WORDS BY ASHIA AJANI
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ARIANNA LAGO
For The Frontline, writer Ashia Ajani ruminates on the parallels between roly-polys and Black people: both forced to filter out the bad from their environments.
A day or so after it has rained is best for roly-poly hunting. When the storm clears but the air is still wet with its memory, underground creatures emerge—a bonafide rapture of the invertebrates.
As children, my friends and I found the outside a place for self-discovery. Nature, even in a city as segregated as Denver, allowed our young imaginations to run wild. We would build new worlds, convene with insects, and marvel at how light shone through spiderwebs while retelling the stories our parents read to us at bedtime of Anansi, the trickster spider of Akan folklore.
Clumsy fingers crushed about as much as we revealed, poking worms and beetles with small sticks, filling up jars with strange insects to be cataloged, then later released back into their habitats. Most of our unearthing happened around the corner from our homes, at the banks of a canal where freshwater birds, chattering insects, and the occasional turtle gathered. Now dry from an ongoing drought, the canal reminds me how quickly things can change—and how slow restoration can be.
Even the roly-polys of my childhood aren’t what they used to be. When I go roly-poly searching, these creatures (also known as woodlice and pill bugs) are harder to find. When I do find them, their little shells are all that remain. But even their tiny exoskeletons, capable of miraculous things, remind me of all the burdens we carry as people living in an increasingly industrialized society.
Green space, especially in U.S. urban areas, is not distributed equally. Communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature-scarce areas; the same goes for 70% of low-income people. Many psychological studies have shown that time in nature boosts mood overall, but a 2021 study from the University of Derby took things a step further: it’s not just about the amount of time spent in nature but the meaningfulness of the interaction with nature (i.e. listening to birdsongs or relaxing in a garden).
Our bodies, like those of the pill bug, are in a perpetual state of grief cycling, attempting to filter out the bad in order to pave a path forward to reach the good.
Not only do green spaces provide a wealth of emotional and physical benefits, but they also house many of the various creatures that help filter toxins out of soil and water—like my beloved roly-polys. It’s a disturbing paradox, though. We only know these creatures are good at remediation when an excess of toxic material is in an area. For that discovery to take place, heavy metals need to already be present—usually due to defunct factories or condemned buildings. Pill bugs first arrived in the Americas with European colonizers, but scientists didn’t document their ability to accumulate and hold these metals in their small bodies until 1976.
Some metals in soil are naturally occurring and contribute to the biocomplexity of a region: cadmium and arsenic are organically distributed throughout the Earth’s crust. But metals from air pollution can accumulate in the top layer of soil and stay there. In areas with heavy industry, soil can be contaminated by condemned buildings and debris from heavily trafficked roads.
Pill bugs filter toxic metals like cadmium, lead, and copper, protecting groundwater in the process. Oyster mushrooms are amazing at breaking down plastic pollution. Yellow jackets can’t clean up toxins, but scientists published a study in 2020 showing how the various patterns on their faces can indicate which heavy metals are present in certain areas.
While these revelations highlight ongoing issues in pollution-burdened areas, they cannot be solutions. A 2020 study showed how these toxins travel up the food chain: when steelhead trout snack on roly-polys and similar terrestrial bugs, they can transfer high levels of toxic metals to otherwise clean watersheds. New problems emerge the longer we neglect past ones.
Winter rains have resurfaced many of our underground warriors: earthworms, fruiting fungi, and, of course, roly-polys. These curious isopods aren’t insects; they are terrestrial crustaceans that prefer the humidity under rocks, dead logs, fallen leaves, and mulch. They are nothing short of an evolutionary marvel. Being crustaceans, roly-polys are more closely related to shrimp than they are to common garden insects.
Truthfully, when I think of pill bugs, I think of playfulness, of futurity. I think of a world where our gifts are not used to accumulate pain, but to ensure bold futures.
Due to their evolutionary heritage, pill bugs have gills. This can mean trouble when they’re exposed to too much heat, which climate change is making more common. Though they have adapted to life on land, when these tiny creatures are unearthed, they curl into a tight little ball, protecting the remaining moisture they have in their system.
I always felt like my friends and I were intruding on a sacred gathering whenever we turned over stones along the canal. What secrets were these critters hiding from us? What stories do they have tucked away in their fragile underbelly? A pill bug’s reaction to outside disturbance isn’t out of fear but of self-preservation.
A lot can be learned from the pill bug in this manner: as capitalism continues to divorce people from the planet and punish those who aim to repair their relationship with the planet, how can we create our own whisper networks of resilience? Inspired by their obscurity, I wonder: can we, too, become ungovernable? Bewitched by their tenebrosity, I call them kin. I am bound to their blackness, their capacious existence. When left to flourish, pill bugs are diligent in their work: whole ecosystems bloom from what they decompose. The work of the roly-poly begets life, digesting dead and damaging materials into organic matter. Their work renews and restores.
When I first began researching pill bugs, I was interested in learning about their parallels to how anti-Blackness poisons the Black experience: our bodies, like those of the pill bug, are in a perpetual state of grief cycling, attempting to filter out the bad in order to pave a path forward to reach the good. But the more I learned about these fascinating little crustaceans, I discovered that they are able to survive despite carrying this heavy metal accumulation in their guts until they die (and, eventually, returning the toxins to the earth as they decompose). It’s as though their life is a barometer of ills—and their death a silencing.
What a frustrating existence, to be burdened with all this poison and to have no one take heed, to carry everything inside of you, even until your death. Then, to be blamed for poisoning those higher up on the food chain—your entire existence reduced to burden.
Now, when I go back to the canal by my childhood home and flip over rocks, I find fewer and fewer pill bugs likely due to warming conditions. No research suggests they have died off, but, instead, it’s more likely they have burrowed back into the soil’s damp recesses to ensure their continued lineage. To honor the creatures that wage their own insurgency in the Earth’s dark womb, I find myself retreating back into the spaces that welcome me, ready to emerge once again when the environment is just right. The impact of Blackness is everywhere, even if it goes unnoticed or is overlooked. Even if it is buried under the layers of soil and grime that pave this planet.
The thing is, these decomposers are just doing what they do best, adding their contribution to the vast, intricate web of life. As much as humans build up our concrete and metal towers, our pill bug brethren are there to remind us how much poison we’ve accepted in the name of progress.
In her book A Map to the Door of No Return, Trinidanian-Canadian poet Dionne Brand writes, “History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives.” Whenever I am out foraging for strange bugs or simply seated in a park, standing on the other end of strangers’ stares, I am reminded that Black people across the diaspora are history enduring. Our presence is as much an archive as a message from the future.
Truthfully, when I think of pill bugs, I think of playfulness, of futurity. I think of a world where our gifts are not used to accumulate pain, but to ensure bold futures. Play is one of the most important learning tools we can employ: imagination and creativity deserve to be cultivated, harvested, and allowed the proper space to flourish. There are so many discoveries to be had and adventures to be shared, bubbling up from the dark belly of our ancestral mother.
When I think of roly-polys, I imagine a world where instead of cleaning up others’ messes, we are rehabilitating our own sensorial worlds, teeming with fresh possibilities.