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The weirdness of the familiar

July 29, 2011
Bagworm emerging from cocoon

Bagworm emerging from cocoon.

One of the advantages of riding a bicycle is that you see more than if you drive a car. (Pedestrians see most of all but a bike is a good compromise.)  Today as I rode past the East side of Milner Library I saw a tiny pine cone suspended in midair.  It was spinning around with no visible means of support as if to mock gravity.

It’s actually a bagworm whose cocoon hangs on silk.  The worm was trying to reel itself back up to the tree.  “Hey cool!” I thought, “I’ll whip out my groovy Canon G-11 and grab an awesome picture!”  But that didn’t happen.  As soon as I took my better camera out of the backpack, it fogged up with condensation.  It had been in an air-conditioned building all day and was about fifteen degrees cooler than the humid air.  It’d be a half hour before it could take any picture that didn’t look like London Fog.

Fortunately I also carry a Pentax W-80 in my pocket, where it stays warm and is ready for use, so at least I got some picture of the little bug as it spun around on its thread.  This bizarre little creature camouflages its cocoon with parts of whatever plant – in this case a pine tree – that it is infesting.  The plant is food, housing, and camouflage.  In one of the pictures you can see its tiny little claws reeling in the silk.  Or maybe letting it out, I don’t know but it was The weirdness of the familiar definitely trying to either get up or get down.  Either of which could be a sign of Funk.

But here’s the thing: when I see science fiction stories where one of the characters says; “This creature will be totally unknown to us – it’s from outside our galaxy” I pretty much lose the signal.  We’ve got plenty of weird creatures right on our own planet; in our ocean depths, mountain tops, and in strange places like Australia where there are egg-laying mammals with poisonous stingers on their tails.  Hell, we’ve found worms living under two miles of rock.  We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of weirdness where we live.

Some of these critters and plants and bacteria and stuff make compounds that could be really useful to us if we’d study them before cutting down their forests to grow more sugarcane, but there’s also just an opportunity for joy and wonder in it.  Because when you get down to it the only reason we don’t think tetrapods like us aren’t weird is that we are familiar.  You don’t have to step very far out of your ordinary frame of reference before ordinary things start blowing your mind.

I’m headed off to bed, but if you’ve gone all day without seeing anything freaky, then there you go.


  • I put up a couple other pictures of the critter from different angles.  They’re in my Biosphere album.
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