Dogs get really close when they want to check something out. Noses twitch and nares gape when air is being drawn from an object of curiosity across their olfactory epithelium, which can sense far more odors than we can ever imagine. We depend more on eyes than noses to perceive things, and rarely get so close, although a friend who was registered blind held papers so near his face that he could smell the ink.
If our golden retriever could speak she would probably scold me for pretending to know about wildlife from observing it only at a distance. “So you think you are a naturalist now?” she would growl. If she could, Lilah would tell me what butterflies smell like, why they like some flowers instead of others, and what they look like at very close quarters. So the other day I crept up to a flight of butterflies in our garden to see if I was missing something.
This has been a bumper year for swallowtails in Virginia (monarchs are scarce). Most sunny days, there are more than a dozen from four species hovering over the Lantana and Zinnia before alighting on a flower. Although among the strongest flyers of their family, they allowed me to inch towards them as they rested to feed until I was so close to one of them that my eyes were straining.
It is a long time since I have had that close a communion with an insect; I normally never get nearer than crunching a cockroach underfoot. But the head-to-head encounter with an Eastern tiger swallowtail almost felt personal, although I wonder what it made of me through ommatidial lenses of its compound eyes. The butterfly remained unruffled for several minutes until it had drained the nectaries of a flower and moved to the next; as calm as when I sidle up to the bar beside a taphouse customer who has an absorbing interest in his beer and doesn’t want to be disturbed.
The butterfly’s proboscis lashed back and forth like a whip, reaching its targets deep inside flower bells with amazing precision. Every sweep reached a new floret from which it could drink. Compared to this delicate tool-user, an expert fly-fisherman looks like a clumsy fool casting for trout in a pool.
Under the microscope, you would see the proboscis is formed from two parts that are zippered together to make a tube. It is an extension of an insect’s mouth, and nothing like the noses of elephants and monkeys that are sometimes called proboscises. Since it looks like a flexible drinking straw, you might think that butterflies suck nectar into their bodies, but the effort of drawing the viscous fluid through a high resistance canal would be futile. New research shows that sucking is secondary: butterflies use capillary action like a paper towel to soak up fluid, which does not require expending any energy. Had I not stooped that day to watch the aerial plumber, I would never have wondered how it manages to feed, never run back to peruse an entomology journal, and never marveled more at the vigor and beauty of a wild creature. Wonder is an unexpected reward when you get close enough to something that spikes your curiosity. Not since I used to sketch and paint have I gazed so intently at any creature. That seems a shameful admission for a biologist, although it is all too common to become careless of things that once inspired us.
In the Nineteenth Century, many gentlemen took up nature study as an absorbing pastime. It was an era of greater leisure and fewer distractions, when explorers were bringing home weird and wonderful specimens from remote lands, and there was feverish excitement about new scientific theories. We have a small collection of scientific artifacts from that period. I imagine a Victorian gentleman packing one of our traveling microscopes in his trunk for a journey by stagecoach or train. He would have taken it to study specimens collected on his trip—parts of a flower head, lichen prized from a rock, scales on a butterfly’s wing, and so on. He wanted a closer encounter with things that nudged his curiosity. Nowadays, we can explore a much wider world through smart phones and tablets that connect us with the WWW, but although I love those gadgets they are no substitute for directly engaging the senses with the real objects of our interest.
Opening your phone in Starbucks to visit a butterfly website is unlikely to attract attention from other customers, but if you pulled out a microscope from your bag to examine a bug floating on your coffee you would turn heads. And if you were seen lying spread-eagled in a meadow watching the microfauna creeping between stalks, like a Gulliver observing Lilliputians, you might be called eccentric. But there should be no embarrassment when curiosity stirs us to draw close for a better view, only pity if we become estranged from the very things that at one time aroused our imagination, and perhaps to such a pitch that it had lifelong impact or led to a career. Like a marriage strained by work, there are many distractions that conspire against the personal engagement we once had.
A medical researcher burdened with grant applications, manuscripts, faculty meetings, and lectures may no longer have time to study under the microscope or to interview patients, but depend on a second-hand connection with his subjects provided by assistants. A landscape artist may lose the inclination to set up an easel en plein air, but paints instead from photographs. A busy surgeon has few opportunities to speak to his patients because he usually encounters them anesthetized. A teacher who is promoted to administration rarely sees kids any more. And a politician who becomes a hot-shot spends less time face-to-face with constituents.
It is hard casting aside distractions, especially when they are so abundant, and so easy to forget the things that once impelled us. For me, it took stepping out of a career and a dog nosing a butterfly to remind me about the wonder of nature.
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