed in from very different sources. Financial newspapers. Authors. Journalists. Bloggers. Compared to average sales figures for nonfiction, she has already exceeded expectations. And it has only been out for a couple of months.
The goal is public information. Spread the glad tidings.
"And then I have to travel to every small and large organizations that I never knew existed.
At the time of writing, the second edition of ‘Extraordinary Insects" has already hit Norwegian bookstores. The publishing rights have been sold to Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Estonia, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, the United States and Canada, and Anne is negotiating with publishers in several other countries across the globe. Perhaps there is hope for her over-the-top ambitions? Perhaps we no longer swat the bumblebee in the window, but let it out with a gentle hand instead? And if we see a rotten tree in the woods, we know that the insects are taking the cleaning job for us. All thanks to her enthusiastic communication.
Sources: Store norske leksikon, Wikipedia