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On Inauguration Day: An Insect's Lesson in Extinction and Hope

January 20, 2021  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  70 comments  | 

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.

Caddisfly larvae, in their stone cases, in the Grand Canyon’s Grapevine Creek. I fished out an empty one and posed it for that banner image above.

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.

  1. ANNE GREENE says:

    Wonderful post Bryan,
    A quote that seems fitting:

    Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
    – Rachel Carson

  2. Andrea says:

    Thanks for your long view and your eloquence.

  3. Les Parsons says:

    Beautifully written, with shared hope for your country’s future, which over the last decade we have despaired more and more. Viewed from 3000 miles away in the UK.

  4. Jan Cain says:

    Well said!

  5. Barbara Primmer says:

    Dear Bryan,

    Thank you for presenting to us your beautiful description of the caddisfly larvae that has evoked wonderful expressive thoughts from many interested others. One might say that we have mimicked the larvae by using masks, safe distancing, and total avoidance of any others out in the beautiful woods, in fear that we might be contaminated if anyone gets too close. It’s not a good feeling, is it?

  6. Leo Laferriere says:

    Bryan: I first remember seeing a caddisfly larvae as a tiny sheaf of perishable grass leaves moving along the stream bottom – up, against the slow flow. For the larvae, that sheaf had to last only a short time. We’re bigger and the flows of all kinds are stronger, but just like the caddisfly, the stuff we wrap ourselves in will decide our future. Thanks, Bryan.

  7. Susan James says:

    Your use the Grand Canyon to view our current situation is inspirational.
    Yesterday was the beginning of a new and hopeful perspective of our

  8. Dear Bryan, I’m still wiping tears of joy and relief with the new administration of soul-filled honesty at last! To read your essays is balm for our worn out hearts after 4 years of pain. I guess one of Trump’s last shots was to take off the possible listing of Monarchs on the endangered list. I would love to see your exquisite essays printed in book or journal form…a new “Emerson” for 2021! and, thank you again and again. Onward!j Georgeann

  9. Dennis Nolan says:

    Great analogy. Very insightful. Thanks

  10. Nancy Chickering says:

    What an absolute tribute to the edge and balance of humanity, humble appreciation, hard work, the need to look danger and destruction in the face and do something about it, but not forget to bless every sacred plant, insect, mountain, and moment.
    Xo and thanks for brilliant connections

  11. Eric Sorenson says:

    Thanks so much for this, Bryan. I feel a sense of deep relief from yesterday, and your and Amanda Gorman’s words have inspired me most.

  12. Jeanne says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for this gift.

  13. “The Truth” and in addition inspirational!!!!!
    Thank you.

  14. Kate Taylor says:

    Beautiful words Bryan. I love the imagine of Caddisflies remaking the Grand Canyon, one billion year old grain of stone at a time. Our own troubles and turbulence seem small in the face if such work.

  15. Jim Higgins says:

    You climbed the mountain top with this one, Bryan. Echoes of Emerson and Thoreau. Transcendental writing.

  16. Steven Daniel says:

    Wow, Bryan – inspirational writing, on multiple levels. So very well done. The geologic periods in one caddis’ home. Brilliant. And here’s to a glimmer of an enormous weight being lifted today, assisted by a 78 year old man and a 22 year old poet. And the rest of us.

    • A lovely notion of yours as well, Steven, adding up to a perfect 100. Oh, the poets — how vital they are, to assemble the words for us from the rubble of public discourse.

  17. Jan Ruta says:

    Bryan, Thank you for sharing your insights on this wondrous day. The days without tweets has been a welcome relief and relaxation, and remind me of being in nature. We’re still in VT, thanks for nudging us to stay put. Glad we did! Stay Safe!

    • Thanks, Jan. And thanks for keeping us all “wired” properly — in all the right ways. (I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind being in Big Bend now. But Vermont is the next best thing!)

  18. Robert Martin says:

    Thank you Bryan, I am glad to have received your beautiful photograph and essay. We’re in a delicious, wet midsummer, here in the southern rainforest of Australia. Our prolific wild life is above the trivia of politics, but alas, not above its dreadful effects. Surely we will rebuild the decent human responsibility and joy in Nature.
    Warm regards

    • Oh, how wonderful it is to hear from you, Robert, half a planet away. Thanks much for the report from a finer kind of “green zone.” Some day I hope to visit that rainforest of yours!

  19. Susan Cloutier says:

    Sanctuary in a time of crisis. I still go to nature for relief, but the impact of our destructive ways is harder to avoid. Erosion, as you said, is everywhere and we need to pick up the pieces. Thank you for your writing, photographs, and reminding us to do our bit. I always feel less alone reading your words.

    • Thanks, Sue. I’m spending a bit of the winter searching for adult Acleris (without being too destructive). Don’t suspect I’ll find any — but it’s just nice to be out there looking. 🙂

  20. Maeve Kim says:

    Bryan, on this day of tears, cheers, delight and awe, your essay hit such a perfect note! I’ve sent it to my daughters and sisters. Thanks.

  21. Emily Boedecker says:

    Moved to share my appreciation for this one. It has been an emotional day to end an emotional four years. And now you have me remembering a spring bike ride and quick dip in Cox Brook in Northfield where I first saw and was in awe of the caddis flies log cabins! Thanks for refreshing that memory.

    • Thanks, Emily. That means a lot to me. An emotional day indeed. As it turns out, I have also taken an early-spring ride that included Cox Brook Road! And I know well those log-cabin caddis. They’re out there now waiting for us!

  22. erny palola says:

    Please give praise to the Biden-Harris duo … try to ignore ogre Trump … I appreciate your work … let’s look forward to better days. I think we’ll be happy again stalking climate change, getting off fossil fuel, and getting more electric cars in Vermont.

  23. Jo A Lafayette says:

    Thank you for the encouragement and for sharing.
    It’s a wonderful day!

  24. John Hadden says:

    Thanks for this Bryan. I certainly will take a seat in the hope boat, knowing that it’s taken quite a bit a knocking against the rocks of ignorance, deceit, and hate especially over the past 4 years. The beauty of the natural world makes for a good sealant for any leaks…

  25. Chris says:

    Great perspective. Thanks.

  26. Sheri Larsen says:

    Thank you, Bryan! I always look forward to receiving and reading your posts.

  27. Linda D Wurm says:

    That caddis selected some beautiful grains of stone.
    You shared some thought provoking ideas and ideals.
    Thank you.

  28. Susan Chickering says:

    Fascinating, Bryan! It reminded me of the way the octopus hid in the movie “My Octopus Teacher” (don’t know if you have seen it) by grabbing shells and rocks to hide from predatory sharks. Incredible underwater picture you shared as well of all the various rocks gathered from places all around, shed after the caddisflies emerged. Thank you SO much for sharing your perspective. It is refreshing, as is this new age with our new president. I am grateful. Best wishes to you and Ruth.

  29. Dale Dailey says:

    Hopefully, truth and good ideas will now be heard and acted upon.

  30. Brian Banks says:

    Awesome. It’s a day for reflection and new resolve, and not just in America. Thanks for the extra bit of inspiration.

  31. Susan Weber says:

    Poignant comments, Byran. Eloquently put.

  32. Lisa Dellwo says:

    I remember reading your previous inauguration day essay at the Asa Wright Center in Trinidad, where we had traveled with friends to see the birds and escape the world. That, in retrospect, was such an innocent time.

  33. Kristen Lindquist says:

    Thank you for these thoughtful words and images, as always, Bryan. Hope we can enjoy the beauty of the Schoodic Peninsula together again some day!

  34. Pam Hunt says:

    Caddisflies for president!

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