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“Beetles, Beatles and Bugs of Belief”

John Lennon once famously quipped that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. People burned their records. But I thought the comment was no more shocking than the claim that Billy Graham preached to more people in one crusade than Jesus did in his whole lifetime. No one burned a Bible.

Perspective (and context) matters. So does history and our study of life on earth—biology.

The Beatles have certainly held their popularity for decades but their fan base is infinitely smaller than the 200,000 species of beetles. We’re told by the bug-people (entomologists) that there are about 12,000 types of ants and perhaps 20,000 varieties of bees, which begs the question: how many feet does the creator have? A biologist quipped that God must have a special fondness for insects, beetles in particular (might The Beatles be God’s musical Apostles?).

I’m not the only one to note that humans are far from being “lords of creation.”

What crawled across my consciousness in these matters was the fascinatingly disturbing article, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here” (Brooke Jarvis, NYT, Nov 27, 2018). Those who simply squish, squash or stomp on any little crawly thing won’t care that the tiniest creatures are disappearing at an alarming rate. But we had better pay attention because the life of insects, like it or not, intersects with us.

The article stings us with stats such as: 90 percent of monarch butterflies are gone; one bumblebee population has dropped 87 percent. Researchers are discovering what many of us already notice—“something from the past is missing from the present.” Think of those swarms of something you used to curse. Where are they now?

One question scientists are asking is: “What would become of the world without them?” This bites my brain more than a little. How full of ourselves can we be not to care that our thoughtlessness is wiping out whole species we may need more than we ever knew?

Naturalist John Muir once scribbled this on a 1000-mile walk through the South: “How strangely we are blinded by beauty … by comparative size … What is the size of the greatest man, or the tallest tree that ever overtopped a grass! Compared with other things in God’s creation the difference is nothing. We all are only microscopic [critters]” (A Thousand-Mile Walk).

Humbled yet? Whether we accept Muir’s theological frame or not, his point is well taken. Once again: perspective, history, biology.

“Bugs are the wildlife we know best,” the NYT article notes. And, as Muir understood better than many, these smallest of our living neighbors are a very big reminder “how little we know about what’s happening in the world around us.”

“How little we know,” and how much could the little things tell us big things about ourselves? Is this a “spiritual” lesson from science? (some say spirituality and science are segments of the same body of knowledge; I’m not so sure but we do tend to cut things up).

Excuse the pun, or not, this bugs me.

The word entomology comes from a Greek word for something cut up, as in the sections of an insect’s body. Studying things that are divided in sections—perhaps a good way to think of the ways we are cutting up the earth and our fellow inhabitants.
Makes me think of the parts of the human body or the segments of humanity we slice up into nationalities, ethnicities, religions and on.

“There are millions and millions of species that are entirely unknown to science” (Jarvis, NYT). That’s certainly another jab at our arrogant certainties. What do we do with the knowledge that our knowledge is knee-high to a katydid? We speculate, investigate, imagine and explore with our microscopes and telescopes, eyes and minds. We wander, we wonder. Or, we look elsewhere to another (insect-free) world, building belief systems to “manage the mystery.”

As I see it, this is exactly why we need to cease our incessant slicing of ourselves and our world into segments and sections and sectarianism. And it’s precisely why we need to cure our addiction to killing every little creeping, hopping, flitting thing just because it’s “one of them.”

I do feel that as we face these declines in all kinds of living things it ought to be a wake up to declines in all our knowledge and the diminishing of everything from musical forms to language, storytelling (requiring good listening) and basic virtues we once thought were common such as courtesy and curiosity. Maybe we’re afraid we’ll be diminished to the level of ants and beetles?

On our evening walks Carol and I are captivated by the lightning bugs illuminating the shadows. Are we humans to be, in our own flash-fleeting lives, “enlightening bugs?”

Chris Highland, 2019

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