The Connected Naturalist: Birbs, spiders on drugs, and other nature memes

by Jason Ramsay-Brown

In December, reporter Asher Elbein dragged some innocuous and irreverent seeming tidbits of Internet culture in to the venerable pages of Audubon Magazine when he posed the question “When Is a Bird a ‘Birb’?” While millions of naturalists pursue their passions on the Internet each and every day, it’s probably a safe bet that the bulk of this time is spent probing the depths of resources like iNaturalist or The Cornell Lab of Ornithology rather than hanging around the kind of sites that serve as native range to words like ‘birb’ – places like reddit, I Can Has Cheezburger and TikTok. In case this sounds like you, here’s the gist: ‘birb’ substitutes for ‘bird’ when you think the bird in question is particularly cute. Of course, cuteness is highly subjective, hence Elbein’s near one-thousand word opus exploring what makes a bird a birb.

At first blush, spending time pontificating on the nuisances of digital slang may seem frivolous, but as Elbein concludes “These sorts of debates are fun partially because they reveal real fault-lines in our operational definitions. It’s a chance to take stock, not just of what we think about birds, but how we think about them. Defining ‘birb’ also means interrogating our impressions. It’s not only about rating them: It’s about reminding us that — regardless of birb-status — all birds are good.” While all of this is true, I’d posit that the scope of Elbein’s article limits exposing the true meaning and value of birbs.

Even if words like ‘birb’, ‘borb’, and ‘floof’ were simply slang, their use and definition does much more than just inspire us to take stock and reflect upon our impressions regarding our fine feathered friends. Slang is a beacon, meant to attract people who share similar life experiences and group identity. Slang throws up a flag meant to help “our people” find one another in a crowd, and with billions of Internet users forming said crowd, finding “our people” can be challenging to say the least. But these words are more than just slang. They symbolize deeply intimate ideas & beliefs shared by like-minded individuals and spread by imitation and mutation. In short, they are memes, a neologism coined by noted ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and co-opted by the Internet-at-large to describe everything from viral videos to captioned photos of cats. Memes, essentially, are a cultural analogue to genes, empowering the transmission of culturally-important information and characteristics from person to person.

Inspired by all this, I now present to you a round-up of nature-inspired memes for your enjoyment and edification. Whether funny, crass, inspired, bizarre, or something else all together, each exposes something about our relationship with the natural world, providing meaningful insights in to how nature fits in to our tapestry of cultural identity & societal values, for better or for worse.

One with Nature

Derived from a 2009 edition of Italian magazine supplement Intelligence in Lifestyle, this heavily ‘shooped image of Arnold Schwarzenegger surrounded by wildlife is most often used to denote a great sense of self-satisfaction over some trivial or inconsequential course of environmentally-friendly action.

Damn Nature, You Scary

Centuries of technological advancement, from storm-proof windows to vaccines, insulate many of us from a simple and basic truth exploited by this meme: Mother Nature really is trying to kill you, and you best remember that. The expression itself is thought to have originated in 2008 via S6E10 of the TV show Family Guy (see below) but took on a life of its own almost immediately thereafter.

Spiders on Drugs

What happens when you dope up spiders on peyote, caffeine, speed or chloral hydrat? The results of the Peters & Witt experiments (and a more recent reproduction by NASA) answer this question. While rarely remixed in conventional image-based memes, Spider on Drugs images & associated articles have been circulating on the Internet for the better part of a quarter century, appearing on mainstream media sites, cult sources like mefi and somethingawful, in response to threads on facebook and twitter, and just about any other place that a web weaved by a stoned arachnid could get itself trotted out for pleasure or impact.

Here are a few examples:

The Birds Work for the Bourgeoisie

When twenty-three year old Kendrick Smith declared that “All of the birds died in 1986 due to Reagan killing them and replacing them with spies that are now watching us. The birds work for the bourgeoisie.” he likely had no idea that this collection of words would galvanize an entire generation, trumped only by the expression “Ok, Boomer”. Condensed down to its final six words, this meme expresses the hopelessness, futility, and deep mistrust so many millennials (and post-millennials for that matter) feel about the world that surrounds them. To those who relate to this meme, the world is one where economics always outweighs ecology, profit is more important than people, and big billionaire is always watching. To suggest that, perhaps, society-at-large could do better than this immediately brands them an unworldly and unrealistic commie-pinko-leftist of the laziest and most entitled caliber.

@slymcooper

Idk what happened to the original so I’m just gonna repost my vid of kendomakesfilms #foryoupage

♬ original sound – slymcooper
@lexjayne

#foryoupage #thebirdsworkforthebourgeoisie

♬ original sound – lexjayne
@theoreticalspace

I got a bird and I #improvised because #thebirdsworkforthebourgeoisie #art #showandtell #glowup #4u

♬ audio by slymcooper – cate.uwu
@codynewmanmusic

tiktok do your thing cause i made ‘original content’ for once #foryou #singer #thebirdsworkforthebourgeoisie #halloweendiy #layerup #riseandshine #tik

♬ original sound – ohwell.then

There’s wolves on them there Internets

There are few animals as totemistic as the wolf, a fact not lost of the average Internet denizen it would seem. From Insanity/Courage Wolf to motivational posters asking which of the wolves inside yourself you’d feed, these amazing creature may well be the most popular animal of all time from a meme-perspective. Given our wholesale and perpetual slaughter of these magnificent creatures there’s likely some deep and insightful reason why, but damned if I know. Oh, except for the “10,000 years later” meme which, come on, guilty as charged.

Ozzy Man

If you have not seen an Ozzy Man Review, allow me to warn you that they will not be enjoyed by anyone whose elementary school was not located on the deck of a pirate ship. You have been warned. Regardless, Ozzy Man’s nature videos have been shared billions of times by everyone from priests to prostitutes.

Random

The diversity of nature memes is only rivaled by the biodiversity of our living planet. Here’s a random assortment of others. ‘Nuff said.

The Toronto Field Naturalists wish to acknowledge this land through which we walk. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississauga of the Credit River. Today it is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to be on this land.