By Donella Meadows
–July 10, 1986–
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the item on the town meeting agenda: “Article 26. To see if the town will vote to designate the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle, an endangered species that inhabits Plainfield’s own Burnap Island, the Plainfield Town Insect.”
“Some environmentalist has gone off the deep end,” I thought, uncharitably. I could imagine the maudlin appeal be prepared somewhere in town. You know the type. Serious and superior. The sacredness of nature’s web. The importance of genetic diversity. The crass commercialism of the entrepreneurs who propose hydropower dams on the Connecticut River — dams that would flood Burnap Island and doom the Tiger Beetle, which I had never heard of and would not miss if it entered the Valhalla of extinct species.
My cranky reaction was surprising, since I am an environmentalist myself. Nature’s web, genetic diversity, and endangered species are sacred to me. But I was imagining the speech I would have made, if it had ever entered my head to urge Plainfield to adopt a Town Insect. I would be holier-than-thou. I would trigger the normal human resistance to missionary zeal. The proposal would be laughed out of the hall.
Fortunately, I didn’t make the speech; Nancy Mogielnicki did. Everyone laughed, and then we approved the article. Plainfield now has a Town Bug. Nancy’s speech was brazen, energetic, and funny. It was a lesson to all sanctimonious environmentalists. She undercut the inevitable ridicule by providing plenty of her own. “What,” she asked, “would it MEAN to have a Town Insect? It can mean whatever we want it to.” Given the agility, swiftness, and attractiveness of the insect, she said, we might want to call our athletic teams the Plainfield Tiger Beetles. We could sell Tiger Beetle T-shirts to raise money for the town Patriotic Committee. Someday, she suggested, we might want to go on and adopt the Inverted Wedge Mussel as the Town Mollusk.
Nancy made the Tiger Beetle silly, fun, noble, and an object of town pride all at once. She never mentioned hydroelectric dams. By the time she was done, we all had a kind of warm feeling for the Tiger Beetle, though none of us, including Nancy, had ever seen one.
The town meeting was just the beginning. A Tiger Beetle exhibit was put in the school, so the kids could become familiar with their Town Insect. At our Fourth of July celebration half the town was wearing Tiger Beetle T-shirts. A gold Tiger Beetle pendant was auctioned off. And we joined together for the first official singing of our new Beetle anthem (to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, of course).
The Cobblestone Tiger Beetle’s coat is black and bronzy, too.
We deem it far more beautiful than those of emerald hue.
If you think our beetle homely, well, we think the same of you.
Our beetle crawls right on. Glory, glory, it’s the bug we like to see. Glory, glory it’s the bug for you and me. I’d do anything to find one, even climb up in a tree. Our beetle marches on.
There are more verses, but you get the idea.
In a more serious mood, another environmentalist called me the other day to complain about how the nation was going down the tubes (we environmentalists often talk like that). He was worried about the younger generation, which, he thinks, is growing up with a materialist ethic, not an environmental one. How can we teach them, he wondered, to treasure and protect the creatures of the earth?
His question got me thinking about how I became an environmentalist. No one ever preached ecology to me, but my mother took me out to the fields and forests and introduced me to the wildflowers. Those expeditions were fun. I came to feel at home in the wild places. I had friends there, whose names and habits I knew. When the bulldozers came to clear the way for condominiums, I could measure the loss in wild strawberries, spring beauties, and trilliums. My guess is that one needs some such experience of the earth’s wondrous variety before one is willing to defend it. You can’t treasure something you know nothing about.
In her lighthearted way, Nancy Mogielnicki has given Plainfield such an experience. Now we know the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle’s name, what it looks like, where it lives. That bug is real to us, and we have a personal stake in its welfare. Though some folks think this whole beetle business is pretty corny, I suspect the town would rise up in outrage if anyone tried to mess around with Burnap Island.
The environment is, of course, a serious matter. It is God’s creation, the source of all life and wealth. If we stopped to think about it, we would be wonderstruck by the very existence of Cobblestone Tiger Beetles and trilliums, and we would realize the stupidity and arrogance of destroying them. (You see, I can’t resist an opportunity for a sermon.) But that doesn’t mean the environment must be a heavy trip. Nature can be celebrated while it is being conserved — in fact it may never be conserved until it is celebrated. Let’s lighten up.
How do you say “Cobblestone Tiger Beetle” three times very fast without making a mistake?
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011