The female giant ichneumon wasp flies, impressively for her near-eight- inch length, with the light buoyancy of cottonwood fluff, seemingly without direction, simply aloft. Despite her remarkable size, she is not bulky. Her three-part body makes up only about three inches of her total length, and is disproportionately slender; her thorax is connected to her abdomen by a Victorian-thin waist. Most of her maximum, eight-inch span consists of an ovipositor half that length which extends from the tip of her abdomen and trails behind her like a thread loose from a pant hem. Fully extended, she can be nearly as long as your Peterson’s Field Guide to Insects.
Her overall appearance of fragility—the corseted middle, the filamentous tail—portrays in flight a facade of drifting. But both of the times I have seen a giant ichneumon wasp she was on a mission, in search of something very specific: a single species among the 1,017,018 described species of insects in the world (91,000 in the United States, 18,000 in Wisconsin, where I observed my second giant ichneumon). To comprehend this statistic, there are many things one needs to know: the definition of an insect, Linnaean taxonomy, the function of zero, the imaginary borders of states and countries. The female ichneumon wasp knows none of this. Yet it can locate a larva of the pigeon horntail—a type of wood wasp whose living body will nourish her developing young—hidden two inches deep in the wood of a dead tree, in the middle of a forest.
Charles Darwin himself, it turns out, studied the ichneumon wasp. He mentions it specifically in an 1860 letter to biologist Asa Gray, a proponent of the idea that nature reveals God’s benevolence. Darwin, on the other hand, swayed no doubt by the rather macabre details of this parasitic insect’s life, writes: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”—and then, as if to reach the layman, he adds, “Or that a cat should play with mice.” The tabby that curls in your lap and licks your temple, after all, has likely batted a live mouse between its paws until its brain swelled and burst. And the larvae of the giant ichneumon wasp eat, from the inside out and over the course of an entire season, the living bodies of the larvae of a fellow insect.
Like Darwin, I think I have put to rest my belief in a beneficent and omnipotent God, in any God really. Contrary to what I once believed, it is easy to let go of God, whose essence has never been more than ethereal anyway, expanding like an escaping gas into the corners of whatever church you happened to attend, into the breath of whatever frightened, gracious, or insomnious prayer you found yourself emitting. But it is much more difficult to truly put to rest the belief in an afterlife, the kind where you might get to visit with all your dead friends and relatives. It will not be easy to let go of your deceased mother, who stands in her kitchen slicing potatoes and roast, who hacks ice from the sidewalk with shovels; she is marrow and bone, a kernel of morals, values, and lessons compacted like some astronomical amount of matter into tablespoons, one with sugar for your cereal, another, for your fever, with a crushed aspirin and orange juice. You love her. You mark time and space by her: she is someone you are always either near to or very far from.
Can people live without the comfort of a creator? I think so. But relinquishing God—the Christian God, at least—does not leave everything else intact. A lack of the divine probably means that when you die what you consider your essence will cease to exist. You will no longer be able to commune with the people you love. Choosing to live without the assurance of an afterlife, therefore, feels like a kind of suicide, or murder.
Photo: Ctd 2005
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