Ten years ago, I was first inspired by another entomologist, Dick Vane-Wright, the Keeper of Entomology at the London Museum of Natural History, whom I was interviewing about butterflies. “There’s so much we don’t know!” Dick told me, sounding excited and distressed at the same time. “You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet. Our ignorance is profound.”
Nodding, I wrote the comment down in my notebook. I liked its humility—an acceptance of how little we know—and I liked its challenge and implied sense of wonder—there is still so much to discover. Over the next decade, the words would surface again, like some message on a Magic Eight Ball: Signs point to yes. Concentrate and ask again. You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life, much more than a week, thinking about the apocalypse. In my circle of friends, climate change is a party conversation. Dead zones in the ocean. The melting ice caps. The rainforest on fire. Then there are the changing patterns in our own weather--that terribly dry winter followed by a dry spring. Most of the Southwest is in what is called exceptional drought condition, the highest category of drought, a drought expected to persist and intensify. I’ve lived in the desert almost all my life and waiting for rain is nothing new.
As the world falls apart, as we lose hundreds of species a day in the most current mass extinction, as I lift my head to the bright blue New Mexican sky and lament and wail and ululate…the idea that there is still so much to discover strikes me as a kind of miracle. We think we’ve beaten the earth flat, hammered out the creases, starched the collar, hung her up to dry. We’ve turned the planet into our private estate, a garden here, a junkyard there, maybe an apocalypse at the end. But no longer wild, no longer mysterious. And yet. You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet. It’s such a cheerful thought.