This is mostly not my fault. I have good genes and socioeconomic privilege. I don’t understand how to smoke, so I never acquired that vice. I am hard-wired for exercise.
Also, I have done what I can to shorten my life, indulging a sustained array of dietary indiscretions, persisting in not-loving relationships ending in not-marriage, and being generally not sanguine of temperament. About. Anything.
Clearly, prompt corrective action is in order, to wit: Drink a lot more. Sleep a lot less. Eat less broccoli and more hot dogs, preferably swaddled in bacon. Drive recklessly; forget the seat belt. Don’t meditate even more.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about life expectancy. An American born today can expect to live, on average, about 80 years, and that number goes up every year. This is not good news; we humans already are terrible procrastinators when it comes to dying. More on that in a future post, larded with appropriate gravitas.
For now, though, let’s imagine … butterflies. Ready?*
The little wonders pictured at right — cabbage whites, they’re called — have been working my spearmint all summer; they favor purple blossoms. But I am not seeing the same butterflies today that I saw in June, or even in mid-September. Their winged incarnations last no more than three weeks.
That’s not unusual in the insect world, where life is ever ephemeral — “in danger of speedy disappearance,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry so beautifully put it in The Little Prince.
The fleetness of these fragile lives was brought home to me powerfully 10 years ago, during my first summer on a farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was poking around my makeshift wood shed when I encountered a garish caterpillar of mammoth proportions: Its body spanned the breadth of my palm.
A knowledgeable friend told me I had stumbled upon the larval stage of Hyalophora cecropia, the largest moth in North American. The caterpillar was amazing, with a chartreuse body thicker than my finger and neon yellow, blue and orange tubercles.
I was worried about Mr. Squishy, as we dubbed him/her. Caterpillars have few defenses against predators, and one that big makes a handsome dinner. But if Mr. Squishy did make it — we never knew — s/he became a sight to behold: In their equally spectacular adult form, a cecropia’s wingspan measures 5 to 6 inches.
But, here’s the kicker: Cecropia moths lack functional mouth parts and a digestive system. They live no more than two weeks, with the sole directive of finding a mate and reproducing. Two weeks.
We humans measure life spans in years, and life expectancy in decades. We expect that time will be ours, and not just a little; we feel entitled to a lot of it. And if we don’t get it, or someone we love doesn’t get it, we feel cheated. Through that filter, humans look at death after 20, 30, or even 40 years as tragic.
In truth, we lack perspective, and — more pointedly — presence; we fail to fully occupy moment after moment, millions upon end. We mistake the distractedness that makes time fly for a lack of time itself.
But time is right here, always; it is we who are gone. And still, we like to say: Life is short.
Tell it to the cecropias. In the span of 20 years, more than 500 generations of moths live and die; in 50 years, 1,300. If, despite my best efforts, I live to be 95, nearly 2,500 generations of awe-inspiring cecropias will have come and gone. Many will die without ever having found a mate; all will perish without ever having eaten. None will expect anything more than he or she gets, nor chafe at anything less.
What a wonder, I think: These brief, beautiful lives.
*Music: “Disquiet” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com); licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ This post first appeared in September 2015.