Editorial: War on woolly bears

With the hard-fought elections now finally over, it’s time to focus on more enduring themes, like the natural world. Take, for example, the woolly bear caterpillar, which, in its mysterious prognosticating powers, proved itself more reliable than many of humankind’s political pundits and polls.

Nine out of 10 of the woolly bears randomly sampled on South Poes Road, the Fodderstack Road and Route 231 accurately predicted the Nov. 6 election results.

As for predicting the coming winter’s weather, however, the woolly bear seems to be less precise – more faith- than fact-based. The reason for this is simple:

Unlike human candidates for political office, the woolly bear cannot shape-shift and spin its message according to the latest polling data and what it thinks its audience wants to hear. The woolly bear is firmly committed to the width of its black and brown bands before autumn, much less winter, even starts.

So when woolly bears try to utilize their own folklore to understand human behavior and what that means for the natural world, alas, it’s too late to communicate this information though the already-set width of their bands. The data points that the woolly bear relies upon – climate-change-denying scientists agree – are how big its human neighbors’ wood piles are and, for more sophisticated caterpillars, the price of heating oil on the commodity futures exchange.

Into this intricate feedback loop between woolly bears and humans comes a new, disturbing and dangerous element, however: “The War on Woolly Bears,” as talk radio is calling it. Unlike liberals’ so-called “War on Christmas” or Republicans’ so-called “War on Women,” it involves a conspiracy theory that I’m not yet smart enough to figure out. But if I ever do, I’ll share the wisdom.

In the meantime, I’m going for a hike in the Shenandoah National Park. There’ll be no woolly bears there; they’re all squashed by cars and trucks on Rappahannock roads.

Walter Nicklin