Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bombay Hook (4): The Woolly Bears

Last summer, in preparation for the Seagull Century, which took place in Maryland over the Columbus Day weekend, I spent many hours riding my bike along upstate country roads.

My training peaked in early fall, just as woolly bear season had begun. There’s always a time when you see them in droves.

For those who don’t know, a woolly bear is one of the few bugs routinely described as “cute.” It’s a bushy, friendly-looking caterpillar, about an inch or two long, black at either end and brown in the middle.

They curl up into a tight light ball if you pick them up, which is somehow delightful, and there’s a rumor that you can predict the winter weather based on how wide that brown stripe is (not true, says the Internet).

Before now, I’d never even thought to wonder what a woolly bear turned into (an Isabella tiger moth) or even why they were so busy crossing the roads (looking for places to hibernate, it seems).

On one of those crisp yellow-blue days of riding in the country, however, I found myself admiring the diligence of their trek across the thoroughfare, which from their perspective must seem as wide as the ocean.

That led to an idea for the blog. I began to think I could make a joke of their being the perfect image of me, making my own slow and determined march along the byways.

I would need a photograph for the post.

The next time I spotted a woolly bear, I dropped the bike to the shoulder and got out my camera. The caterpillar was just starting across the lane, alone in its sea of gray asphalt.

Setting the lens to macro, I leaned over and snapped a few close-ups. (I didn't even like the pictures, as turned out, because the caterpillar had unexpectedly cast such a dark shadow.)

My looming presence brought the woolly bear to a halt. It hesitated for a few moments, perhaps sussing out the danger, before resuming its progress forward. As a result, it was directly in the path of a tire as I stepped back to make way for an oncoming SUV.

That valiant little creature was reduced to a green smear on the pavement.

* * *

Just a caterpillar, I know, but I cried. I pedaled through much of that long ride feeling as if there were a spear lodged in my chest. There was almost no doubt my interference had led to that woolly bear’s death, and I felt awful.

Late in the day, I sat in a lawn chair and watched myself blithely crushing the mosquitoes that landed on my arm—“gone to Shiva!” as my buddies at the yoga center like to say.

It was somewhat puzzling, how involuntary manslaughter in the case of the caterpillar could leave me so filled with sorrow while outright murder in the case of the mosquitoes hardly bothered me at all.

Did I imagine I was killing the mosquitoes in self-defense? Was that why I had no sense of conscience?

I brought this vexing problem to B., who manages to be kind even when I am at my most exasperating. She got right to the point.

“You were identified with the woolly bear!” she said.


* * *

A few weeks later, on my way back from the bike ride, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

I’d seen a crab, a dead mouse, and finally a large flock of the big white geese—but they were so far away! Disappointed, I hiked one last forest trail in hopes of getting a better view.

No dice.

It was time to go home. On my way out of the woods, I glanced down at the path and saw a woolly bear. A woolly bear! I’d never put up my post about the other one—my heart wasn’t in it.

I watched as this new caterpillar munched on a blade of grass. How amazing! It chewed steadily, finally felling that stalk as if it were a tall tree.

I’d intended to leave this woolly bear alone entirely, but then I couldn’t resist. I set up my camera on the ground and hoped I could document the creature in action.

All seemed well, until I stepped back. Another hiker was coming, and the woolly bear was still on the path.

I didn’t attempt a rescue; I didn’t know where the caterpillar wanted to go.

I walked rapidly toward my car and didn’t look back. I prayed that that this woolly bear would be safe, that it would live to die another day.

I post its picture in honor of its comrade who did not make it through.

RIP, woolly bear.

1 comment:

Joan said...

I want to point out -- gently -- that caterpillars don't really move so fast that a couple moments would make the difference between the left or right side of a big, fat SUV tire; once any slow-moving thing in nature starts across a road, its survival odds go way down. Also, I can't say this with any academic authority, but my general experience is that when insects are affected by your presence, they usually try to move away from you. You may have been the reason it paused, but it may also have been mulling a change --in smell, temperature -- that made it pause for reasons unrelated to you.

At the end of the day, of course, B is right -- you were identified with it so you couldn't not be caught up. But I wonder if it wasn't instead (or also) about identifying as its destroyer when you might not have been.