A sad thing involving an insect happened on the river this summer. I was riding in my brother’s boat with an incredibly cheerful middle-aged middle-manager and his two incredibly well-adjusted teenage daughters. It was a perfect early-summer late-afternoon, not too hot but just hot enough to make jumping in the river and drying off in the sun equally pleasurable. The rapids were behind us and the current was with us and soon we’d pull into camp and splash the sun-warmed rafts with water and lie back on them drinking ice-cold beers and dangling our feet in the river as one of the year’s longest days ended slow and golden.
My brother was entertaining the passengers with interesting facts about our surroundings. He rowed while we paddled and talked while we listened, giving a brief history of the Rogue River Valley. Native Americans had lived and hunted and fished here before white settlers came. The settlers attacked the Indians unprovoked, killed many of them even after they’d surrendered and moved the rest of them to reservations. A century of mining then polluted the river before it was re-classified as Wild and Scenic and became the rafting mecca it now is.
There was hope to be found even in that sad story, if not for all the exterminated natives then in the redemption of the river from industrial pollution. Humanity was fucked, but nature still stood a chance. Maybe nature itself would bring the revolution on. Maybe if middle managers came out to the wilderness enough it would blow their minds to the point where they would destroy capitalism from the inside.
Suddenly I was filled with hope, that things could change for the better, or at least go back to the way they were. The teenage girls were fearless and their father was easy on the eyes. This gave me hope for the next generation of women, hope for the attractiveness of men well into middle age, hope that some had spirits so cheerful even middle management couldn’t break them. I had hope for the polluted rivers and the improvement of my paddling skills in them.
I had hope that one day all of these meaningless ideas would give way to all of this incredible natural beauty, or maybe one day the ideas would take a form as beautiful as nature. Maybe one day I would dissolve into nature, and live here in its peace and chaos, its truth and beauty, its perfect order and its higher laws, its economy of ecology. I would stop resisting laws and the idea of laws because I would live in accordance with the only laws not made by men.
“A bee!” exclaimed the middle manager, and my brother slapped at it reflexively, but it was not a bee and he did not kill it. It was a fly and he only maimed it. “Oh, sorry,” he joked. “This is supposed to be an environmentally conscious trip!” He placed the fly on the tube of the raft and resumed rowing.
I bent toward the fly, intending to flick it into the river, but at the last moment looked closer. One of the fly’s legs was crushed and one of its wings, though still attached, was cockeyed and wasn’t working. It was trying to fly but couldn’t anymore. I put down my paddle and picked up the injured fly and sat on the floor of the raft.
Its attempts to fly with one working wing kept causing it to flip over. I tried to gently nudge its broken wing back into place, but it wasn’t connected anymore and didn’t move. I was surprised the wing didn’t crumble into dust when I touched it. The more I touched and nudged fly, the more I realized that it wasn’t really so fragile, just very small.
I came to see all its perfect parts, orange eyes and shimmering white body and wiggling antennae, details of great precision and complexity beyond the gross facts of buzz or bite. The longer and closer I looked the more worthy of life it seemed, the more valiant its struggle and the more tragic and irreparable its destruction. It was helpless and I was helpless to help it.
When we got to camp I jumped hastily out of the raft and hurried the fly away, as if separating it from all the activity, the tying and unloading of the boats, would somehow heal or pacify it. I put it on a rock and it tried to crawl away, flipping over and unable to right itself. It was dawning on me that the fly was never going to fly again and could hardly walk and would soon die of its injuries or be eaten by its predator and the humane thing to do would be to kill it and put it out of what I assumed was its insect misery.
But I couldn’t bring myself to squash it and end the life it was fighting so hard to keep. I would choose a moment and reach for a rock (I had for some reason decided that the deed should be done with a rock and not my bare hand), but the fly was still so pathetically alive that I could not reconcile myself to my own power, even if it was the humane thing to do. Even though it was suffering and dying it was still alive now and trying to stay that way, and who was I to change that?
Of course the frog or bigger bug or bird that would later eat the fly wouldn’t see the fly’s struggle, only act out of its own animal instinct for food. And even my brother had only acted out of reflex, that sub-cerebral part of us that responds to a threat before we can think, that is wired into our spinal cords and not our brains. And the man who’d pointed out what he thought was a bee was only being polite, if not protecting his young, a civilized behavior coupled with a primal instinct. The fly was a victim of mistaken identity and pure accident. Its end had come with less malice than the one that came for the Indians of the Rogue River Valley. As brutal as we are toward nature we seem to reserve the worst of our barbarism for one another.
The fly was in the state he was in due to instinct, reflex and accident, but in trying to finish him off I was coming from the opposite end of things, from consideration and rumination. I was trying to understand nature but I was applying all this human thought to it, and in so doing had undone my instincts to the point where they were not helping me and I could not act. One instinct told me to care for the broken thing I had come to love, and another told me to end this, whatever this was, the life of the fly and my own imposition of meaning on it.
The saddest part was that I knew that beneath my debate that there was no meaning to be found in the arbitrary borders of life and death. My attachment to this small suffering thing in the last agonized moments of its life was itself an illusion and as much as I tried to understand what the fly was feeling and what was best for the fly with all my paltry thoughts and words the fly was feeling something for which neither it nor I had language, and even this torturous experience would soon end, by my hand (if I could summon the courage) or not (if I kept on being a coward). I could say that the fly was struggling bravely but I don’t know if bravery entered into it. The fly struggled because he did not want to die, just as the man pointed and my brother slapped because they did not want to get stung, just as we all go on trying not to die and not to suffer pain even though both of these things will happen.
I couldn’t decide whether I was Mother Teresa or Dr. Menegle, whether I was keeping the fly company while it suffered or cruelly observing its pain from a scientific remove that had gone beyond inquiry toward sadism. I didn’t want the fly to feel alone and yet I couldn’t really share his pain. I didn’t want the fly to suffer and yet I did not have the courage to end his suffering. And so I was both very kind and very cruel, not unlike how we understand God or nature to be. I felt pretty wretched myself, despite the golden sunlight and cold beers I knew were waiting and afternoon of alternating rapids and calm stretches with no flat water. A cold dark sadness came through me, in many ways the saddest thing I’ve ever felt, a sadness not to do just with me but with all things and the circumstances under which they live and die.