Caterpillars are cute. Typically, a creature with that many legs tends more to the creepy. Perhaps it is its furr(zz)iness that provokes ‘awws’ rather than ‘ewws’ and rescue rather than squashing, but equally compelling may be our our optimistic identification with this earth bound crawler’s destiny with the sky, its inevitable transformation into a higher form of life. After all, stick a pair of wings on the ugliest person and all of sudden they’re an angel.
There is a beautiful stretch of open prairie where I like to run under a late afternoon’s unforgiving sun. Right now, the small trees that dot the trail-crossed land are filled with huge webs of emerging tent caterpillar larvae, giant apartment complexes bursting with activity. Many of these caterpillars stumble across the trails, and many of these get stepped on or run over by bikes. I paused the other day to watch one lose its struggle for life. Apparently only the back section of its body had been hit, forcing much of its guts out its rear, still connected to its remaining insides. One group of ants was busy trying to pry out the inchoate mass of internal stuff while another wrestled the front end, pulling it towards their nest. The caterpillar, whom I’ll call Betsy just to make this even more awful, was flailing, trying to shake off the ants. We can debate at what level of sophistication an animal knows pain the way we do, but there is absolutely no denying the instinct towards life. Betsy did not want to be eaten alive while her bright green insides lent a little color to the dusty trail.
I bent down and watched for a bit. I though about human romanticization of nature, my own adolescent yearnings for unity with a primal state. Looking up and around, yes, the wind blown grasses and shocking green of the trees, the birds circling gracefully above, the sun and air on my skin, there is peace and satisfaction and a quiet sense of harmony. But to stop and look closely, to observe long enough, is to encounter horror, the brutal reality that every bit of life is fed by other life and with no concern for pain or terror. Mother Nature is implacably cruel and will devour as readily as nourish. With rare exceptions, only human being regularly rise above such a state. We certainly can descend into animality, but as a whole we’ve mutually agreed to play by different rules. Its a tenuous bargain, but the gains of each generation are taken for granted by the next.
I bent closer and blew all the ants off Betsy, gently lifted her body and placed her in the grass. I stayed and watched until she expired. In that field there were probably a million caterpillars struggling to live long enough to become moths or butterflies. The vast majority of them will just become food for the rest of the system. I have no illusions about having done anything for Betsy, or to stem any larger tide of despair. What I did was for me, because I couldn’t bear watching her die in that way. But that in itself, that feeling in all of us, is what I found most beautiful about that lovely day.