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To see or not to see: the illusion of attention

There's a difference between looking and seeing. Looking is what you do. Seeing is what you think you do. In reality, you are stone-blind to almost anything in your field of vision. You look at it, but you don't really see it, at least not as detailed as you like to believe. Your brain is playing tricks on you. It is not inclined to neatly process all the visual stimuli it receives, but presents you with a largely made-up, fabricated image. This way, it does not waste energy and processor time on trivial details that it currently deems to be of insufficient importance. Like the post or
glass door you are about to run into. Or the gorilla in the notorious and much-discussed experiment conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. "Watch out!" mother cries, but it's already too late. Her boy has only eyes for that stupid ball and none for that fatal car. Your brain decides what's important and doesn't pay attention to incidental circumstances, even when, with hindsight, they are of vital importance. Even the most observant driver will sometimes be overtaken by a motorcycle that seems to appear out of nowhere. Quite unnerving. Sadly, the illusion of attention is so strong that we don't learn from invisible
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Swallowtail caterpillars are very conspicuous and quite common throughout continental Europe. Yet, surprisingly, most of my compatriots have never actually seen one. They are simply being overlooked.

gorillas, ghostly motorcycles or sudden encounters with unyielding obstacles. Staying with my brother-in-law, in the vicinity of Antwerp, I asked him whether the carrots in his kitchen garden sometimes attracted swallowtails. "I wish", he answered, somewhat dejected. "All we ever get to see here is a stray red admiral or two." The words had barely left his lips when I noticed a swallowtail caterpillar on his carrot tops. It was a relatively young specimen with short spikes, about as large and seemingly eye-catching as the one in the photograph above on the foliage of the winter carrots in my own vegetable garden. Hard to see how anyone could miss such a looker, isn't it?
Macro photography: start looking differently

Agalev: it sounds like a Russian composer, geneticist or supersonic bomber. But it was, in fact, the original name of the Flemish ecological party, founded in 1979. In 2003, it was renamed Groen! (Green!) and ever since 2012 it is, rather less imperatively, simply known as Groen (Green). Agalev was an acronym for Anders gaan leven or Start living differently, something every right-minded person knows we should do but hardly anybody feels called upon to put into practice. After all, living like every Tom, Dick and Harry is hard enough already, and different isn't necessarily better. Following the disastrous national elections of 2003, in which Agalev dropped far below the 5% electoral threshold, both times and minds were ripe for a party reform operation. The objective was clear: If people are not inclined to start living differently today, let's at least see to it that they start voting differently tomorrow. Cynical? I imagine it came as quite a shock to some of the party's most ardent early supporters, but it was basically
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After each moult, swallowtail caterpillars look a bit different. The conspicuous spikes of young specimens soon disappear.

an honourable pursuit and a sign of maturity and level-headedness. When, in the next elections, Green! and subsequently Green comfortably passed the electoral threshold, much of the criticism died down. Both friend and foe agreed that the party reform was a success. The operation had succeeded. The patient would never become his old self again, but he nonetheless survived and in many respects seemed to be in better shape than ever before. While it was always a bit overambitious for me to start living differently too, as an amateur nature photographer, I've certainly
started looking differently. Strolling the garden with a macro lens on my camera, I see things that I would fail to notice without my camera or with a telephoto lens attached to it. Armed with my macro lens, if a hyperbolic elephant were to cross my path, my eye would still be automatically drawn to a mealy plum aphid, a hollyhock weevil or another of those teeny-weeny creatures one normally overlooks. But foraging the garden for mushrooms, I suddenly appear to be blind to anything that flies, runs, crawls, wriggles or moves in yet another manner. Depending on what exactly I am looking for, I see with different eyes. Call it focus. I catch a glimpse of a freshly moulted swallowtail caterpillar, and the rest of the world instantly ceases to exist. To start looking differently, with or without a camera, is of little use, solves nothing and does not preserve humanity from destruction. At best, it provides a handful of pretty pictures, intriguing observations and perhaps even some more or less valuable new insights. Not ambitious enough for you? It all depends on how you look at it. I happen to see things differently.
Priming: led by the nose

Seek, and ye shall find. That's what Matthew 7 promises in my edition of the King James Bible. But when you don't know exactly what you are searching for and haven't got a clue as to what it looks like, your chances of finding it are about as large as the mass of a neutrino: next to next to zero. By his own account, hunting for fossils with Richard Leakey's team in the Great Rift Valley, American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould couldn't find even a single bone fragment*. To the amazement of the team, however, he discovered heaps of millions of years old fossil remains of snails. Being a land snail expert, he apparently had a nose for them. I suppose it's a kind of priming.
Cognitive psychologists often use priming to demonstrate that our observations, as well as our behaviour and opinions, are far easier to manipulate and far less objective or rational than we like to believe. Simply because you are now reading the word DRINK, you will sooner turn C_KE into COKE than any another English word, like CAKE or CUKE. Is a fully grown swallowtail caterpillar, on average, shorter or longer than half a metre? Shorter, of course! Everyone knows that! Sure, but when you subsequently ask to set a figure on the average length of this caterpillar, most people will come up with a higher estimate than if you'd first asked whether or not it is longer than half a centimetre. In the same way, the location and arrangement of a polling station will influence voting behaviour. Not, of course, yours or mine – we are the exceptions to the rule, aren't we? – but certainly that of our less rational and more impressionable fellow human beings**. Since bad news sells much better – good news is no news –, books and articles usually focus on the more noxious effects of priming. Asked to confirm whether or not a bone is broken, a radiologist may overlook a tumour that is clearly visible in the X-ray. Not a chance in hell he'd have missed it if his brain had not been primed to look for a fracture. Teachers and professors will evaluate an essay or exam paper differently when they know which student submitted it. They know they shouldn't and will often deny they do, but it's only human and a strong argument to avoid oral exams and keep written ones as anonymous as possible. Fortunately, it's not all sorrow and misery. Priming baits the brain to suit the fish, and that fish doesn't necessarily taste foul and muddy. At a single glance, a dyed-in-the-wool collector can tell whether or
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To ward off predators, at the slightest touch a swallowtail caterpillar will protrude a bright orange, forked gland called osmaterium or osmeterium. It is said to emit a foul odour. To my nose, however, it smells like super-concentrated carrot juice. Not pleasant, but not horrible either.

not a motley assortment of odds and ends on a jumble sale stand includes something worth haggling for. From what looks like a heap of rubble to a layman, an archaeologist will promptly pick up that one Roman potsherd or Neolithic arrowhead. Before setting out in search of a relatively rare, inconspicuous and/or extremely well camouflaged creature, it's always a good idea to prime yourself. Simply study some photographs or footage of the animal concerned and take some prints or digital pictures along. Success is not guaranteed, but your chances of finding what you are looking for increase significantly. Sometimes, the result is so astonishing that there seems to be more to it than meets the eye. It's almost as if, miraculously, you attract the creature you are searching. Nonsense, of course. Priming does not turn you into some kind of animal magnet with supernatural gifts. But it works, no doubt about it!

* Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies – Reflections in Natural History, Penguin Books, 1993. The account of his sojourn in Richard Leakey's field camp in January 1986 is in the essay The Declining Empire of Apes.

** Nobody is immune to priming. In fact, thinking you are only makes you more susceptible to it. Caught off guard, you are easily led by the nose. Not convinced? Read
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Highly recommended.
In memory of Mrs Five Legs

While good old Mrs Five Legs modeled her artistically sound Rubenesque figure in the centre of her brand-new spiral web, her eight-legged, severely shrivelled impostor built two beautifully finished cocoons. (If the previous sentence sounds like gibberish to you, you've probably missed this soap's Episode 2, Episode 4 and Episode 5. Before continuing, it may be advisable to catch up on the relevant scenes. All should then become clear.) The distance between the two cocoons, which both contain an egg sack bursting with orange-yellow eggs, was only
about ten centimetres. Investment consultants keep hammering away at the importance of what they call risk spreading. Most wasp spiders take this advice to heart by building two or three cocoons, usually in the immediate vicinity of their web. On this page of Jan van Duinen's website, you can see how they go about it. Pretty impressive, if you ask me! Betting on two or three horses is less risky than putting all your money on one card, but it's still a gamble. Whether or not the additional investment will eventually pay off, depends on oodles of external factors that are beyond the spiders' control.
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Two egg cocoons of Mrs Five Legs' double. Looking closely, below the cocoon to the left, you can just discern the owner.

In the course of autumn and winter, a lot of cocoons and their precious contents are destroyed. At least half of them, I'd say, but it could well be more and it certainly differs from year to year. The wasp spiders in the Low Countries are descended from Southern European migrants. In Flanders and the Netherlands, the first confirmed observations of the species date back to the early 1980s. One would expect that unusually harsh winters with lots
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Final performance of a popular Garden Soap actress: Mrs Five Legs guarding her state-of-the-art egg cocoon.

of snow and severe frosts would deplete the wasp spider population. Perhaps they do, but going by the number of specimens that I find each summer in my garden, mild winters actually seem to be less favourable. Coincidence or trend? Whatever the case, from the very start the species was one of the newcomers to the Low Countries linked to climate change and global warming. A 2003 German doctoral dissertation*, however, revealed that, while our wasp spiders are closely related to their warmth-loving conspecifics in the Mediterranean, they also show signs of recent breeding with an isolated population in the Black Sea area. Naturally, the latter are quite cold tolerant. Apparently, the two populations were separated during the last ice age, and became adapted to entirely different climates. In the last century, however, they somehow joined up again and exchanged genes. It now seems more than likely that the wasp spiders in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat
are actually half-breeds with a tangled history and a rosy future. A couple of days after I photographed the two egg cocoons, Mrs Five Legs' web had once again been seized by her unscrupulous eight-legged neighbour. Scanning the surroundings, barely thirty centimetres above the web, I discovered a third, equally perfectly built cocoon. To my utter amazement, the intricate construction was guarded by Mrs Five Legs. What a performance! For several days she heroically stuck to her post. Then, once and for al, she disappeared from my life and this soap. In the end, as you may remember from the Pilot, she tragically did not manage to pass her undoubtedly formidable genes to the next generation. No, it's never wise to put all your eggs in one basket.

* Henrik Krehenwinkel,
A phylogeographic, ecological and genomic analysis of the recent range expansion of the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi, 2013 (PDF).
Candy-striped spider: commonly overlooked

Whenever I tell people that I am a certified philosopher, it provokes a pitying smile, usually followed by a variation on the following question: "Oh really? And what is your philosophy?" It used to leave me lost for words, but for some time now I've been shamelessly availing myself of this wonderful rejoinder by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: "My philosophy is that everything is always more complicated than you thought." Searching for information about a species that I've discovered in the garden, I often find that, in nature too, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Take, for instance, Enoplognatha ovata, also known as the candy-striped spider. These tiny tangle-web or comb-footed spiders are present in every European garden and look so cute that they will only send full-blooded arachnophobes galloping away. They come in three hereditary flavours or colour and pattern forms: specimens with completely white-yellow-greenish abdomens, specimens with two wine-red stripes
and specimens with completely red abdomens. The last form is said to be less common, and I've yet to encounter it in the garden. More than likely, the frequency of the different flavours is determined by the gastronomic predilections and fads of local birds and other predators that won't eat just anything. Enoplognatha ovata owes its somewhat peculiar genus name to the spiky, tooth-like outgrowths on the males' chelicerae or venomous fangs. Enoplognatha is derived from Greek and means something like "armed jaw". Ovata, in turn, is derived from Latin and refers to the egg-shaped
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In this rolled up leaf, either a common or an overlooked candy-striped spider guards her eggs or newly hatched spiderlings.

abdomen. As usual, the males are smaller than the females and have a shorter life span. After mating, their mission in life is accomplished and they soon die. The females produce a bright blue egg cocoon containing over a hundred eggs and guard it in a rolled up leaf. They usually do this at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn. When you find a leaf like that, there is little harm in carefully opening it to take a look inside. The spider will carry out the necessary restoration works or move her cocoon to a brand-new shelter. After the spiderlings hatch, mother dear sticks around till after their first moult. Then, worn out and emaciated, she leaves the breeding chamber and, godforsaken, exchanges her temporal earthly existence for eternal heavenly nothingness. Her orphaned offspring stay put for a couple of days or weeks, before swarming out to overwinter, hidden amongst the low vegetation.

Identity crisis

In spite of the different colour and pattern forms, the candy-striped spider is one of just a few native spiders that can easily be identified to species level. Or at least it used to be, up until 1982. That year, Finnish arachnologists Heikki Hippa and Ilkka Oksala discovered a spider that is the spitting image of
Enoplognatha ovata but should be considered a different species altogether. The sex organs of the males of E. ovata simply do not fit those of the females of the previously unknown species, and vice versa. Unlike the wasp spiders from the Mediterranean and those of the Black Sea area, they can no longer exchange genes. They are forever genetically separated and will
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Females of both the common and the overlooked candy-striped spider produce blue egg cocoons. Whether this colour serves a function, I don't know.

only evolve further apart. Hippa and Oksala named the new species Enoplognatha latimana. According to Heikki Hippa, latimana doesn't actually mean anything, but it sounds properly Latin and neatly rhymes with the last names of both its godfathers. As far as I know, it doesn't have an English name. In Dutch, E. ovata is called the gewone tandkaak (common toothed jaw), while E. latimana is quite fittingly known as the vergeten tandkaak (forgotten or overlooked toothed jaw). May I suggest calling them, respectively, the common and the overlooked candy-striped spider? Enoplognatha
latimana is said to produce slightly more but smaller eggs, usually a few weeks later than Enoplognatha ovata. Reportedly, the overlooked candy-striped spider is also much rarer than the common one – the opposite would be utterly ridiculous* –, but both species often occur together, in all colour and pattern forms. In the field, they are indistinguishable, even with the help of a good magnifying glass. Presumably, in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, only the common candy-striped spider occurs. It is, however, quite possible that its overlooked double is present too. Since I am not inclined to catch and kill dozens of specimens for microscopic examination of their genitalia, I will probably never know for sure. But one thing is clear: In nature too, everything is always more complicated than you thought. It's as simple as that.

* Meanwhile, however, genital examination has shown that the overlooked candy-striped spider is sometimes present in larger numbers than the common one, if the latter is not missing altogether.
German wasp: don't mention the war!

I hate to admit it, but I do have issues with Germans and, by extension, Austrians. They give me nightmares. Sometimes I join a dreary procession of desperate refugees, decimated by a squadron of screaming Stukas. Sometimes I roam the streets of a city reduced to ruins by Herr Hitler's Vergeltungswaffen, scattered with smoking rubble and human remains. More often than not, however, I am hauled out of bed by the Gestapo, tortured and deported to Buchenwald, Mauthausen or another concentration camp. Even though I was born after the war – fifteen years to be precise –, in one way or another I am still slightly traumatized by it. Is it because of my parents' and grandparents' vivid wartime stories? Have I read too many books about the Second World War and its extermination camps? Perhaps I should simply watch less Canvas, the second TV channel of the Flemish public broadcasting organisation that famously misses no opportunity to broadcast documentaries about the Führer and his Third Reich. The only other dreams that I sometimes wake up from drenched in cold sweat, are about my ill-fated years as a boarding pupil in a Catholic secondary school. While I gather such dreams are quite common, I
haven't heard of anyone else of my generation being plagued by Nazi nightmares. Having said that, I also don't know anyone of my age, raised in my part of the world, that never associates today's Germany and Austria, as well as their native populations and the language they speak, with either World War II or Hitler and his hangmen. We usually make light of it, but it clearly runs deeper than we care to admit. When the shadow of a finger of Israel's Prime Minister inadvertently draws a Hitler moustache on the upper lip of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a photograph of the incident goes viral. When, in the last World Cup Finals, within half an hour of
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Like the common wasp, the German wasp has a sweet tooth. It is mad about fruit and soft drinks like coke. In most cases, the species can be recognized by the black dots on its head and its appalling sense of humour.

the game kicking off, the German Mannschaft lead Brazil by 5-0, sports journalists immediately talk about a Blitzkrieg. German tourists are given a hearty welcome, but are jokingly requested, behind their backs, not to overstay their welcome by four or five years this time round. Befehl ist Befehl! Ordnung muss sein! We say it in German, because it sounds better. A lame excuse, but, as the French say, les excuses sont faites pour s'en servir.

Testy troublesome tormentors

The previous episode of
Garden Soap introduced you to the European paper wasp. In Dutch, the species is known as the Franse veldwesp or French field wasp. This amiable bon vivant is about as aggressive as a bashful forget-me-not. By contrast, the German wasp is an extremely touchy and troublesome tormentor, prowling around pavement cafés, gardens and picnic areas. The species was scientifically named and described in 1793 by Johann Christian Fabricius, a Danish entomologist and one of the most brilliant students of Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. Did Fabricius have issues with Germans too? Damned if I know, but naming one of the world's least-loved creatures Vespula germanica is hardly a good sign. Adult workers of the German wasp just won't listen to
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By the end of the summer, the workers are completely stressed out. They gather food for the larvae and the new generation of drones. Rotting pears are gefundenes Fressen.

reason. With death-defying fortitude they plunge into your cold dish, attack your roasted spare-ribs, and dive into your fruit salad or soft drink. Year after year, numerous unsuspecting barbecue lovers end up in hospital with a wasp sting in the throat. Every bite, every sip can be fatal. While native to Northern Africa, Europe and a part of Asia, the German wasp is in the midst of conquering new Lebensraum. Today, it is already present in America, Southern Africa and even New Zealand and Australia. It is considered an uncontrollable invasive pest, making the lives of many other species, notably
humans, a complete misery. Vespula germanica is a loathsome freeloader, an annoying uninvited guest that flies off the handle at the drop of a hat, like a macho drunk hoodlum who feels you have insulted his mother. But in spite of its bad reputation, and even though I've been stung more often than I care to remember, to my eyes the German wasp is still a beautiful creature that doesn't scare me at all. It neither keeps me awake nor gives me nightmares. If only I could say the same of Germans and Austrians! Regrettably, I can't. I do hope they will not hold it against me and perhaps even find it in their hearts to appreciate my candour. After all, just like they are not responsible for the crimes of some of their ancestors or fellow-countrymen, I am not responsible for my nightmares. In my part of the world, how many post-war generations will it take to get over the trauma? Three at least and four at most, I guess. To the children of my children, the Second World War has already been reduced to a video game and a series of – some things never change – mind-numbing history lessons. To their own children, that war will at best be the last. That's all. When their great-grandfather tells them that the horrid critters swimming in their lemonade are German wasps, they will not understand why that statement makes their parents or grandparents chuckle. Let alone why that grumpy old bastard suddenly shouts "Don't mention the war!".
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Geraardsbergen, 6 October 2014.
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