Annie Dillard recounts a riveting—if unsettling—phenomenon of nature in her splendid work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In the pages of 19th century naturalist and entomologist J. Henri Fabre’s journals are found some peculiar habits of pine processionary caterpillars.
Pine processionaries are moth caterpillars with shiny black heads, who travel about at night in pine trees along a silken road of their own making. They straddle the road in a tight file, head to rear touching, and each caterpillar adds its thread to the original track first laid by the one who happens to lead the procession.
Fabre housed a group of pine processionaries in his conservatory for observation, where he initiated an experiment demonstrating, in Dillard’s words, their “blindered and blinkered enslavement to instinct.” By modifying the silk track in their glass enclosure, he created a closed circuit. Fabre wanted to determine how long they might travel its futile track. “To his horror,” Dillard reports, “they march not just an hour or so, but all day.” Day after day Fabre observes them slogging in their futile orbit of “imbecility”. A time or two they reorganize, yet, in tragic form, wander again onto their cruel circuit and resume their “dismal parade.” Fabre puts food and water alongside their path to no avail. Deprived of moisture and nutrients, the hapless column of insects processes to their collective demise.
Fabre notes with incredulity the lack of “any gleam of intelligence in their benighted minds.”
Dillard is more disquieted still,
It is the fixed that horrifies us, the fixed that assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness…
It is motion without direction, force without power, the aimless procession of caterpillars round the rim of a vase, and I hate it because at any moment I myself might step to that charmed and glistening thread.
Our world is thoroughly laced with such charmed, glistening yet altogether deadly threads, onto which all are prone to wander. Isn’t it? Maybe you suspect you are straddling one such thread presently. How does one find one’s way off, and, perchance, liberate others in the process?
Fabre ascribes the inconceivable behavior of these caterpillars to imbecility and no gleam of intelligence, but humanity might contradict this—what with the learned and simple, genius and generic lured alike down innumerable roads to perdition. No, I think such behavior cannot be explained in terms of raw intelligence or a lack thereof, but elsewhere. Our flaw—fatal in every regard—is miserliness of imagination. I initially wrote, “paucity of imagination” but found the phrase misleading. None of us is poor in this endowment, but only stingy—loath to draw upon our immense imaginative treasuries.
Employing niche construction theory, Notre Dame anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that it is imagination, above all else, which sets humans apart from all other species. (This in his book The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional.)
Niche construction is an interdisciplinary theory with roots in evolutionary biology. It ascribes fundamental traits to species based on how they modify their environments. Beavers build dam-homes and ponds, pine processionary caterpillars make silk trails and leaf tents, but, Fuentes asserts, in the case of humanity, our niche knows no limits. Not only do we shape and interact with our physical environments in ever-expansive and ever-astounding ways, but we are ever shaping and re-shaping our very selves.
We are the species that has a hand in making itself—niche constructors extraordinaire.
Imagination alone explains essential humanness. Incidentally, Fuentes prefers imagination over the alternate postulates of cooperation, intelligence and, intriguingly, violence.
This is nothing if not an affirmation of the biblical narrative, in which the existential being of humankind is presented as imago Dei—mirror-imaging the Maker. We are the product and progeny of the Creator-God’s imagination; the One who imagined everything from nothing, the One who imagined chaos into order! What Fuentes denotes in human doing, scripture locates in human being. Each, in the end, are in accord with one another, as being and doing are always inseparable. We do as we are.
One could, of course, be forgiven for ascribing essential humanness to either cooperation or violence. Humans are preternatural at each, and, oftentimes, in baneful tandem. Whether together or alone, the preternatural tendency of our species to inflict or self-inflict harm is undeniable. A cautionary reminder that imagination too often goes awry.
And so the question is certainly whether to tap into our imaginative capabilities, but it must also always be how. How would you exert the potency of your humanness into this, your external and internal niche? Could a refusal to grapple with this be named anything but negligence?
Fuentes offers this,
It’s our ability to move back and forth between the realms of “what is” and “what could be” that has enabled us to reach beyond being a successful species to become an exceptional one.
As I survey the niche of my own soul, relationships, responsibilities and sphere of influence—to say nothing of my appraisals of the world I’m found to inhabit—I cannot help but locate the preponderance of maladies in refusals to be imaginative; even as I find those most compelling vignettes to be gleaming with imagination’s incandescent power.
We are horrified and assailed by “what is” but we are, in equal measure, repulsed by “what could be”, for it beckons us into the unknown. So we writhe in acerbic resignation, rail in reckless rage or wallow in the filth of fatalism. Imagination holds out something fresh and exhilarating—something new. New is the territory of imagination—its stunning byways. Will we travel them? Will we re-inherit our human birthright? Or will we adhere to tired, old, perilous paths of sameness?
But you say, “There are no roadmaps for the territory you describe—and so few guides.” This is true. Most would rather starve or collapse from exhaustion than quit the familiarity of known way—ruts, really. It was the Israelites who, upon glimpsing the Promised Land, pined for return to Egypt.
Imagination invites us into frontiers where imagination itself is our only roadmap; wilds where our humanness must remain vigilant and present. And though the guides are few, there are not altogether absent. And what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. You will know them when you see them.
Embedded in Jonathan Edward’s famed 70 resolutions (the first of which was, ostensibly, to mirror-image glory of God in every aspect of his life) we find one pertaining to all,
Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the aforementioned things
Here Edwards admits the infuriatingly Protean nature of our combatant named Life—a shape-shifter if ever there was one! He incites himself to bring imagination to bear on his every resolution. Let us be incited with him. If anything might be predicable about the expanse into which imagination impels us, it is that it will prove perpetually unpredictable! Expect the unexpected!
We find ourselves again in the youngness of a new year. Sure, we know that days and months and years are ultimately themselves circuitous. Their passage ensures no new passages. Calendars must themselves turn, still people might not.
But would you resume your dismal parade? Head-to-rear with the processionary column? This needn’t be the case.
I learned through further reading that pine processionaries are not only unimaginative, but are invasively devastating to their own environments. Their benightedness is not only lethal to themselves, but to the flora and fauna co-existing in their habitat. In this regard, they might be described as niche destructors.
Are you not struck by the human parallels? Are we content to mirror-image these brainless little brutes, while, all the while, we’re meant to mirror-image the Maker, Creator and Imaginer par excellence—par magnifique? Away with the thought!
I would invite you to join me as I endeavor to make imagination a theme of my living and writing this year. Maybe to lay aside the familiarity of charm, anger, worry, judgement, self-reproach and the like. To be more imaginative—more human! I have no maps, nor would I present myself as a guide, but I might welcome some fellow travelers off the beaten path into a rugged and beautiful terrain.