Last summer my young son and I encountered a dying wasp on our stone walkway in Vermont. An icheneumon wasp, its chestnut body was outlined in chartreuse, and, most striking of all, its ovipositor, fully twice its length, trailed behind. This slender rod drills straight into a tree and delivers eggs into living grubs within, thus ensuring ready food for wasp hatchlings. Ichneumon behavior is so vile that Charles Darwin invoked its existence as proof that no benevolent creator existed — for who would lovingly invent such a loathsome creature, bent on destroying the very world into which its young emerge?
Watching this insect, I recalled returning from a daily walk in Palo Alto with my infant son to find a tiny western tussock caterpillar on his blanket. Round and furry, the caterpillar waddled along, a cherub that I gently returned to the wild, not to hear a mothy maternal sigh of relief, but out of the tenderness of my own new motherhood. Six weeks later, we were unable to walk our usual path: full-sized caterpillars punctuated the air; parachuting exclamation points and swinging commas landed on the footpath where they were squashed into paste. They decimated the oak canopy, and a good many other plants, before retreating into gray cottony cocoons like graves.
The oaks have nearly restored their canopies now, five years later. I doubt that my act of charity made an iota of difference, but I wonder how much damage that one little bug did, and how much more its offspring inflicted. I wonder if a cloud of ichneumons, descending on those caterpillars, might have assuaged the damage. Perhaps they did.
As I consider garbage piled on the beach where I love to walk, smog filtering the light across the bay when I climb the hills, the collapse of fisheries, and the carbon footprints stamped by our clown-sized feet I wonder what canopy we are decimating, and whether it will recover. Then I think back to that itty-bitty caterpillar on my baby's blanket, and I am pleased with my senseless act of humanity. Life is life and the individual remains precious to me, even if the species is bent on destruction.
With a Perspective, I'm Sofie Kleppner.
Sofie Kleppner is a neuroscientist and writer. She lives in Menlo Park.