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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Understanding the business of survival

A caterpillar for a black swallowtail butterfly.

A caterpillar for a black swallowtail butterfly.

When I get confused about life and my fellow humans, I find it helpful to look to nature for perspective. This week, that meant thinking about the caterpillar.

We almost killed it when we first saw it.

It was two years ago when we spotted it on the carrot greens in our garden. Then we discovered two more, and believed an invasion was underway. Scarred by our memories of tomato hornworm and gypsy moth caterpillars and their ilk, we collected these three and put them in jars — but then had second thoughts. Their colorations were captivating, with alternating stripes of yellow, green and black in various contours. And sure enough, a quick online check showed they would evolve into swallowtail butterflies.

This particular species is black with blue and yellow markings, just a gorgeous specimen. We previously had seen a couple around the yard. So we hurriedly placed the three caterpillars back in their carrot-top refuge and let one of nature’s great processes continue.

A week or two ago, we discovered another swallowtail caterpillar at a much younger stage, our second such sighting this season. We tried to track it as it inched its way around the carrot patch, munching, growing bigger and more beautiful, blending in as it knows to do to escape the notice of the birds, preparing to find a safe spot to form its chrysalis. But we lost sight of it a few days ago, as we always do. These caterpillars are good at camouflage, and they’re sticking to it, as they should. So we expect to see the evidence of another successful transformation soon with another butterfly patrolling the garden.

Next to the carrots are the tomatoes, green but growing, now fully armored against the squirrels that seem to like them as much as we do. This is a three-year war … and counting. Plastic mesh fencing staked into the ground and netting on top draped over poles and clipped to the fence have worked so far, so we’re sticking with it.

On the other side of the garden, our blueberries are cordoned off from the blue jays, mockingbirds and Baltimore orioles by netting stretched across a PVC frame, with sheets of plastic and wooden boards added as an additional barrier along the bottom when we discovered that the netting alone was not enough to keep the birds out. They were going to keep coming until they couldn’t.

And that’s the way it goes in life. You do what you have to. We all do. The birds, the butterflies, the squirrels. And usually, the people. We stick with what works as long as it works, and when it doesn’t work any longer we adapt. I don’t worry about my avian and rodent friends going hungry. They know what to do. There are lots of them around, and they all look like they’re eating well. Our blackberries and raspberries are still fair game. The squirrels frolic as restlessly as always, the blue jays swoop the tree tops as imperiously as they ever did.

Then I look beyond my yard, down the street and across the country, and I see so much of the nation struggling with the coronavirus. I see cases and deaths rising again, and hospitals overflowing again, and lines of cars for testing again, and doctors and nurses being asked to reuse personal protective equipment again, and leadership absent again, and falsehoods pronounced again. And I see people refusing to adapt, and others casting aside adaptations that have worked. And I don’t understand.

In the natural world, constancy and change are the yin and yang of survival. Find the balance and you thrive. Some humans have a lot to learn.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.