The Caterpillars of Périgord

R. P. LISTER is an English free lance whose poetry and light articles appear frequently in the ATLANTIC.

One hot day in early spring in Périgord I was walking along a dirt road that leads from a very small place called Bigounin in the general direction of nowhere, or eastwards, when I saw something on the road ahead of me that might have been a very thin snake, or a very thick piece of string, but that somehow looked rather like neither. When I got up to it I found that it was a line of seventy-two hairy caterpillars following their leader across the road, nose to tail.

I am no naturalist, and it may be that this gives me a feeling of astonishment at the goings on of animals that the more knowledgeable scientist does not share. For instance, I remember one night that I spent lying in the heather on the upper slopes of Stob Garbh, a summit of the Black Mount, between the great moor of Rannoch and the upper reaches of Loch Etive. I was restless because the night was damp and cold, but I was even more disturbed in mind by the behavior of two night birds who held a prolonged conversation behind a nearby rock in what I took to be a dialect of Low Dutch. I assume that they were night birds because I told myself so repeatedly at the time. If I had been a trained naturalist, I might have identified them without difficulty as normal specimens of the hooded crow; then I should have turned over and perhaps even got a little sleep, though I doubt it. But although I have heard crows talking on many other occasions, and often with a strong Flemish accent, I have never again been actually able to distinguish the syllables.

To the experienced naturalist this troop of caterpillars proceeding in a long line, nose to tail, across the terrain, whether of Périgord or of anywhere else, might have been a commonplace; but I had never seen such a thing before myself, or even heard of it, and I was considerably astonished. The caterpillars were yellowish-brown in color, with two black lines running down the back, and since there were seventy-two of them and each was an inch long, the caterpillar line was six feet in length from the nose of the front caterpillar to the tail of the rear caterpillar. It moved slowly because the caterpillars moved slowly, and also because the head caterpillar kept hesitating and making slight, or sometimes sharp, turns to one side or the other, though heading always in general for the other side of the road, some three feet away. Caterpillar Number 2 kept his nose faithfully a twentieth of an inch or so from the tail of Caterpillar Number I and turned where he had turned, so that any sharp bend in the line was still a sharp bend, in exactly the same spot, when Caterpillar Number 72 reached it. When I left these caterpillars, with whom I spent some little time, the head caterpillar had made a good foot of the verge and was following art even more wandering course, as if he was not sure whether to leave the road or make his way parallel to it, perhaps in the hope that he might pick up some vin rouge and lodging for the night at Bigounin. I could have told him that there were only two houses at Bigounin and that they had no vin rouge to spare, apart from the fact that the place was two and a half kilometers away and he would not get there till next Tuesday at the pace he was making, but I had no means of communication.

This caterpillar incident started me thinking seriously, though inconclusively, about the difference between man and the other, and perhaps lower, animals. These caterpillars may have been behaving quite normally, and I am prepared to listen politely to any naturalist if he tells me so, but to my mind they were suffering from a mass neurosis. They were afraid of something, and thought they could forget they were afraid if they kept their noses firmly up against the tails of the ones in front of them. The one right up in front was a natural leader who had mastered, or thought he had mastered, his neurosis.

I may be accused of anthropomorphism, but I shall not tremble. I call on any naturalist to deny that animals have neuroses. Once I knew a big dog who was more neurotic than his master or myself, which is saying something. The slow movements of Mozart string quintets reached down to all the sorrowful neuroses of this big dog, and when we listened to them, which we did frequently, he would climb up on one or the other of us, sitting in easy chairs as we were, and he would put his big paws on our shoulders, lay his head against our cheeks, and weep salt tears from his big brown eyes. Since he was half Alsatian and half Airedale and weighed eightyfour pounds, the experience was more than embarrassing.

As for hens, they are all neurotic. The inmates of the average hen run, when one becomes thoroughly acquainted with them, turn out to be so like the patients in an average mental hospital that the ordinary, unbalanced person is dangerously affected by them. Only the abnormally sane person should associate for long with hens, just as only the abnormally sane doctor should dabble in psychiatry.

It may be argued that dogs and hens, being more or less domesticated animals, absorb their neurotic habits from the human beings they associate with. This, however, does not apply to the bumblebee. The bumblebee is an easy case of animal neurosis to diagnose. It is notorious, to aeronautical scientists at least (and I was once one myself), that on the grounds of theoretical aerodynamics the bumblebee cannot fly. The relation of his wing area to his body weight and other simple aerodynamical considerations forbid it. I do not pretend to know how the bumblebee has heard of this, but a prolonged observation of the species will convince any unprejudiced observer that the bumblebee, having set his mind on flying in defiance of all the laws of science, has become definitely unhinged as a result of his efforts. He can fly, but he has no will power left for anything else.

Mostly his neurosis shows itself as a sort of ponderous aimlessness, a Hamlet-like incapacity for making decisions. I came across one bumblebee, however, after many years of patient though intermittent study, in whom the common bumblebee neurosis had become so pronounced that he determined at last to disprove the contention of the scientists by ascending, under his own wing power, the highest mountain in Sweden — almost 7000 feet.

He did very well, too, and quite well enough to disprove the aerodynamicists, though he did not reach the summit. The rarity of the air was too much for his limited weight-lifting capacity, even at that relatively low altitude, and although he made his attempt in July, the mountain is situated two hundred miles or so north of the Arctic Circle, so that he must have felt the cold in spite of all his fur. Still, he got within six hundred feet of the top, and it was there that I found him, buzzing about in a hole in the snow, on an occasion when my own neuroses impelled me to climb this mountain, Kebnekaise, myself . The hole was roughly spherical and about four inches in diameter, and the bumblebee had fallen in there, presumably quite recently, and could not get out again.

I confess that, accustomed though I am to meeting mad or eccentric animals, I was surprised to find him there, so far away from vegetation and all living things. However, he was clearly a rather unhappy bumblebee where he was; so as soon as a man called Lannart who was with me had photographed him, so that nobody should call us liars, we fished him out of the hole and flung him into the air, facing downhill. When I last saw him he was rolling and kicking down the snow slope, the rarefied air having let him down again, but when he got to the edge he had a thousand feet of clear drop to the Björlings Glacier, and I hope this pause for meditation in midair enabled him to right himself and fly safely off to the more or less green valley of Ladtjodalen, which lies below.

In fact, I hope he survives still, though he must be a very old bumblebee by now. He could have proved his ability to fly equally well by buzzing about among the arctic flora, as thousands of his fellow bumblebees do every day, but I respect him for his determination, neurotic though it was, to make a really large-scale demonstration of his powers of flight. If he did survive, he no doubt boasted interminably about his exploit and claimed that his performing it showed that he had mastered his neurosis and got it thoroughly under control; that he was, in fact, a bumblebee of determination, decision, and drive, and a natural leader, like the head caterpillar of the Bigounin road.

It is true that without our neuroses none of us would ever get anywhere, and if we could only get them under control, we should achieve great things. It is owing to our failure to do so that most human activities can be classified under the general heading of buzzing about in holes in the snow. This is perhaps the only firm conclusion to which my encounter with the caterpillars on the Bigounin road led me.

As for the distinction between man and the lower animals, I am still firmly of the opinion that it does not arise from man’s possession of neuroses, but from something else, if from anything. As for the charge of anthropomorphism, I should say that the animals’ thought processes differ from man’s in degree but not so much in kind as we are fashionably requested to believe. But I have said nothing here that could be adduced as proof, or, indeed, as disproof, of either of these contentions.

And as for the caterpillars on the Bigounin road, a friend to whom I recounted this incident suggested that I could have picked up the front caterpillar and put him at the back to see what happened, and I am extremely sorry that I did not think of this myself at the time.