Potato beetles wear black-and-yellow-striped suits and orange black-polka-dotted masks as if dressed to play the part of the circus clown. When you pop them in between your fingers, they snap-crackle-pop, bursting with bright orange goo, their deaths staining the dirt encrusted lines of your hands. Leptinotarsa decemlineata lays neon-orange eggs on the under-leaves of our potato plants while nibbling away at the foliage in an act of decimation while awaiting to be decimated by the thumb and the index finger of my right hand. Smushing potato beetle larvae can be likened to popping a particularly luscious pimple.
We call it Potato Beetle Patrol; we traverse each row in the garden for many hours, overturning leaves, looking for flashes of orange — their eggs are brightly colored clusters, threatening to spawn unmanageable numbers of larvae. I wipe these eggs away with my fingers and then wipe my fingers on the thighs of my cutoffs. Exploding orange deaths by the hundreds. A massacre. One cannot help but ponder death while bestowing it upon other creatures as a mere routine. A non-organic farmer would spray the crop with harmful pesticides and potential infestation would be averted altogether.
Maybe it’s the fact that I spend forty hours a week cultivating, nurturing and witnessing the glory of life on a small organic farm in New Hampshire as I track seed to dinner plate; maybe it’s something else entirely that I have yet to process. Either way, the occurrence of life has become a breathless miracle to ponder daily. What are the odds that the forces of the universe happened to converge in such a manner that the conditions for living formulated on Planet Earth and thus perpetuated human existence? If lucky is defeating odds, and the odds for living are such a monstrously baffling rarity, are we not by definition the most astoundingly lucky walking, breathing miracles to ever float in the painfully-curious abyss of the universe?
If life is such a grand miracle, I have, over the course of one hour of potato beetle patrol, unblinkingly smudged and discarded hundreds of bright-orange-clown miracles on the sides of my shorts. What were the odds that they would astonishingly find life in the paradise that we the farmers created for them? What are the odds that they’d meet their doom so shortly after achieving such good fortune? Without the massacre, though, the beetles would defoliate our plants and I wouldn’t be digging in the dirt with my hands for sustenance, mining for potato-gold hiding in the earth.
Human beings have a scary, god-like power to dictate which miracles get to persist and which miracles do not. As I breathlessly rejoice over the sheer luck of my functioning lungs and bronchioles, ventricles and valves, veins and arteries, I also feel something just shy of terror over the notion that our planet is not that big, and life is not that long. The life of a potato beetle can be as short as 30 days, a seemingly irrelevant number. At any second, my hands could delve into their leafy homes and destroy them and their families — often I’d find them, and kill them, directly in the midst of procreating, and a certain sadness over this sacrifice would tightly grip me.
The Earth is thought to be 4.5 billion years old. The average human lives to be 71.
Herein lies the paradox: we are as irrelevant as the potato beetle, yet we are also powerful beyond comprehension.