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Monday, April 22, 2013

Everything in the room is brown—except for the man, who is gray. The walls, covered with ancient photographs, diplomas, newspaper clippings, and mounted insects… brown. Bookshelves overflow with brown books. Towers of browning books and faded scientific journals lean into the corners. The brown desk is covered with browning papers, a rack of brown pipes that haven’t been used in decades sits atop a stack of brown magazines, a humidor holds crumbs of desiccated brown tobacco, and—everywhere—dozens of small jars of alcohol, each containing tiny brown Trichoptera larvae.

The miniscule worms, slightly shaggy, seem to have all their legs at the front of their bodies, bunched just behind their dark bumpy heads. They are not beautiful, except to the gray figure sitting at the desk. “Any damned fool can be a lepidopterist,” the man mutters. He says this to himself, as there is no one else in the room—and hasn’t been for as long as the man can remember.

The retired entomology professor prefers the uninterrupted quiet of his study, just as he had always preferred the solitude of field work over the incessant bother of the classroom. Swarms of co-eds reminded him of butterflies, pretty to look at for a moment but of no lasting interest. He often told his colleagues, while looking over his bifocals, and down his own long proboscis, that it was no coincidence that the author of Lolita was an amateur lepidopterist.

The man is working on his magnum opus, the definitive treatise on his beloved caddisflies. He’d spent thousands of hours lifting slippery rocks from streams to find the tiny creatures clinging there. Many of them build little mansions for themselves of whatever they can find. Some species cement miniscule pebbles and grains of sand into slightly-curved masonry cylinders, just large enough to protect their soft abdomens, while leaving their heads and legs free to feed on the streams’ slime of algae, bacteria, protozoa and other microfauna. Others weave tiny twigs and bits of leaves into ragged basket-like huts that are virtually invisible in the detritus that accumulates in quiet backwaters of the streams.

They are never invisible to him.

He loves all the caddisflies, but resents the “flies” in their name. They are not (he is quick to point out) nasty disease-bearing Diptera, but lovely little moth-like beings that flit above the most beautiful trout streams as adults, after living as architects of their own larval homes. He admires their ingenuity, even though he knows better than to assume conscious thought involved in their constructions (each species having all of its blueprints safely locked away in its DNA).

Of all the 12,000 Trichopterans, he most loves the ones that don’t use their skills to construct homes. His favorites make tiny nets of some gossamer material, like the silk of spider-webs. They cast little bag-like seines that billow downstream to capture microscopic bits of food from the current. “Like me,” he thought, “they sample the waters for what most interests them.”

The gray bachelor is happy in his work. He has spent his life collecting, preserving, describing, and cataloguing insects that are no larger than one of his neatly-trimmed fingernails. Like a caddis larva, he can stay comfortably encased in the clutter of his study, a perfect home he has assembled over the course of a long career. His is not the sort of life that one shares with a mate.

As he writes, he occasionally reaches across the detritus to look closely into one of his specimen jars. He knows, without a glance at the meticulous label, the species of each larva. He also remembers the day it was collected, the weather, the time of day, and—most of all—the stream that yielded it. He is amused by the ironic fact that flowing water always lingers longest in his memory.

Sometimes, when examining a specimen, Thoreau’s words form in his head.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

He savors the brief literary distraction, then returns to work on his own book.

Other times, a recalled stream triggers memories of another stream, one that flowed over bare white rock, so clear, so devoid of biota, that no caddisflies ever built homes there.

He visited the stream, just once, sixty-odd years ago, while he was still a university undergraduate. He no longer remembers how he arrived at the stream, or when he left. All he remembers is that he walked beside it with the most lovely girl he had ever seen. He doesn’t remember how he happened to be with the girl, who he had never seen before, or would ever see again. He recalls that she was slender, with long blonde hair. Her voice was soft and quiet, though he doesn’t remember a word of what they said. He knows that it was sunrise, because the low clear light across white rock seemed to pass through her, lending a luminous translucency—like fragile porcelain—to her delicate features.

The recalled experience is so dream-like that sometimes he imagines that it is, in fact, only a dream. If it is a dream, it is a recurrent one, and one that intrudes far too often into his waking hours. The interruptions to his work irritate him, but not as much as the fact that he is never able wrest any more substantial data from the evanescent vision.

How could this have been just one brief encounter?

Why didn’t he try to see her again?

How did he even manage to spend those few moments with someone so far out of his league?

Indeed, did he even have a league?

Did he ever go out on a date, with anyone?

What could he have possibly had to say to such a radiant creature?

Did he say anything, or just walk along in stunned silence?

Was he silent because he feared that a single word might break the transcendent spell that held him?

Again and again, year after year, decade after decade, he asks himself these questions. He can picture, but doesn’t actually remember, her blue eyes asking similar questions—but suspects that detail was added to the mystery long after the event.

All he knows is that the experience, real or imagined, occurred so long ago that he will never find answers to any of his questions about it. Its constant interruptions and sheer fruitlessness annoy him. He much prefers science, where asked questions may sometimes be answered, where the answers can be tested, and either kept or discarded—but do not linger, unfathomable, for a lifetime.

Just before returning to his manuscript, for a brief instant, he pictures himself as one of his beloved caddis larvae, eternally casting a net in waters that race across smooth white rock, so clear, so pure, that nothing—ever—is caught in its web.


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