In 2007, I sold my first short story, ‘Turning Point,’ to the speculative fiction journal ZAHIR.
Set in the highland forests of Costa Rica, ‘Turning Point’ chronicles the tensions between three field entomologists who must decide what to do when a faerie falls into one of their malaise traps.
The meticulous Ruth, dedicated to documentation and hard facts, argues in favor of preserving the hapless creature in ethanol. The nameless protagonist, through whose eyes this story is told, can’t bear to sacrifice their extraordinary find for the sake of science. Instead, she tries to record the faerie’s existence through photographs and sketches – but a creature of magic can’t be documented by human technology, so all her efforts fail.
Caught between the hard-nosed Ruth and the fanciful protagonist, a young grad student, Jenn, manages to strike a balance between remaining focused on science and accommodating a world where faeries exist – even if proof of them cannot be had.
In the end the protagonist, unable to reconcile science and magic, feels forced to choose between two worlds. Submitting to the realm of magic, she vanishes with the faerie into the forest deep.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on this story, wondering what would happen if that protagonist came back today, stepping out of the faerie ring to reconnect with the world she’d left behind?
In the final scene of ‘Turning Point,’ as she hovered on the edge of the realm of magic, the protagonist’s thoughts turned toward what might happen in the mortal world after her disappearance. Of all the possibilities she pondered, not once did the enchanted entomologist ask, “Will insects survive after I’m gone?”
Just ten years after my protagonist stepped into the faerie ring, we are now reading about the insect apocalypse. What seemed unimaginable – a precipitous decline, even a collapse, of insect populations – is being documented across multiple studies worldwide.
News entire communities of insects are caught in a downward spiral would have astounded the main character of ‘Turning Point.’ How could such a thing be conceived? In grad school, we used to joke how easy it was to get collecting permits because no one cared if insects were killed; their abundance was taken for granted. (I cared, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Yet in the twelve years that passed between the time I finished grad school and the year I sold ‘Turning Point,’ studies had already documented declining species in different localities. Indeed, when Issue 17 of ZAHIR was published, the Kreffeld Entomological Society had gathered about two-thirds of the data that would stun the scientific world by documenting a 75% drop in insect biomass in German nature reserves – nature reserves, mind you. Protected areas that should be buffered from the impact of human mismanagement.
My protagonist, it seems, stepped out of this world at precisely the moment when highly skilled entomologists like her were needed the most.
Fortunately, Ruth and Jenn stayed on task. I imagine them these past ten years working hard on various aspects of this problem. Ruth has gathered as much data as she can. Jenn, perhaps, has been bridging the gap between the data-drenched world of science and the broader public – getting the word out in manageable bites.
Insects are the engine that run this planet. Yes, they can be annoying and have a reputation as pests, but the vast majority serve critical purposes within every ecosystem. The fact of the matter is we cannot live without them. They perform millions of unseen jobs that keep us alive, happy, and healthy. And they should have been the hardiest part of this planet. They were supposed to take everything we threw at them and still survive. Every. Single. Time.
I cannot tell you how deeply disturbing it is for me, as a life-long ecologist, to watch the sum total of the data coming in. The fact that insect populations are failing so dramatically shakes me to the core. It is unlike anything I have seen in the scientific literature over the past three decades.
What would happen if the protagonist of ‘Turning Point’ were released from the faerie realm today, if she stepped out of the ring to discover the forest she once loved was now silent and devoid of insects?
She’d be horrified by the specter of ecological collapse. After overcoming the initial shock, she would descend from the mountain, find Ruth and Jenn, and get back to work. Together, they would do everything in their power to reverse this terrible trend – and they would implore all of us to do the same.
Looking for a way to get involved? A good place to start is the Xerces Society. They can direct you to several opportunities, from simple backyard conservation tips to regional citizen science programs where you can participate directly in monitoring insect species of conservation interest. Don’t put this off; the time is now. Every small effort makes a big difference.