The center of the universe

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination, Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge (Ma), The Belknap Press of Havard University Press, 1995, p. 100-102 et 107.

One has to visualize the life of these insects beneath the rushing-hard color of Whitetail three : some kind of food was coming down that creek in large amounts, at a very rapid rate, and was being trapped by these larvae. My mind goes back to the branches beneath Whitetail three. There were not really that many, about one submerged limb every ten yards, but there were many twigs and lesser branches along the banks, dangling and submerged, also covered with caddis flies. The animals had obviously taken up all the available space on those twigs ranging from one the size of a pin to one the size of a railroad tie supporting the bridge. The fact of these flies’ dependence on twigs for home-sites was impressive only until one looked at the larvae with a hand lens. Each larva lived in a house, constructed by itself. Each larva’s house was to the untrained eye so similar as to be identical to every other larva’s house, the detailed architecture and accoutrements of each house built according to the same set of blue-prints, and each not only fastened to twigs but made of twigs. One sensed no colony of caddis flies, as one senses a colony of cliff swallows, but rather sensed a set of instruction within each fly larva that chose twigs to build a house, arranged and glued those twigs in an identifiable pattern, and finished the job by adding exactly two much longer twigs, so that the final house resembled a tube with runners. (37)

In this passage from Keith County Journal, John Janovy, Jr., builds an increasing dense image of where and how the larvae of caddis flies build their « houses » and what they look like. Janovy disclaims objectivity, reminding us that his image is a constructed thing (« One has to visualize, » « My mind goes back, » « One sensed »), switching perspective back and forth between the lab and the field. The little narrative in the last sentence, so painstakingly detailed, is (he makes no bones about it) a complete fabrication. Janovy could not possibly have seen the gene-driven nest-building occur as he makes us see it- could not have seen it even under a microscope, let alone with the naked eye. Yet the passage comports with the entomological facts : the inner landscape is symbiotic with the outer. His reflexiveness hardly amounts to a forfeiture of objectivity, much less to proff that the passage has lost touch with its outer landscape. «  Language need not know the world perfectly in order to vommunicate perceptions adequately », as Annie Dillard writes in another connection, (38) in the spirit of my epigraph from Hilary Putnam. Indeed Janovy’s « subjectiveness » itself, far from functioning simply as a compromising or distorting agent, proves to be the means through which the larvae ‘s houses are realized as an actuality. Amateur nature lovers walking along the Whitetail in western Nebraska might not notice them ; those that did might not recognize them ; those that recognized them might not understand their construction…/..

Janovy’s passage on the caddis fly calls out as Whitman does elsewhere in the 1885 edition, insisting, «  I swear I think now that every thing without exception has an eternal soul !/ The tree have, rooted in the ground ! the weeds of the sea have ! the animals ! » 52 Both affirm that the caddis fly is just as real as we are, has just as much right as you and I do to be taken as the center of the universe around which everything else shall revolve.