"Creative Footprint" encompasses, explores and examines the ways in which we and other creatures leave marks on culture and community. Created by Marc Dennis, artist, professor, Holocaust researcher, and bug chef.
I think it’s fair to say that on a daily basis, for whatever reasons, we tend to overlook many wonderful aspects of the natural world. Likely in our very own backyards.
We often miss out on the rich life of the microcosms in and around regional ecosystems, wherein I think it's also safe to say infinite beauty and mystery resides. Literally and figuratively, at our fingertips.
Photo credit: Charles Lam
With that said, my objective with this post is to address the changing relationship between natural and unnatural phenomena in an effort to distill something otherworldly from within nature’s beneficence. I will attempt to do so by focusing on the behavior of a tiny and mysterious insect known as the caddisfly.
I'm not an entomologist nor do I play one on TV, but in addition to being a full-time painter I’ve always considered myself a part-time naturalist with a more than casual long-standing interest in insects. And since having recently bought a house in Ithaca very close to a creek, I’ve come to respect and admire the caddisfly in an entirely new, fresh and exciting way, of which I'd like to share.
Photo credit: Bureau of Land and Water Quality, Maine Department of Environmental Protection
I'm hopeful that aside from the many people who fish, who are already very likely aware of the caddisfly, those who are not aware will be intrigued enough with the caddis fly to prompt further exploration and investigation into the microcosms of your region.
What interests me most about caddisflies is something I'm not expecting everyone to wrap their heads around, but like I said I'm only hoping to prompt you to rethink some of what you've come to know and expect and just sit back and relax with my ramblings in order to come to see things from a different perspective.
That's what life's about isn't it? To see things from a variety of views and perspectives in order to see the total picture - or at least in order to make an educated and well informed decision about something?
A side view of a caddisfly larva of the genus Oecetis in its case (it's tiny head, tucked inside can be seen facing left). Photo credit: Ed Hendrycks, Canadian Museum of Nature
Anyway, with that said, I believe caddisflies display a potentially specialized behavioral propensity that from what I can tell lends itself towards creativity. Granted, a relatively unique and perhaps even unknown form of creativity, but creativity nonetheless. See. I told you it wasn't something one could readily wrap their heads around... let me explain.
Caddisflies in their larval stage build cases around their soft bodies by gathering found materials and using silk to bond them together. They use these cases to aid respiration, as camouflage, as ballast to sink, and as a pupal case.
A front view of a caddisfly larva of the genus Oecetis in its case (it's tiny head, tucked inside can be seen facing directly outward). Photo credit: Ed Hendrycks, Canadian Museum of Nature
A few weeks ago I’d heard about a remote creek located along some back road off Route 13 in Spencer, NY. So, I headed out to find it. After about a half hour’s drive from Ithaca, I arrived at my destination. I pulled over to the side of the road, which seemed to be a rather deserted area, actually kind of like in the middle of nowhere, parked my vehicle along the shoulder and made my way towards the shrub layer.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
Carefully maneuvering my way down the sloped muddy embankment, through a thicket of diverse thorny plants and small trees, I came across a clearing of short and high grasses and made my way towards the gurgling and babbling sounds of the creek.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
The water was a greenish brown murky kind of color; and the foliage was a vibrant emerald green fading into a lime green as it receded towards the horizon. Juxtaposed against an awesome shiny metallic blue grey sky, the earth seemed peaceful. It was a good day. I was on a mission to find caddisfly larvae in the shallow cool waters and have a good look at their casings.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
The species inhabiting this creek had casings that were somewhat similar to one another but with subtle variations. It appeared the casings were made primarily of tiny pieces of broken branches and bits of dried plant life. I would soon discover that the word “variations” would be an understatement when it comes to the nature of a caddisfly’s “creative” potential.
Just as a note for anyone wondering where caddisfly larvae can be found, the caddisfly larvae pictured above were taken from the bottom of the creek, which was about seven inches deep and moved to a more shallow area in order to take clear photos.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
Caddisfly larvae can be found in shallow to deep waters, depending on a few factors from species to environment. If and when exploring any ecosystem, anticipating picking up and examining any of its creatures, please make sure to put them back into their original environments. I reached into the water and picked up several in order to get a closer look. They remained very still, but after a while began to move, tickling my hand with the slightest of touches, using their tiny legs to adjust their bodies, shifting their positions to and for, steadily moving upwards, clearly intent on escaping, what can only be described as the unfamiliar surface of my palm.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
Their movements were like watching something in slow motion. They clumsily climbed up my palm as I held my hand at a tilt. As they reached the top, as seen here in the photo I turned my hand over very slowly to keep them atop in order for me to have a bit more time to observe their casings and they continued to search for an exit on the top of my hand. I placed them on top of rocks to get a better look.
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
It made sense to presume caddisfly larvae casings were constructed of found objects based on the immediate environment in which they inhabited. Upon further investigation it was obvious the material primarily consisted of very well worn tiny broken bits of branches and sticks.
I wondered if the insect would incorporate materials that weren’t necessarily from their immediate surroundings but rather say for example from a different ecosystem altogether. Like what if they came across broken bits of plastic, or tiny bits of well worn glass from a shattered beer bottle or parts of a broken fishing lure? Would they use those things as materials for their casings?
Photo credit: Marc Dennis, ©2009
I also wondered how the caddisfly larva grabbed hold of the objects and secured them to its body. I wondered about its decision making process. Did it snatch floating materials from the water’s surface or scoop up pieces from the creek’s bottom? Did it matter? Was there any method to its actions? Were there reasons as to how and why a caddisfly larva selects and secures materials to form its casings?
I live life with many questions dancing around inside my head. At one point, sometimes when I least expect, one of those questions becomes a thought then an idea and, well, I'm off to the races at that point. The caddisfly casings was one of those questions that danced around inside my head for awhile.
The casings of the caddisfly intrigue me because I believe somewhere in their behavior is not just creative intent but an innate sensibility towards actual design.
I’ve always felt that it’s critical to leave room in our lives for creative endeavors if not for any other reason than to inquire, explore, and experiment. To be able to share what we discover whether it makes sense or not is always enjoyable. And whether this is indeed one of those times, well, I’ll let you decide.
Image: A variety of caddisfly larvae casings. Photo credit: Auburn University
Let me share with you some basic information on the caddisfly before I venture too deeply into the notions of creativity with respect to their casings.
Caddisflies are not flies at all, but a group of small insects closely related to moths and butterflies.
Caddisflies are also known as sedge-flies or rail flies. Their Phylum is: Arthropoda; their Class is: Insecta; and their Order Trichoptera (from Greek trich, "hair," and ptera, "wings").
Image: Mottled Caddisfly, Hydro psyche. Photo credit: Robin McLeod, BugGuide
They are usually nocturnal; and their wings are thickly covered with hairs. They are found in a wide variety of habitats such as creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, spring seeps, and temporary waters. But like I said, I’m not so much interested in the caddisfly adult, but rather in its larvae.
Medium dark-olive sedge, Macronema zebratum, Photo credit: David H. Funk
The caddisfly Larva (plural – larvae) measures up to 20 mm or 0.0787 inches long and are basically worm-like creatures with three pairs of well-developed legs on the first three body segments and hooks on the last one.
Caddisfly larva out of its casing. Photo credit: CWES Nature Navigator
They live in a wide range
of environments from fast flowing streams to freshwater ponds. Some species
feed on other insects and even spin silky nets to capture their prey. Some eat
the larvae of other caddisfly species, while others eat both living and dead
algae and plants, scraping algae from stones or plants, or shred leaf litter.
They are also an important food for many fish.
Caddisfly larva, Drawing credit: Arwin Provonsha
And some really interesting information – (I just learned this myself) is that
Ok, so at this point, you might be wondering what exactly again does this have to do with Creative Footprint’s Modus Operandi?
Image: Photo credit: Matthew Johnson
What does it have to do with leaving one’s mark on culture and community, and why am I so focused on the caddisfly larvae as opposed to the adult? And what exactly do I mean when I mention the idea that they have an innate sensibility towards design?
According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, "Innate" means "existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birth." I believe that caddisflies have to some degree (although I don't know to what degree) a form of creative behavior built into their DNA.
In other words I don't think they create their cases haphazardly, but rather with careful choices and selections with regards to the materials and the manner in which they construct. Caddisflies leave their mark practically in most bodies of water in our region. Quite the inadvertent act of potential guerilla insect art, eh? Ok, ok, that's maybe another topic altogether. Moving on...
Caddisfly larva emerging from its case. Photo credit: Charley Eisenman
The larvae of many species are not only very interesting, as are all living things I suppose, but these little creatures for all intents and purposes as I've alluded to, seem to display what I'd like to refer to as a rather unique behavioral propensity. Succinctly stated, the "propensity" I speak of is their tendency to be creative regarding their innate sense of, well, I guess, for the lack of a better term, "architectural design." They are builders after all.
Photo credit: Bedwetting in Australia
They use silk to build cases from gravel, twigs, needles, or sand. Their soft bodies are usually covered in a protective silky case. They use the hooks at the end of their abdomen to hold on to their cases. For those species that do not live in cases, they use their hooks instead to cling to the streambed and also to drag themselves backwards to escape from predators.
And if up against a wide and varied selection of “debris” these insects make interesting choices. Or do they? You be the judge. Look at the photo below for starters. And think about the placement of the purplish colored stone near its head.
Photo credit: “heatherkh’s"
This is just one type of casing amongst thousands of styles and designs! There are around 1,270 species of caddis fly in North America and about 7,000 worldwide, and depending on the species, most caddisfly larvae form a wide variety of casings.
An example of different construction methods are that one species Agrypnia usually builds a spiral case, while the one in the photo below has stacked cylinders, which because of this unique and specialized construction places it in Phryganeidae and its genus is Ptilostomis.
Photo credit: Patrick Alexander
The larvae of many species of caddisfly have what I can only imagine is considered by many entomologists to be a rather unusual albeit specialized form of behavior. And what’s more intriguing is that it is believed that each genus displays an individual aesthetic. Hmm…
I ran into my friend Jason Hamilton at gimme coffee on State Street in Ithaca the other morning and told him about my interest in caddisfly casings. Jason is a professor at Ithaca College in the Department of Biology and Environmental Studies and he too has a penchant for caddisfly casings. Incidentally I'll be interviewing Jason for Creative Footprint as part of my series on the subject of the relationships with nature and art. Jason will be talking about tarantulas and scorpions.
He replied that it was very likely caddisflies do indeed display some sense of design in their building methods. But he emphasized that design for them is not just what something looks like, as in an art sense, but rather more in an architectural sense.
In other words what the casing feels like as well as what it looks like. The notion of design in this case (no pun intended), is that the caddisfly larva is concerned with its space as well as its appearance.
Image: Caddisfly pupae. Photo credit: Noah Charney,BugGuide
I wondered then if caddisfly larvae indeed have an aesthetic in addition or opposed to a sense of design. I mean, is there really some semblance of artistry in their actions? Are they cognitive of their choice of materials and do they actually select "debris" in accordance to their sense of taste?
Photo credit: Roy Larimer at Visionary Digital
Granted it’s not the kind of taste needed to appreciate art, say like when we look at a drawing, or quilt, or fine furniture or sculpture, but rather, there is - at least from what I can tell, a component of creative decision making involved in the "taste" of a particular caddisfly.
Case of caddis fly larva, species: Limnephilus. Photo credit: University of Glasgow
Creative decision making involves choices. The caddisfly larvae select "debris" to make their casings and thus in turn apply a kind of design in order to construct what is clearly both a protective sheath as well as a means by which to camouflage themselves in order to catch prey.
In both instances they make choices and decide which materials to use and where. But the question is for what purpose? Is it solely objective? Does their having choices and consequent decision making processes have an impact on their behavior?
It seems relatively simple but I believe caddis flies are aware of their environment, including the colors, sounds, smells, etc and makes decisions based on many combinations of factors. The casings are the products of a thoughtful process. Sort of like making art after all. Like a quilt. Or even like a drawing, a sculpture. Or creating a garden.
Caddisfly larva - Pycnopsyche lepida. Photo credit: Tom Murray, BugGuide
The casing in the photo above is mostly made up of small stones, while the back end is made up of plant material. Might there be a need for this or is this simply a matter of chance as opposed to choice?Again I cannot help but ask couldn't the decisions made by the caddisfly be based on some sense of design? Let’s look at a few more.
Photo credit: Government of New South Wales, Australia
Photo credit: Tom Murray, BugGuide
Photo credit: Mike Dunn
In the photo below you can see that some casings are incredibly intricate, appearing as if it’s actually a mistake on the part of the caddisfly. The larva has chosen to use a variety of grasses, stems, sticks and other assorted unidentifiable debris. Why is that? Why so diverse? Why make so many choices? Do you think its immediate environment played a role? How cognizant is a caddis fly of its environment, of the colors, shapes, etc that it affects its choice of materials and mode of construction?
Photo credit: Burning Silo
Issue 25 Spring 2007
Duprat’s aquatic caddis fly larvae, with cases incorporating gold, opal, and turquoise, among other materials. Photos Jean-Luc Fournier. Credit Art: concept, Paris, and Zero Gallery, Milan.
The images above illustrate the results of an unusual artistic collaboration between the French artist Hubert Duprat and a group of caddis fly larvae.
A small winged insect belonging to the order Trichoptera and closely related to the butterfly, caddis flies live near streams and ponds and produce aquatic larvae that protect their developing bodies by manufacturing sheaths, or cases, spun from silk and incorporating substances—grains of sand, particles of mineral or plant material, bits of fish bone or crustacean shell—readily available in their benthic ecosystem. The larvae are remarkably adaptable: if other suitable materials are introduced into their environment, they will often incorporate those as well.
Duprat, who was born in 1957, began working with caddis fly larvae in the early 1980s. An avid naturalist since childhood, he was aware of the caddis fly in its role as a favored bait for trout fishermen, but his idea for the project depicted here began, he has said, after observing prospectors panning for gold in the Ariège River in southwestern France.
After collecting the larvae from their normal environments, he relocates them to his studio where he gently removes their own natural cases and then places them in aquaria that he fills with alternative materials from which they can begin to recreate their protective sheaths.
He began with only gold spangles but has since also added the kinds of semi-precious and precious stones (including turquoise, opals, lapis lazuli and coral, as well as pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds) seen here.
The insects do not always incorporate all the available materials into their case designs, and certain larvae, Duprat notes, seem to have better facility with some materials than with others.
Additionally, cases built by one insect and then discarded when it evolves into its fly state are sometimes recovered by other larvae, who may repurpose it by adding to or altering its size and form.
Duprat traces his work with the caddis fly larvae back to pioneering nineteenth-century entomologists such as François-Jules Pictet and Jean-Henri Fabre, who both conducted experiments in which structure-building insects were given alternative, non-indigenous materials.
Seen within the context of the artist’s work—a practice that has often addressed aspects of mimesis in the realms of both nature and facture through his conceptual sculptural activities—the caddis fly larvae project is an example of Duprat’s ongoing interest in productive collisions between organic forms and technologized materials.
Yet the work also provokes broader philosophical questions regarding behavior and intent, one that was summarized particularly astutely by the critic and philosopher Christian Besson, in a conversation with the artist conducted in the late 1990s:
Kant’s distinction between works of art and those of nature leaves us in a quandary. The production of the artifact within nature herself poses a problem—even more so when an aesthetic aspect is involved.
Whether the insect is a craftsperson or whether, more generally, nature is a creator of forms, the consideration, within nature, of an aesthetic dimension is the stumbling block of science. Your activity as an artist, upsetting the ordinary ethology of the insect, seems to me to be the same thing as introducing a noise, complicating its umwelt and producing a response.
In your diversion of the caddis worm’s behavior, in your artistic manipulation, the effect is twofold. From a biological viewpoint, a random event triggers self-organization. From a human viewpoint, the experimenter’s intent produces this effect. …
Is the caddis worm’s precious case the work of the insect or the work of the artist? This is not the right question. The contradiction can be resolved by the differing viewpoints.
According to the first view, the caddis worm owed nothing to the artist (who is simply the author of one noise among the thousands of other noises in its environment).
According to the second view, the caddis worm is merely the executor of the artist’s project. The artistic statement plays on the confusion of the two levels by overlaying the two perspectives. The aesthetic result (at once natural and artistic) turns the caddis worm’s case—which is more than an assisted ready-made or a diversion—into a doubly exposed object… 1
— Jeffrey Kastner
1. Christian Besson in conversation with Hubert Duprat, from “The Wonderful Caddis Worm: Sculptural Work in Collaboration with Trichoptera,” translated by Simon Pleasance, in Leonardo, vol. 31, no. 3, June-July 1998.
Let's see... how shall I wrap this article up? Admittedly it's not as eloquent as one of my science writer idols, Natalie Angier may have approached the subject, but with all that can be said and written about this small creature I suppose like any interest, whether peripheral or central to our lives it's sort of like traveling to Santa Fe.
Whenever I'm in Santa Fe, a charming city known for its art, I sometimes discover that my being there has a similar parallel with an online search. Santa Fe is the kind of "art" destination where it's hard to put a finger on its aesthetic. Good, bad, indifferent, regional, interesting, uninteresting? Who knows. It's really just a matter of taste.
Before uploading this entry and meeting my midnight deadline, I did one last Google search: "caddisfly jewelry." I found this site - dedicated to the making of caddisfly jewelry.
I can already see the Navajo and Cochiti Pueblo Indians selling their wares in the square, the New Mexico sun on my face, and hear the coyotes in the night sky.
Don't get me wrong, I dig Santa Fe. It's one of my favorite little cities. I guess that's so because visiting Santa Fe is a test of one's priorities.
I guess that's the case with visiting any place. Even places online. Like blogs. Or websies on caddisfly jewelry. It's always a matter of knowing how to or at least being prepared to edit. It's about steadily and carefully but enthusiastically finding out what interests us and what does not.
Image: Photo credit: John Penisten
And there's no doubt, it's always a matter of taste. Yes, taste. Like looking at art. Like that "cup of tea" quote, you know the one, when two people don't share similar tastes or interests, you might hear (in the form of an explanation): "well, it may not be his/her 'cup of tea.'" Caddisflies and tea anyone?
In summation, I'd just like to say - and I say this not in any pedantic way, but rather in a friendly suggestive almost child-like way, like as if I were ten years old again (see photo of me on left), that it doesn’t take a lot of work on our part to make an effort to appreciate the natural world even in its tiniest forms.
Like I said it's as close in proximity as our own backyards. Or to take the time to ponder on the significance of creativity, whether displayed by an insect or a human.
Time, yes time. It does take time. It seems everything is about time. My time spent investigating caddisflies is time I'll never get back. But I'm fine with that.
Because rest assured - and anyone who embraces nature even in its tiniest forms, knows what I'm talking about, its always time well spent.
After all, creativity is for all intents and purposes an essential aspect of life – for all life, or so it seems.
Marc Dennis can be reached here.