Insects and Impeachment
Butterflies, Dragonflies and Atomic Bombs
High crimes and misdemeanors. Acrimony and hypocrisy. As it all boils over onto the floor of the U.S. Senate, as I grow weary of the actors and their scripts, I once again find refuge among insects — dead or alive.
Pictured above is the smallest dragonfly species on the planet, Scarlet Dwarf (Nannophya pygmaea), the male in crimson and the female perhaps mimicking a bee. This pair of specimens, which I photographed at a scientific collection here in Florida, came to us from Hiroshima.
As Democrats and Republicans argue their old news and change no minds, I’m hoping at least to expand mine at the Florida State Collection of Arthropods — somewhere around 9 million insects, each an unimpeachable expression of biodiversity on earth.
Here in Gainesville, I’m also at work in the famed McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which houses millions more moth and butterfly specimens, along with a brigade of (living) scientists. And I visit with flying insects as well — moths and butterflies in the wild and on the wing inside the center’s Butterfly Rainforest, where I went calling the other day. Yeah, it was a perfect call.
Although I am in large part here for work on my book, which is about big ideas expressed in the life of a single dragonfly species, the insects of Gainesville are a welcome distraction from Trump on trial, and from a world spinning too fast and in the wrong direction. The butterfly and dragonfly specimens here — from Ukraine, Iran, Hong Kong, Washington and nearly every other turbulent corner of the planet — remind me that insects have been at this game of life for 400 million years, long before we came along to mess up the place with borders, religions, wars and our notions of growth and prosperity.
As a former journalist who in another lifetime breathed politics, including the Clinton impeachment, I cannot offer you anything new under the sun about impeachment — because there is no news here. Only rancor over what we have known since testimony began in November. Yet no matter where you stand on the president or the failed state of our politics and public discourse, I suspect we might agree that American democracy, such as it is, has never been so sacred or immutable that it cannot all go wrong at some point. Nothing about this experiment makes it immune from presidential demagoguery, corruption and lying, as well as institutions that collapse into disfunction, including Congress and the news media.
So I choose this week to find solace in insects that might soar above it all — literally and figuratively. Not the least of which is the smallest dragonfly in the world from the site of the world’s biggest atomic nightmare: tiny expressions of life from Hiroshima.
Imagine Adam Schiff and Mitch McConnell side-by-side enjoying butterflies.
No matter how you yourself seek meaning in troubled times, I suggest that you engage politically and escape occasionally. I now travel the world among insects on pins and tucked in envelopes — an armchair journey of shocking biodiversity. And I escape to the therapy of a butterfly house. Its big carbon footprint notwithstanding, these exhibits are like whale watches or true love or good (safe) drugs — a beautiful dream played out in real life. In fact, I suggest that the impeachment players, after their day of rancor, boredom and chicanery, meet for drinks inside the Smithsonian Institution’s Butterfly Pavilion. Imagine that: Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Mitch McConnell, side-by-side and enjoying Blue Morphos, Variegated Fritillaries and Emperor Swallowtails fluttering and flickering among tropical plants.
Am I so naive to believe butterflies might bridge such divisions, or that dragonfly specimens can mend our broken politics? Well, no, not really. Then again, “the butterfly effect” (at least its misuse in popular culture) suggests that the flap of a gossamer wing can trigger a tidal wave somewhere else on earth. From little things might come big events, or so we might like to believe. From little dragonflies might come hope. Or, okay, maybe they’re little more than a pair of dead insects. Somehow I suspect not. I report; you decide.