I remember reading a slave narrative by Olaudah Equiano for an American History class. Primarily, I found it tragic to read the cruelty with which one human being (or in this case many human beings) can do to others. I also admired the intrepidity and courage with which the author sought freedom–his own and other people’s. Later I would read about other anti-Slavery Brits in Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild, and I hope to read a few more books on the subject–someday. However, there was one melancholy detail in how we have not progressed as a culture that made me sad. Equiano recalled how he saw the most wonderful thing towards the end of his book, and yet he lacked the eloquence and creativity to do it justice. He said he would merely name it in hopes that the reader could get a picture of it someday: the flamingo. It hit me after reading about the pink bird, whose color comes from the shrimp it eats, that I had been to zoos so many times that I rarely saw anything interesting let alone magical about that bird. I resolved at some point afterwards that I would solve this lack in myself: I would occasionally read a book, say, Bobcats: Masters of Survival by Kevin Hansen or The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live by Colin Tudge. Don’t mistake me: I lack any scientific talent even to me. Yet I guess I believe with Aristotle that thinking is what makes the human animal human, and like him I am what one of my favorite historians calls “a generalist”: somebody who studies thought in fields besides their own. Therefore I have struggled through Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and have read a book my mother gave me Einstein and Religion.
Anyway, at a Botanical Gardens one day, I found a book The Marvelous World of Bugs. Now, I had never much cared about insect life as opposed, say, to wolves or wild cats or even rabbits or crows. Yet seeing this curious book, I was intrigued. So I read the book and read a few naturalist journals–the output of National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Association, I think. One year I kept a journal “The Butterfly Journal” in which I wrote about how from my yard I could watch butterflies migrate. For a while I even had the sublimely stupid notion that I might write a book categorizing all the world’s butterflies in a single volume. This was classic silliness on my part because I don’t have the scientist’s training or knowledge to study even one butterfly species–the Monarch butterfly or the Painted Ladies. Yet I hoped my book studying the butterflies in my own backyard might become a kind of Thoreau’s Walden, albeit not as profound or intellectual. Anyway, I learned how central bugs–including butterflies–are to our native environment. Ecosystems rely on them for the birds to eat. And of course, they can really only eat native plants. Foreign blossoms though beautiful are not edible to domestic bugs.
During my studies of the butterfly, I learned that the life cycle of the butterfly is fourfold, and that it includes: the ovum (eggs) which are what the caterpillars hatch from; the pupae (the caterpillars); the chrysalis (the cocoon); and the imago (the full blown butterfly, which lays or fertilizes eggs). This was not common knowledge in the ancient world. Though Ovid wrote his “Metamorphosis,” the animal it best described was in one since unknown: the Greeks and Romans did not know that any of the four stages of the butterfly’s life cycle related to any of the others. In fact, it was not discovered in the West until the artist-scientist Maria Sibylla Merian (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) painted pictures proving the relationship between the four stages of that bug’s life. In fact, part of what Merian did not learn in her studies: exactly what happens within the chrysalis (cocoon) is still not known today. I remember being awestruck that something that is now common knowledge (the basic life of the butterfly) was at one time a great mystery.
Yet none of my relatives who I explained this to wanted to hear my exotic truth. They insisted–strangely enough–that “probably people in the country knew, but to the learned it wasn’t known because they didn’t spend any time among butterflies. It isn’t possible to live among butterflies without knowing how they live.” Strangely, it was especially those who were skeptical about religion who found it preposterous that the bug’s life wasn’t always known. I don’t mean to imply that religion always makes people able to be open minded or experience awe. Yet some reason the cousin who had the fish with Darwin written on it on the back of his car was a particular scoffer that there were though common knowledge now simply weren’t known at one time in the past.
I don’t know how to explain how upsetting it was to me for my relatives to scoff at the knowledge I had attained. Though I was not a scientist, I marveled at the fact that somebody had looked at the butterfly for the first time and realized what their ancestors had not. More, Maria Merian had been a woman, and this pioneer of entomology had worked in a time when science was a field in which women were not allowed. Though I believe I lack the talents–in my own head at least–to study biology, let alone physics or chemistry–and perhaps lacking the desire to do science, I have always wished to understand the Natural World in a small way. I remember I made the mistake of taking an Honors Physics Class in High School… I turned in my first assignment duly, on-time, and without understanding any of it. I got an “F.” At the end of the semester, I finally had another student help me with the first lesson, and my grade on that assignment was revised. However, humiliatingly, it was too late. The semester was ended and I got an “F.”
However, there have been times when I understood either the Majesty of the Universe or the wonder of a single bug. So I guess, I shall read more books on animals…