Happy Dancing Turtle Blog
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Musings on the Pollinators (Part 1 of 3)
Have you ridden in a car with someone who swerves for butterflies?
My mother does this every once in a while. I used to get silently angry with her, thinking of our safety, and with the butterflies, for getting in our way. Then the anger settled, and I could think only of the absurdity of the situation—that we have chosen to hurtle to and fro in great wheeled machines of steel and glass, which can’t help but mangle, on their radiators and grills and windshields, one of humanity’s most beloved animals, our symbol of freedom and innocence.
Writing about the animals he sees stirring along country roads at night, Bill Holm compares their activities to
(…)a secret cathedral service in a right-wing dictatorship, when the conquered come out to be themselves, sing and celebrate a little freedom. After all, the prairie is their church, their mother, their country, and they had it all long before we came….That makes me, in my Chevrolet, a remnant of the day junta out patrolling. This is not such a cheerful or romantic thought. Consider road kill, pavement littered with fresh corpses… [p. 2]
Even if Holm’s metaphors seem a stretch to you, I bet you’ve struggled with how to treat different animals (people included!). Mosquitoes? Swat ‘em. What about other flies?
Last year, wandering through a ravine, I came across a strange spectacle: on a log suspended over a pool of water, three syrphid (sir-fid) flies were laying neat lattices of tiny cigar-shaped white eggs. Syrphids are a group of vividly colored, harmless flies that help pollinate trees and wildflowers. Many have evolved color patterns that mimic bees and wasps, apparently as a way to ward off predators.
Curious, I collected a twig that held a few eggs. At home, I propped the twig up in an old juice jug, suspended over an inch or so of tap water. Within a week the eggs hatched. The creatures that emerged dropped into the water at once. They were, at first glance, ugly things: pale, writhing grubs with a single stringy “tail” that they could, bizarrely, telescope in and out. They used this appendage as a snorkel, extending its tip to the water’s surface to breathe. Insect enthusiasts have an unflattering common name for these aquatic larvae: “rat-tailed maggots.” Guidebooks will tell you some species inhabit “stagnant water rich in decaying organic matter”—a fancy way of saying they’ll live in what we’d call filth. Not the most admirable creatures, it would seem.
But I came to appreciate them. One evening, using my binoculars as a crude microscope, I saw through one larva’s translucent skin and glimpsed its inner workings – an intricate, almost beautiful maze of looping white tubes and silvery sacs. I marveled at the maggots’ hearty appetite for old submerged oak leaves. I even kept them through a bout of paranoia that I would be disciplined by DNR staff for illegally possessing an insect, since I was living in DNR quarters at the time—fears that calmed only when an agency staff member assured me that no one probably cared all that much. Eventually, around the time the maggots had grown big and fat, I had to relocate, so I was forced to release them – and release them I did, in the same habitat I found them, with well-wishes and a tinge of sorrow.
During a presentation I attended, one of the founders of the Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Project expressed amazement that people have such trouble giving ourselves permission to be compassionate. Perhaps it’s harder to respect such humble creatures as insects, but I’d like to believe there can be a value in trying. At that same talk, the presenter asserted there’s evidence one act of compassion encourages more. Bearing that in mind, I think of all the times I’ve stooped to watch a gathering of pollinators, as they zoomed back and forth through a patch of flowers. There are so many—moths, flies, bees, wasps, and beetles, of all sizes, shapes, and colors, some homely, others striking, but all united in the dual tasks of feeding and inadvertently moving pollen. It is like a community picnic, where local celebrities and salts-of-the-earth mingle and mill about, sharing food, conversation, and a common space. If we can learn to treat a diversity of pollinators respectfully, what can it do for our capacity to care for a diversity of people?
Half a continent away, in Maine, a group of artists has built an activist network around a similar idea: that people can be like pollinators, working together to achieve a common goal—namely, solutions for social and environmental challenges. Calling themselves the “Beehive Design Collective,” they create remarkably detailed murals that depict activities such as mountaintop removal coal mining from the perspective of the ordinary Americans most affected. In their murals, animals—and, in particular, bees—often represent people, working diligently to craft better institutions and ways of living. Through their art, members of the Collective hope to “cross-pollinate the grassroots” with new ideas, strategies, and images of encouragement for activists seeking to improve the world. I may not agree fully with their positions on some issues, but I do think they offer a powerful perspective: compassion for people, and compassion for other life forms (including pollinators!), can go hand-in-hand, each growing stronger when the other is nurtured.