By Laura Mattson
My Communication class this semester meets in Cooper Hall so I’ve taken to sitting at the tables outside the building to people-watch before class. It is an interesting place on our campus because it is home to a cacophony of preachers, rogue musicians, and petitioners. I’ve found it can be a dangerous place, too, when the wandering visitors decide to single you out in their informal sermons and shout your perceived business through a megaphone in front of campus tours.
But these human visitors to our campus are not the point right now. One day, my little routine was interrupted when the umbrellas and tables were suddenly coated with caterpillars. These caterpillars are the same ones that have covered pillars of the Natural and Environmental Sciences building. They are furry and pale yellow and something about them screams POISONOUS even though I still haven’t looked it up to check. I crept up to the tables gingerly to take these photos on my phone but I didn’t dare sit down at the caterpillar-covered table. I didn’t want to sit on them or have them crawl onto me or drop into my hair. I shuddered when I took the picture because I was so disgusted about the idea of touching them. Even after I had backed away, I felt invisible ghosts crawling on me.
I noticed that everyone else followed my lead. Some people took photos and then kept their distance like me, while others completely ignored the phenomenon entirely. But no one sat at the caterpillar table. These spots are coveted, usually in constant occupancy. The caterpillars reclaimed the tables and the patio space themselves, for there was nowhere for students to sit. (Assuming we don’t want to sit on the ground, which, apparently we do not.)
This experience reminds me of one of our theoretical guides. In Emergent Ecologies, Eben Kirksey describes the unexpected detours from the monotony of daily order that provide new opportunities for environmental connectivities and ordering reality. I want to understand the Cooper patio as an emergent ecology in this story of transformative encounters.
For Kirskey, a transformative encounter occurs “when two beings capture one another in a reciprocal embrace” (3). The glaring difficulty of this quote lies in the students’ response, or nonresponse, to the caterpillars. How can I know to what extent students embraced the caterpillars or the caterpillars embraced us? Things are starting to get a little weird so it’s time to make it weirder with another scientific term. Symbiosis, or entanglement through mutual interest, runs rampant in emergent ecologies (Kirksey 4). In this case, maybe I can understand the caterpillar phenomenon as an opportunity for entanglement.
First, the caterpillars were literally entangled with both humans and humanity. I watched several students find hitch-hiking insects on their clothes and quickly scramble for a selfie. The caterpillars and their cocoons were dangling from the umbrellas and affixed to the underside of the canopy. The insects were making use of the umbrellas for protection from harsh elements like rain and sun, as do students. The caterpillars were interested in a bond with humans for transportation and protection.
The students’ role in this symbiosis is less clear because, as I mentioned, most of them didn’t seem to care. Maybe it is sufficient to rely on comfortable definitions of opportunity as mere chance or availability. I believe we can go further here, noting the effect the caterpillars had on all the students. By nesting in our patio, the caterpillars inserted themselves into our daily lives. Many of us were taken aback by the development, stopping to document it with photos. Getting a stressed-out college student to stop for anything is fairly impressive, I think. We also had to find somewhere else to sit. When I walked around to the back of the building, I found the rear courtyard flooded with students who all seemed slightly perturbed and out of place. They were driven into new entanglements with their peers when they had to adapt to the communal seating of the new courtyard.
Students and caterpillars did have some semblance of a relationship, then. What can be said about the Cooper ecosystem? I think the most notable observation from this experiment is that it is dynamic. This resonates with our guide, who sides with Tansley that ecosystems are constantly in flux (Kirksey 2). Our movement patterns shifted and drove new interactions. The categories of identity were challenged, as well, as students’ sense of place and belonging were interrupted by the caterpillars. I went from someone who people-watches to an ecology-watcher. Students around me went from selfie-takers to nature photographers. Hopefully, this process of becoming was honored by those involved. That way, it can continue to challenge the stability of taxonomies and ecosystems. Still, the entanglement was real. The caterpillars anchored themselves to our bodies and demanded our attention. Whether given due notice or not, the caterpillars outside Cooper Hall should be celebrated for their role in our environment and college experience.
Kirksey, Eben. Emergent Ecologies. Durham: Duke UP, 2015. Print.