This post is contributed by Barnaby Porter from his archives. Read the previous post here.
It was spring semester. I was a freshman at the University of Maine. As it seemed to me, much of the ceremonious first-year nonsense was calculated to make a freshman look and feel like a freshman. It started with the beanie I was supposed to don on my first day on campus. I refused. Nonetheless, I found my first-year status tough to disguise, if for no other reason than because there simply were things I had to do if I was to pursue a brilliant career in Forestry.
Now it so happened that with something like 27 lab sciences listed in the course requirements, and with nearly all of them offered in only one semester of each year, there was virtually no choice as to when you took a course – you just took it when you had to. Period. The powers-that-be had it all figured out. One of those required courses was entomology, the study of insects.
It all came back to me this morning as I watched the season’s first mourning cloak butterfly flutter past my feet. The mourning cloak always appears very early in spring, almost too early for butterflies it seems, but then I learned in one of my lectures that it is the first to emerge, so we could expect to see them as soon as the snow is gone.
One fact I learned, perhaps a little too forcefully, was that if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself in the act of being the flaming idiot you are, if you don’t want to look like a nerd, if you want to appear cool and un-freshman-like on campus, don’t take entomology.
A major part of the course required each student to make an extensive insect collection with so many species, genera and families represented. That meant each of us had to spend nearly all of that first, giddy spring on campus flitting about with a butterfly net in our hands and a collection jar crammed in a rear pocket – not a cool thing to be seen doing in those days, not cool at all.
We skipped through the meadows. We danced through the woods. We turned over every stone, and we whacked every bush with our butterfly nets. My collection grew to be a truly inspiring, if gruesome, box full of dead insects, all skewered on long pins like so many phantasmagorical shish kebabs, and I knew, if I persisted in my daily sojourns into the back country, that my collection might turn out to be even good enough to make up for some of the personal humiliation I had suffered.
One balmy afternoon, I was wading down a shallow stream in search of mayfly nymphs. (That’s where you find them.) I was completely absorbed in my afternoon safari when suddenly I became aware of motion on the grassy bank ahead. I looked up. Wow! It wasn’t mayfly nymphs though. It was a couple of students, and they didn’t exactly look like entomology students. Their course of study was apparently more akin to basic biology, as they were unencumbered by butterfly nets or any other unnecessary trappings. Caught being an idiot freshman again, I winced to myself as I looked for a quick and discrete exit route from the scene. But no such route existed. In fact, I blew my best chance of undetected escape by stumbling backward over a large rock and splashing ridiculously on my butt in the middle of the brook.
Suddenly aware of my bumbling presence, the two were clearly annoyed in the extreme. By then I had picked myself up, sopping wet, torn butterfly net, broken jar and all. They stared . . . and glared . . . and finally, they said, or rather yelled, “Get out of here, you weirdo!”
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. In October 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.
Insect collection photo courtesy of Barta IV via Flickr (CC by 2.0)