Little Lives of Earth and Form
The Big Small World of the Woolly Bear—
A Study in the Law of Inverse Appreciation
By Tamia Nelson
November 11, 2008
Sometimes the trip to and from the put-in is a journey of discovery every bit as rewarding as any voyage on the water. Such was the case recently, as I wheeled my way to a favorite spot, a swamp not far from my home. It was a blustery morning. Fitful autumn winds were shouldering past the last defenses of summer, ushering in cool days, colder nights, and icy dawns. An overcast sky added to the end-of-season chill, and when I reached my destination I wasn’t surprised to discover that the wetland chorus had been stilled. Soon, however, the sun broke through the clouds, the air warmed perceptibly, and the silence was shattered by the cheery calls of white-throated sparrows, while red squirrels showered friendly invective down on all passers-by from their perches in the tall pines. A handful of frogs even piped up, keen to get in a few last words before burying themselves in the mud.
Intent on capturing the chiaroscuro sky and the brilliant scarlet of the maples, I spent several minutes shooting photos. Only after I’d tucked my camera away and started gnawing on an oatmeal bar—self-powered travelers need to keep their tanks topped up at all times!—did I take my eyes off the horizon and look down on the world at my feet. The result? A welcome reminder of…
The Law of Inverse Appreciation
As far as I know, Colin Fletcher was the first writer to use this tag, though the idea was already old when The Complete Walker appeared in print. Fletcher summarized the basic notion in these words: “The less there is between you and the environment, the more you appreciate that environment.” Or to put it another way, you see more from a kayak, paddling at three miles an hour, than you do from the driver’s seat of a waterski towboat, planing along at 30 as the shoreline rushes past you in a blur. I’ve explored the subject at some length elsewhere, but it’s not really a radical thesis. It’s certainly not very complex. Anyone who’s ever paddled, cycled, or hiked has probably come to the same conclusion, even if she (or he) hasn’t put it into exactly the same words.
In any case, Fletcher’s Law has a number of obvious corollaries, one of which I learned from Ginny, a photography teacher I worked for in the months after I graduated from high school. She didn’t have a name for it, but I do: I call it the “Small Wonder Principle.” As Ginny explained it, the stock “scenics,” photos dear to the hearts of art editors—blood-red sunsets, mountain panoramas, New England towns nestled against hills aflame with autumn colors—were the easy shots. Eye-catching? Yes. But easy. And not very eye-opening. They shrink the world down to the size of the viewfinder frame, revealing little that can’t be seen through the window of a moving car. This wasn’t Ginny’s style. She wanted to open eyes and broaden horizons, and she’d noticed that her world expanded as she moved in closer to her subjects. In other words, “big” shots=small world; “small” shots=big world. Nothing startling there. It follows directly from Colin Fletcher’s Law of Inverse Appreciation.
Which brings me back to the edge of the swamp. I stopped. I shot. Only then did I look down. And what did I see? This…
The Long Journey
I not only looked down; I got down. On my belly. In the road. (Luckily, it’s a rural road, of the type that used to be called a farm-to-market road, just one short step up from a fire road.) I got so far down that I could look a woolly bear in the eye. And I made a discovery. The woolly bear’s world was a lot bigger than mine. The road—the same road I’d cycled over in just a few minutes, pulling a heavily loaded trailer, a road I could sprint across in a second or two—now stretched endlessly on toward an impossibly distant horizon. But the woolly bear at my feet wasn’t deterred by this seemingly impassible barrier. He (let’s assume my woolly companion was a he, shall we?) marched on unhesitatingly, and I crept along behind him in an ungainly low crawl. I learned two things right away: The brisk Force 4 breeze that I’d been fighting on my ride to the marsh was now barely noticeable. And the smooth, paved surface of the road wasn’t actually smooth at all. It was a craggy, crackly wilderness, as rugged as any moonscape. The woolly bear took no notice, however. He had places to go and things to do, and he wasn’t about to let any obstacle stand in his way.
Happily for both of us, no cars came by, and we reached the far side of the road together, after a journey that stretched on for many exhausting minutes. Well, I was exhausted, anyway. I hadn’t done much crawling lately, and woolly bears can really move out when they want to. (In A Guide to Observing Insect Lives Donald Stokes claims that they can sprint along at a blistering rate of four feet per minute, a pretty fierce pace for a creature that’s not much more than an inch long.) My companion took the arduous crossing in stride, though, negotiating the road’s fissured surface with apparent ease. But then he came to the far edge, an abrupt drop of an inch or more followed immediately by a rugged expanse of gravelly shoulder—a sort of asphalt icefall. End of story? No way! Nothing daunted, the woolly bear soldiered on till he reached the comparative safety of the grassy margin. Here we parted company. The little bear continued his vital hegira, while I returned to my bike and boat-trailer. Despite the fact that my knees and spine were both reminding me how foolish I’d been, the walk back to my starting point took just seconds. The outbound crawl had taken me as many minutes. My world was suddenly much smaller.
After I stretched out most of the kinks, I figured I’d scout along the road, to see if any other woolly bears were on the move. They were. In 15 minutes I found six more, all heading away from the wetland and over the asphalt ribbon to higher (and dryer) ground. In the process, I realized just how little I knew about these determined explorers. The time had come, I decided, to…
Get Better Acquainted With the Woolly Bear
This little black and orange caterpillar is a familiar sight on the roads of North America, at least in fall. As a kid, I’d often find them when I was poking about in the woods, nestled under the loosening bark on wind-felled trees or curled up into a ball under mounds of leaf mold. I’m much too grown-up to go around prying up loose bark or sifting through leaf mold today, though. So now I only see woolly bears when they cross the road in front of me. But I’m better at reading big names than I was as a kid. The woolly bear is, of course, neither “woolly” nor a bear. It’s the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, a rather drab lepidopteran whose khaki-colored wings make it hard to see in its usual haunts. So perfect is the Isabella’s camouflage, in fact, that I’ve never spotted one when I had my camera in my hand. Fortunately, the scientists at the Iowa State University Department of Entomology have had better luck—or maybe they’re just more determined, eh?—and you can find several excellent photos of the Isabella moth on BugGuide, the departmental website. (Yes, I know that moths aren’t bugs. You’ll have to take this up with Iowa State, however.)
It’s commonly thought that the woolly bear’s “fur” is made up of poisonous spines. Not so. Here’s proof:
Bear With Me
That said, the bristles—setae in sci-speak—can cause transient dermatitis in folks with sensitive skin. So a hands-off policy is probably best. (The photo above was made in the course of a woolly bear rescue on a busy highway. Yes, I brake for woolly bears, just as I do for turtles.) Another rural legend suggests that the length of the black bands is a useful predictor of the severity of the coming winter. A preponderance of black, or mostly black, woolly bears on the roads forecasts a hard winter, in other words. Is this true? Nope. There’s wide natural variability in caterpillar coloration, even within a single clutch of eggs. Some individuals will be born mostly black, others mostly burnt orange. Moreover, the width of the central burnt orange band increases as the caterpillar ages, reducing the proportion of black in all. The upshot? Enjoy the colorful variations in nature’s palette by all means, but get your forecasts from NOAA.
Make no mistake about it, though—this little bear’s bristles are strikingly beautiful. Let’s take a closer look:
The Beauty of the Beast
No deadly spines visible here. Just a delightful display, with the rich colors highlighted by a low autumnal sun. That said, while the bristles pose little threat to the callused fingers of photographers, they’d make a mighty discouraging mouthful for any opportunistic predator. So the caterpillar’s beauty is more than skin deep, after all.
Back on the busy highway, after the impromptu photo shoot was over—it followed my adventure on the farm-to-market road by several hours—I put my little model down, well away from the most heavily traveled portion of the roadway. I was curious to see if he’d continue on his way along his initial bearing. He did, without any apparent hesitation or confusion. Then, on impulse, I turned him round, wondering if this would change his travel plans. No go. He ignored my ham-fisted attempts to alter his course, promptly righted his helm, and headed off in his original direction, no doubt muttering something unpleasant about mean-spirited meddlers under his breath as he went. Needless to say, I didn’t repeat the experiment.
All of which leaves one question still to be answered:
Why Do Woolly Bears Cross the Road?
I wish I knew. They follow the beat of a different drummer than I do, and while I can spend time in their world, I can’t enter their minds. There’s only one thing I know for sure—the approach of General Winter sets them marching, and they don’t let any obstacle hold them back from their destination. And just what is this elusive goal? A loose fold of bark, or a mound of leaf litter. Nothing more. A place to curl up and drowse away the long months till the sun returns to the northern hemisphere, shielded from winter’s deadly chill by nothing more than an internal cryoprotectant, a sort of natural antifreeze. These are small wonders, indeed!
The Big Sleep Begins
Journeys aren’t always measured in miles. Sometimes you travel furthest when you cover the least ground. That’s what happened to me on my recent trip to a nearby wetland put-in. Of course, I still don’t know why woolly bears cross the road—though the answer is more likely to be “because it’s there” than “to get to the other side.” This is OK. After all, I’ve got a much better appreciation of their world now that I’ve seen it through their eyes. And that’s no small matter, is it?
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