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Mayflies of the Driftless Region

May 20, 2011
Approaching the last of the guest posts for the BioFresh ‘Mayfly week’, Gaylord Schanilec – an artist and author from Wisconsin, USA – highlights the role of mayflies in art, through a discussion of his book ‘Mayflies of the Driftless region’.  His last sentence (“Scientists and artists do basically the same thing: they observe the world around them, and record their observations as best they can.”) strikes me as one of the most eloquent expressions of the potential for overlaps between art and science that I’ve read.  Enjoy!

Every year, near the middle of July, an art fair takes place in the village park of Stockholm, Wisconsin, a small hamlet on the shore of the Mississippi River.  Along with hundreds of exhibiting artisans and thousands of visitors, the fair attracts countless mayflies. Sometimes referred to as “fish flies” by annoyed locals, Hexagenia bilineata can hatch in numbers large enough to be picked up by doppler radar, and even spur the deployment of snow removal equipment to clear the bridges.  With a wingspan of well over an inch, H. Bilineata is the largest mayfly found here in the driftless region of the midwestern United States. A deep chocolate brown, and large enough that an abdominal pattern is clearly discernible, they are attractive to the naked eye if one takes the time to look closely. Under magnification the depth of color and pattern is mesmerizing.

The mayfly project began, however, in Hay on Wye, a bookish village on the Welsh/English border where I came across a copy of F. M. Halford’s Dry Fly Entomology (Vinton & Co., London, 1902). The book was illustrated with wood engravings of mayflies, and of other insects of interest to fishermen. Most of them had their wings spread, and were viewed from above. It was beautiful, detailed work, and I admired the perspective. When I returned home to Wisconsin I decided to do a book on mayflies, illustrated with color wood engravings of the specimens as they appear through the eyepiece of a microscope. A book is a complex collection of elements, and this notion of illustration was only the first piece of the puzzle.

The next piece was a game. For a specimen of a species to get into the book, I had to catch it. This lead to delicate research as the capture of some key species required specific knowledge known only to fishermen who, naturally, were reluctant to give away secrets. The Hendrickson (Ephemerella subvaria) for example hatches for only two weeks each spring, late in the afternoon, and only in certain stretches of a few streams. Thus began a vein of work that my wife refers to as “playful science”.

The next part of the puzzle was a text, and for this I sought the help of entomologist Clarke Garry. Doctor Garry is a professor at the University of Wisconsin with an infectious love of mayflies. I would capture a specimen, examine it under the microscope, engrave my blocks, and then send the specimen to Dr Garry, who would in turn take it through the entomological keys, and send me back a detailed identification. I became enamored with the strange and exotic language used–fore wing venation, rudimentary terminal filaments, free marginal intercalaries–and as a bonus it was sprinkled with the typographical opportunity to use of the latin dipthong “æ”.

Entomology became the basis of the text. From time to time, however, for one reason or another, Dr. Garry would fail to establish an identity. As a scientist he was not comfortable with speculation, and so, when he encountered a problem, I would receive no entomology. Still, I needed a text. So, when a specimen evaded identification, I urged him to write notes explaining why. Reluctantly, he obliged. At the end of our two-year correspondence there was no more entomology, only notes. The last thing Dr Garry wrote me was: “Taxonomy is an extremely dynamic discipline. I thought you might be interested in knowing that Ephemerella inermis has, as of Jacobus and McCafferty (2003), been revised to Ephemerella excrucians.”  The name of one of the mayflies had been changed during the course of our project.

Science, it occurs to me, is fluid like everything else. Scientists and artists do basically the same thing: they observe the world around them, and record their observations as best they can.
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