It’s a hot summer evening. Three of us are standing in front of my little strip of garden when the first Monarch of the season descends from the skies and hovers over the echinacea. Its yellow-orange wings, divided by black lines like twin stained glass windows, echo the burnt sienna of the flower’s center. “Wow,” we gasp, “look at that! You don’t see many of these around anymore…”
You certainly don’t. Not butterflies, not bees, not even wasps.
Remember cleaning exploded bugs off your car’s windshield? When is the last time you had to do that? I spent eighteen hours on the highway over a two-week period in June, and not a single bug perished on my windshield. I can’t believe I’m waxing nostalgic over a bug-splattered windshield, but then it’s the little things you miss.
I have never liked moths, with their plump hairy bodies and their obsession with my reading lamp. My dislike morphed into horror during a moth experience I had in Ecuador, when my mother found a dead Ascalapha odorata, or Black Witch moth, in the yard. It was brown, with some subtle lacy ornamentations, and almost ten inches long from wing tip to wing tip. As I shrank away with a yelp, my mother picked it up carefully. “Look how beautiful it is!” she exclaimed, turning it over to expose its appalling thumb-sized abdomen. I waited for her to throw it into the bushes, but she didn’t. “What are you going to do with it?” I asked, suspecting the answer. My mother was forever collecting weird Ecuadorian objects—a blow gun, a quiver of curare-tipped darts, the business end of a sawfish, and now, I suspected, this moth—to take back to Spain and amaze our relatives. “Yes, I’m keeping it,” she said. “But don’t worry. I’ll put it away where you’ll never see it.”
Months passed and I forgot about the moth. Then one day, reaching up to get something off the top shelf of the closet, I knocked down a shoebox. The lid came off, and the giant moth fluttered onto my hand.
These days, however, moths, especially big ones, seem so scarce that I refrain from flapping at them when I hear them knocking against the window screens. Is it me, or are there actually fewer this year than there were just last summer? And is that the reason that I haven’t heard the hermit thrush? Thrushes are insectivorous, so my offerings of seeds and suet leave them cold. By now the first set of babies have fledged, and the females must be sitting on the second batch of eggs. I haven’t heard the males singing so far, so this will likely be my first thrush-free summer in Vermont.
Living across the street from a beehive, I do not lack for bee sightings, but I never see more than one bumblebee at a time, and I haven’t seen another Monarch, or even a humble cabbage butterfly, since that first one.
I live with the feeling that I’m in the middle of a mass insect extinction, and I find myself subconsciously strategizing to avert it. Every time I come across a milkweed plant (Monarchs love milkweed), I can barely stop myself from putting a fence around it. And I carefully avoid stepping on the white clover in the yard—bees have no use for red clover because the calyx is too deep for their mouth parts, but the white blossoms are just right. My backyard, unmowed for the first time ever, has become a kind of zoo, a refuge for bugs that a few years ago I would have paid no attention to, but that now seem fragile, rare, and exotic.
This is one of the costs of our comfy, air-conditioned, instant-gratification, fossil-fuel dependent way of life. It’s not as dramatic as drought, wildfires, floods, air-pollution, melting icebergs, and rising sea levels, but it is insidious and subtly damaging to the human psyche. It’s the feeling, every time we come in contact with Nature, that we are dealing with an infinitely precious, vulnerable entity that is in dire straits—that may in fact be in its last gasps—and that we are powerless to save.