February 10th, 2003

abstract butterfly


I think that there is a mindset I'll refer to as "mayfly mindset". It's that feeling that one's whole life should be leading up to some glorious shining achievement. The mayfly is a term applied to a wide variety of rather common insects, which are especially prevalent in the midwest. Most of the mayfly's life is spent on the bottom of the lake, in its immature "nymph" stage. On the bottom of the lake, it has a rather full life, but by no means a glamorous life. But those "in the know" know that the prelude is merely, well, prelude. Mayflies become adults in the Spring and early Summer, and an adult mayfly is a joy to behold. Mayflies have long green bodies, and elliptical translucent green wings. They appear in large gaggles in full glory, each species coming out at the same time. An adult mayfly is a really cute thing--very aerodynamic, a really jaunty look--a thing of splendor. The phase lasts but a few days. Many species of mayfly lack any mouth or digestive tract in their adult phase--they are intended to flit about gracefully for two or three days, reproduce, and then depart this mortal coil, having accomplished their one great task.

I think that sometimes people wish they were mayflies. It's so useful to imagine oneself as bound for some incredible mission. Sure, one thinks, most folks are eaten by sunfish, but if I can just make it through, I'll be this incredible visionary adult. But people follow a different evolutionary course. We don't have mayfly moments, other than those moments we create for ourselves. Even when we imagine we are adult mayflys, delicate things of beauty who will exist only for the day, we are usually instead odd primates, playing an interesting game with ourselves. Mayflys are designed to go out in a burst of glory. We're designed for more mundane pursuits.

The insect kingdom has such rich metaphor. I love the analogy of the ants, who show a lot of human characteristics, combined with a lot of characteristics which are entirely and weirdly inhuman. But it can be possible to carry this too far. For example, some early research suggested that scorpions, when confronted by a ring of fire from which it was impossible to escape, would sting themselves into oblivion, committing suicide. The surrealist film maker Bunuel incorporated this into a film. But a lot of recent research strongly suggests that this "suicide reaction" was entirely misinterpreted, and that scorpions don't kill themselves at all. Another line of studies suggest that scorpions are immune to their own venom in any event. The scorpion is less human than the theory went.

It's hard sometimes to live mundane little lives, as if we are just members of a troupe of primates, occupying unimportant little niches. But I'm not sure that the remedy is to emulate the mayfly--or the scorpion. I think that whatever meaning life holds for us must be available to all, whether one is "important" or "trivial".
abstract butterfly

A Childish Crispness in Whales

"The talking whales have beautiful song, Icelandic-saga type songs, except that they seem to involve slaying fishermen more than one another. The talking whales build cities in hellish dark places of a beauty that Frank Lloyd Wright would appreciate, particularly if Mr. Wright had to use flippers rather than fingers to make his architectural sketches. The talking whales have the ability to talk with God, although God often tells the talking whales that, being meek,they will one day inherit the Earth, but that current plans permit other species to audition, too".--from gurdonark's novel, "Lonely Distance"

What do words mean? When are they words at all? Sometimes they are definitely words, but they escape meaning, rather than enhance it. Sometimes words are about anything but meaning.

Whales engage in "whale song", ambient music which can travel for tens or hundreds of miles. Scientists who study matters cetacean debate, to a greater or lesser extent, whether these songs are like "language" or instead like more instinctive animal activity, such as mating ritual noise. Do the whales use words? If so, what do they mean? I don't purport to resolve any puzzles on that score, although I must confess that my own personal desire for additional intelligent life in the universe makes me hope that species of intelligent whales cruise the deepest oceans. I am a bit flurried and hurried today, as I have to squeeze five or more days largely into three days in order to spend Thursday and Friday travelling in connection with a family matter. But it seems to me sometimes that I understand the didgeridoo of a whale song a good bit better than I understand some people who speak to me in my native language. So often I feel I am not speaking to a person reacting to a concern so much as to a chess formation, set up as a stonewall, requiring me to exploit its weaknesses positionally.

When I wrote my "ten day" novel last November, I found the pointless subplot of the talking whales, which I called "the Goodall whales", to be a great vaudeville distraction from the problems of a boring narrator much like me, only more colorless, telling his story of cyberobsession. But on days like today, when I find myself spending my day an attorney trapped in a hermetically sealed world of attorneys and those who would be attorneys, I long to meet a talking whale, and listen to his or her song.