Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

The life cycles of butterflies and moths really are an example of how utterly bizarre life can be.

As a child, I was always outdoors playing in the woods and fields and keenly interested in wildlife. I had an especial interest in butterflies for a long while, and I’m quite confident that as a ten year old I could have named every single British species, and told you a reasonable amount about their life cycles. I knew, for example, that every butterfly or moth started out as an egg, hatched into a caterpillar which ate like there was no tomorrow, and then turned into a chrysalis.

And as that child, I assumed that inside this chrysalis the caterpillar just grew a pair of wings, lengthened its legs, and made a couple of other adjustments too minor for me to worry about and then hatched out into whatever butterfly or moth it happened to be.

It is not quite like that, of course.

When it turns into that chrysalis, the caterpillar essentially ingests itself, so that its insides turn into a kind of organic soup (which makes me think of the so-called ‘Primeval Soup’ of amino acids out of which life supposedly first arose on Earth about two billion years ago, which is actually not a bad analogy). From this soup a completely new creature forms.

So, let me now introduce you all to Trevor.

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Trevor has been living in our back garden for the last few weeks. He is the caterpillar stage of an Elephant Hawk Moth (probably – some of the hawk moth caterpillars not only resemble each other fairly closely, but may also have variations within the species). In that time he has been doing his best to eat a small tree.

You’ll excuse him if he doesn’t say hello, I’m sure, as he is much too busy eating at the moment. It’s what he does. It’s pretty well all he does.

Eventually, he will reach a stage when he stops eating, finds a handy spot to attach himself, and then turn into a chrysalis (or pupa) and will eventually hatch out into a moth – an Elephant hawk Moth, if I’ve identified him correctly, although I’m sure he won’t care in the slightest what I think.

You may be familiar with the Zen koan (essential a riddle that cannot be solved by pure logic) that asks ‘if you light one candle from the flame of another candle, is the new flame the same as the old one, or an entirely new one?’

Which brings me, rather neatly if I might say so, to today’s riddle. Bearing in mind all of the above, is the newly hatched butterfly or moth the same creature as the caterpillar that preceded it, or a new being entirely?

I think we should be told.

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The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.