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On Inauguration Day: An Insect's Lesson in Extinction and Hope
At noon today, as Joe Biden takes the oath of office, as most of us hope for some measure of tranquility and renewal, I will be remembering a caddisfly I once encountered in the Grand Canyon.
We met in a creek during one of my hikes below the South Rim. As adults, caddisflies resemble drab moths with wiry antenna. But their larvae live underwater, where they assemble temporary shelters of sticks or stones, and crawl around like caterpillars shrouded in disheveled log cabins or masonry sleeping bags.
I had discovered one of the stone masons. Good thing. There is no better place on earth to find stone than in the Grand Canyon. Stacked in three dozen layers, the canyon’s geologic formations represent major events in earth’s history — from tranquil to tumultuous: the collision of continents, blasts from volcanoes, the advance of a desert, the rise and retreat of oceans, and three mass extinctions.
We ourselves cannot know these cataclysms, not in the same way we might know spring migration or an alpine meadow in bloom. The closest we get to the action — to the past and present and future of the Grand Canyon, to the birth and breathing and fate of its rock — is that orderly geologic record left behind for us like scripture.
And yet the Grand Canyon is now falling apart.
As the Colorado River slices through the oldest rock a mile below the rim, canyon walls tumble. Summertime’s torrential rains drive rock and sediment down side canyons toward the river. In winter, water trapped in cracks freezes, expands, and pries away slabs of rock sheer even more rock on the way down.
Erosion is what makes the Grand Canyon so big and wide and beautiful. For millions of years its pace has been relentless. And nothing can put the rock back together again.
Except for the caddisfly.
In this one insect’s stone hut I find rock samples gathered from the across the eons: A speck of Zoroaster Granite — 1.8 billion years old. A grain of Tapeats Sandstone — 545 million years old. A slice of Hermit Shale — 265 million years old. The temporary quarters of this lone caddisfly, which will live to fly as an adult for only a week or so, is assembled from bits of rock marking monumental events during more than a billion years of earth’s history.
Erosion builds a canyon. It delivers void and beauty like nowhere else on earth. And yet contrary to entropy, the caddisfly, unwittingly and haphazardly, puts a small portion of the Grand Canyon back together again. In its lonely deed, this prosaic insect builds a monument to the Grand Canyon … made of the Grand Canyon.
Erosion, in its destructive form, is now the hallmark of our governance and discourse. The decay began long before Donald Trump, but only accelerated to carnage during his tenure in power. Our proximate cataclysms are unlike earthquakes or volcanos. They are instead of our own making. Take your pick:
We humans have been a force smart and powerful enough to warm an entire planet, but utterly inept at doing anything about it. The tsunami of social media has exploited our cravings and weaknesses, mostly our vulnerability to propaganda and lies and destructive ideas, before we’ve had a chance to understand, let alone reckon with, the fallout. And now, when more than ever we need unity and comity, a pandemic drives us apart.
So can we come together again? Nobody knows, of course, although you will find no shortage of pundits, politicians, writers and philosophers — maybe even a few with worthy ideas — eager to offer you answers. I am not one of them. I am but one privileged field naturalist with binoculars, cameras and an insect net.
But as a nature writer, it would be easy for me today to deliver one of those classic nature-writing bromides. In fact, earlier versions of this essay had pointed out that one of the amazing things about nature is that even during the worst kind of upheaval — from the start of Trump’s failed presidency to this very day in the pandemic, with 400,000 Americans dead — many of us might seek our respite in nature: a warbler, a violet, a fritillary. A caddisfly. When our commons are spoiled, our communities fractured, our discourse no longer civil, when it all seems to be crumbling around us, an insect might remind us of renewal and rebuilding. The caddisfly gathers rubble and begins to put a fractured world back together again.
And even if you like that notion, it is not enough. Not by a longshot.
Four years ago today, as Trump was about to take office, I walked off the continent (figuratively). That January, while I was in retreat in Acadia National Park, with the Gulf of Maine at my doorstep, the tides were in my favor: dead low at 11:09AM on Inauguration Day. So before Trump took the oath, I stepped away from the shoreline and walked the soggy intertidal zone — over squishy clumps of rockweed and knotted wrack, over blue mussels and periwinkles — until I reached Little Moose Island offshore. There, alone, during the peaceful transition of power, I made peace with the new presidency and took my own kind of oath: to solemnly swear that I will preserve, protect and defend wildlife and wild places.
Those of us who love and fight for wildlife and wild places can no longer confine ourselves to conventional battlegrounds. Extinction has spread to new frontiers.
My blog post from that day — critical of Trump, fearful for what he might ruin in four years — now seems rather quaint in the wake of the mendacity, depravity and violence of his failed presidency. And on this Inauguration Day, Trump’s taint and the cataclysms that preceded him remain. As a result, those of us who love and fight for wildlife and wild places must no longer confine ourselves to conventional battlegrounds: in nature, communities, the lab, and the corridors of power. Extinction has spread to new frontiers.
Social media fosters a gradual extinction of civil discourse, where status and attention now eclipse depth and meaning. Politicians, including Democrats, have always lied, but Trump himself has elevated lying to a new and potent force, threatening the currency of science and empirical truth — not outright extinction, not yet, but certainly extirpation in far too many instances. And all of this trauma has been the backdrop to Trump’s run-of-the-mill undermining of environmental protection and natural resource conservation — stuff we might debate as a matter of public policy, that is if we could even have civil and intelligent discussions about public policy anymore.
Insects have been at this game of survival for 400 million years. They have outlasted the dinosaurs and some of the worst this planet has meted out, the latest of which is our own assault on global insect diversity and abundance. Caddisflies have been rebuilding little bits of earth for a thousand times longer than we humans have been here building our societies, ushering in the Anthropocene, and reducing what we’ve created to rubble from time to time.
Every living thing on earth has its day, its temporal range, its romp on the planet as a species. Ours will end as well. The only question is how we get there. We can make our run with good ideas, respectful disagreement, rising prosperity and justice, and love for ourselves and our planet. Or we can make our way with war, greed, neglect, and our various forms of tribalism.
Whichever the case, when we’re gone for good, caddisflies will almost certainly still be here … picking up the pieces.