There are moments in our lives when a single event or observation can make a life long impression. I’m not referring to those moments that serve as rites of passage such as a birth or the death of a parent or loved one. I am referring to simple episodes that seem to suddenly clarify the meaning of life or solve a perplexing problem over which we have troubled for an extended time. Such a moment happened to me when I was nine years old.
February had been typically cold. In the early mornings I enjoyed looking out my east facing bedroom window watching the sum melt the frost off of the storm windows. I can remember seeing faint shadows on the opposing wall move slowly as shifting patterns of light broadened as the frost retreated towards the edge of the window. One cold morning I pulled a chair up close to the window. I sat there eating a bowl of hot cereal watching the frost melt to the edge of the window pane. I had recently become aware of the great glaciers that once covered New England and I saw the retreating frost patterns on the window as large mounds of ice retreating to the north as the climate warmed.
As the frost melted, gravity would carry droplets of water to the wooden sash between the inside and outside windows where it would follow the edge of the glazing and escape through a drip hole. Watching closely with my eyes, I followed a drop of water from the edge of the frost drain towards the sash where it would pass by some dead flies resting on the window ledge. As the water passed by one fly my eyes were attracted to a slight movement by one of the flies. The fly, which I believed was dead, started to move. It first lifted a leg, very slowly. It stopped and remained still for a while. I was certain that my eyes were playing tricks on me. The fly started to move again, still very slowly, this time moving its semi-transparent wings. It couldn’t muster enough wing speed for take-off, and instead it had just enough wing movement to lift o flip over onto its back. With time, and as the temperature increased in this unintended aquarium, the fly regained full mobility, righted itself so it was now standing on its legs, and eventually flew a few inches to land on another section of window sash.
In my young mind it was if I had seen the dead become the living. I was awed by the experience. Seeing a frozen creature come to life was beyond any personal experience I had ever had. I was aware of cold blooded creatures, but this was surreal. I had just studied dinosaurs in our fourth grade science curriculum, and I tried to picture a very large frozen dinosaur wake up from a long frosty sleep.
That summer I spent inordinate amounts of time catching flies, putting them in the freezer, and watching them unthaw and fly away. My mother wasn’t very fond of a mason jar full of deer flies setting next to the London broil in the deep freeze, in fact she kept taking the jar out, much to my chagrin. I eventually learned to keep it underneath the frozen liver where no human activity was likely to occur.
I performed the fly thawing activity over and over again. I’d take a jar of flies out of the freezer and place it in the hot sun, usually on a large rock in our back yard. The flies would defrost rather quickly under the intense summer sun, and generally I would let them go to fly off and tell stories to their friends. My one scientific finding was that house flies generally survived the whole experience, while deer flies had a fairly high mortality rate.
On Saturday mornings I would peddle about four miles to the library on my big, old Schwinn bicycle. I was happy to sit in a corner and look at books about wild animals, plants, and the natural world. While trying to get some ideas about cold blooded animals I happened on a book about early mammals. The dusty old children’s book had various articles, but one caught my eye. It was an article that explained that the first animals were very small, perhaps shrew or mouse size. That piqued my interest, and I read in Collier’s Encyclopedia that horses were once the size of cats. At the time, this new knowledge conjured up images of tiny mice with cowboy hats riding the miniature horses. Too many Saturday morning cartoons, I suspect.
Not too long after that I learned the first mammals were small because they were warm blooded. Size was part of the overall animal’s need for efficiency. Small bodies require lesser amounts of energy. Loren Eisely, the great paleohistorian, attributes the evolution of flowering plants to the success of warm blooded animals. The ability of flowering plants to produce high nutrient seeds, and the flowering plants ability to spread quickly around the countryside created circumstances that were favorable to these new products of evolution: the mammal.
Evolution is a mystery to humans given we were not there to observe it. One of the key ingredients to evolution is time, lots and lots of time. Selective adaptation will help animals adjust to any environmental circumstance given a long enough period. As a nine year old I would ponder how it was that modern versions of warm and cold blooded species still existed side by side millions and millions of years after the first warm blooded animals mingled with cold blooded creatures.
This was, if nothing else, bewildering. I couldn’t imagine how it was that one type of animal could be so different from another. At some level I felt uncomfortable with the notions that flies were so much different from humans. It was if I were willing to deny the fly’s ability to wake up from the frosty depths of cold sleep just so I didn’t have to wrestle with a notion so foreign to me. And that’s when it hit me. This feeling of denial was attributable to my lack of understanding and knowledge. I realized that I felt more comfortable with the familiar than the unfamiliar. This realization was like having a huge rock lifted off of my shoulders. So many times during my short life I had already experienced these feelings; the first time I saw a black person; the first time I was alone at home; the first time I let my best friend know a deep, dark secret.
Now it is clear that seeing the unfreezing of that house fly led to the beginning of a long, long process; the evolution of a young mind.
Originally written in July 1995.