Having always gravitated toward creative and imaginative interests, I recall very few scientific concepts from my school days. One of the ones that stuck is the idea that if we study a living thing, we change it by the very act of examining it.
I’ve recently relocated from Central Kentucky to Western North Carolina, with the express purpose of living in a densely forested mountainous area with habitats supporting a diversity of wildlife. On recent visits here, I’ve seen three bears, one bobcat and many, many birds, my personal favorite.
For the past month I’ve been living in a cozy Asheville condo with mountain views, a temporary house sitting gig I arranged in order to get my bearings and learn more about where I want to live permanently – and most importantly to job search. It’s very quiet here, but I’m surrounded by plant life: dozens of orchids, geraniums, African violets, Buddha’s curls, succulents and bromeliads have been left in my care.
During my first week, I was working quietly on job applications when I began to get that eerie sense that the plants and I were not alone. There were tiny nondescript sounds of life in the condo, but I couldn’t place the source at first. Then, I noticed a small dark bug crawling on the wall near some of the plants.
Another living, breathing creature! How lovely, I thought. He was smaller than a ladybug, but with a similar type of diligent movement across surfaces, vertical or horizontal. Perhaps out of loneliness, or maybe because I’m just crazy, I started talking to the bug, and by the end of the day, I had dubbed him Wilson. (Ever see Castaway?)
As the days passed, I was always pleased to spot a Wilson moving around the apartment in its slow methodical way, occasionally making a brief flight from one part of the room to another. And, I noticed that for every live one, there were a couple of dead. I reflected that, had there been a lot of them, it might have been freaky, but as I only would see one or two each day, they became welcome companions and it was somehow comforting to hear and see them, my new imaginary friends.
Such is the way of the human being that I began to wonder: What is Wilson? So I located a pair of biologists in my part of town, and they encouraged me to bring the bug to them to identify.
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning with unseasonably warm weather and gorgeous clouds hovering over the Blue Ridge Mountains when I brought a Wilson out of the condo and down to meet the biologists. Wilson rode along perched somewhat perilously on the top rim of an empty salsa container; he didn’t want to get into it and I saw no reason to force him.
No sooner had I showed the container to the biologists, than Wilson was whisked from his roost, suddenly sealed in a tiny plastic bag and subjected to intense scrutiny under the bright hot light of a high-powered microscope. After several minutes of hushed conversation, rapid keystrokes and flipping insect field guide pages, the humans all unanimously pronounced Wilson a Kudzu Bug!
I looked at him there turned upside down and wriggling, his tiny red eyes bulging, seeking to make sense of this new, unchosen landscape. After he was unceremoniously flipped over, it was fascinating to see Megacopta cribraria in all his detailed glory and true colors, his little back an artistic mix of various browns and beiges not unlike a tortoise shell. It was cool to finally know what he was. But, for me, the more important truth was, the bug looked distressed and I couldn’t stop my mind from dialing in what I suppose was a correlative emotional image: row upon row of lifeless Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encased in glass at universities, their extinction likely contributed to in great part by those who, probably with every noble intention, chose to study them.
It was then that I remembered why I am not a scientist.
I know bugs don’t live too long or feel too much. And if you read about the Kudzu Bug, and what it’s doing to soybean crops in the South, you’ll learn that chances of it being wiped out any time soon are slim. I appreciate that we all know more about the natural world because of the tireless efforts of those who not only ask the questions, but also create and perform the experiments that help to answer them. But I guess I’ll always be an overly sympathetic armchair naturalist, tiny bugs roaming unencumbered through my various woodsy dwellings, binoculars and guidebooks serving as much to fire my imagination as to provide absolute knowledge, whilst I remain content to wonder at this amazing world without knowing firsthand exactly what things are or why they do the things they do.
I left Wilson with the biologists to add to their collections, in deference to the scientific protocol that is their norm. I even promised to bring back the dead specimens I find at the condo. But before I departed, I did request that Wilson be taken out of the plastic bag and allowed to die in his own time, which would no doubt be within a 24-hour period, based on my non-scientific observations. My new acquaintances complied, looking at me with what can only be described as amused pity. But I didn’t care if I seemed to them to be a lunatic. I was glad to be the way I am.
That afternoon, Nate and I drove to nearby Brevard to see the white squirrels that make that small town their home. Legend has it the first two were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. It was a delight to drive onto the campus of Brevard College and search for the skittish white anomalies among the ordinary cavalier gray rodents, like the joy of an erstwhile Easter egg hunt.
We deduced that there seemed to be roughly one conspicuous white for every three common grays. Watching the little white acrobats, we noticed things about squirrel behavior we’d never seen before. And we speculated that probably all squirrels do these things, but we were only just now noticing them because the white specimens stand out so much from their environment – and loom so large in our imaginations.