An early morning walk is now wrapped in silence. No flies buzzing. No crickets chirping. We've waited a while for the first hard frost this year. Sometimes we call it a "killing frost." And that is literally true for the tiny insects and mites and spiders in soil and under bark and in the piles of dead tree leaves. Most of this slaughter is microscopic...their little carcasses are wedged in soil crevices or wrinkled dead leaves...soon to become rich soil. In the old "Star Wars" movie, Obi Wan Kenobi shudders when he feels "The Force" change as the Death Star destroys a planet and millions of people. This is mythical nonsense of course. But if it was true, we would all go into depression this time of year from realizing the enormity of this die-off. In human-centered terms, a million silent screams. Millions of tiny lives are extinguished in just one city block alone!
But this peaceful, still morning does not signal the end of these critters at all. For every species has managed to leave behind eggs tucked under rocks, cocoons wrapped in dead leaves, or dormant larvae under tree bark. In spite of this massive die-off, the buzzing and chirping will arise again next spring. Unlike us, most insects are not built to live year after year as adults. These little critters repair their wounds for a few months and feed just enough to get through one season and lay their eggs.
We would find it tragic for all of us to die at once, and our babies to have to grow up alone next year. But in numbers alone, it is their life strategy that is common and ours that is the exception. Perhaps it is only a biologist who notices such things. The city sign at the edge of town only gives the human population; we could add “two hundred thousand spiders, a couple of million planthoppers, etc.” The human population number changes slowly over time. The numbers of these small creatures explode and die-off. After last night, their population sign would have to be changed dramatically.
So every year, in the fall, I watch the nightly weather forecasts for the first hard frost. And the morning after, the silence confirms–not a horrible mass death–but a brief pause in a pulse of life that is closely tuned to nature.