Some years ago, Les had been collecting and cataloging aquatic insects for a project paid for—and cheaply mind you—by a national conservation organization. He had arrived early one morning at one of his cold-stream collecting sites to an amazing spectacle. Thousands of mottled-winged insects had emerged all together and were clamoring up the underside of a tiny country bridge. They were all over the leaves, covering the bark of the shrubs and trees, paddling through the air with ungainly swimming motions on their long wings. They were large insects, upwards of two inches of wingspan, known as fishflies (Family: Corydalidae). Their larvae—familiar to fishermen as helgrammites—are often used as bait.
They had lived under the cold, rushing water, clinging to stones for many months before they could pupate and emerge in their adult form, wings and sexual hardware. These insects would not feed, they would only mate, lay eggs, and soon die. The adult winged forms were just meant to aid in dispersal, or so entomologists imagined, obsessed as they always were with the function of form.
Les had never seen so many adult fishflies, and was utterly stunned by the emergence. He did not know how much time passed. He became totally unaware of himself as the insects crawled over him and launched themselves off his net and hat. What he thought about just before he let himself become nothing but witness to the moment was that they didn’t know he existed, despite his standing among them. And that they’ve been doing this for probably over four hundred million years (a rough estimate based on our fossil evidence places insects back in the Devonian). Les wiped tears from his eyes and, feeling a bit daft, wondered how old this tiny rocky stream could be . . . how old this forest, or the land, or the world? How meaningless and empty our few millennia of history. How puny our existence. . . .
He had been lucky. No one could say what day this would happen on, or at what hour, or where it was likely to occur. It was a spectacle probably few people had witnessed, and even fewer could accurately identify.
Les was impressed that this had been a nearly mystical experience inspired not by faith, but by love of knowledge and natural beauty. This was a perfect example of knowledge providing the means to attaining the mystic’s self-transcendent moment. To the uninitiated this might just as well have been a frightening mass of cockroaches, or giant mosquitoes erupting from the stream. Instead it was like a step toward enlightenment.