The mayfly: patron bug of Carpe Diem


Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow— even today I am still arriving.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh


Lila has a high-school teacher I’ve been a bit conflicted about. He teaches environmental science. There’s rarely any homework and the curriculum, a lot of times, seems to consist of going for walks in the woods. I flip-flop between thinking this guy might be the worst teacher at the school – how lazy can you get? – to thinking (increasingly) that he is the best teacher at the school. That he is a kind of Zen master who has cut to the heart of what learning is all about.

The other day, on one of these walks, he broke the silence by huddling up his students and drawing their attention to a bug on a branch. It was a mayfly.

The mayfly! Beloved of biologists and fly fishers and poets. How you think about mayflies is probably a good litmus test for how you see the world. They are swarming pests, or they are cascading miracles.

By many measures the mayfly is one of the most important animals on earth – an ancient, vital part of the food chain. For humans, bugs like mayflies may be an important protein source if we phase out of eating meat. (It happens already in more than a handful of countries: in East Africa, mayflies are harvested from Lake Victoria, dried in the sun and ground into flour.)

This the time of year the mayflies emerge, hatching out of their water-larval stage to reproduce. It became clear that spotting a mayfly today wasn’t a happy accident, the fruits of paying close attention to small things: it was the whole point of the outing. The lesson wasn’t just in all the ways mayflies matter to us, materially, the ways they might well figure into our future existence. Mayflies teach us how to live.

If you’re seeing a mayfly, you can be pretty sure this little guy is enjoying the last day of his life. (And it is probably a “guy”; the females live for only five minutes or so – just long enough to lay eggs.) For him it is Spring Break – one day and done. He is highly focussed on partying. His only goal is to mate before sundown.

The mayfly is the patron insect of Carpe Diem.


In his new book The Work of Art, Adam Moss engages in deep conversations with artists about their process. One of his subjects is Ian Adelman, who makes sandcastles. Recently, on Ezra Klein’s podcast, Moss explained why he sought this gentleman out. Adelman’s sandcastles are cool, to be sure; but the finished product wasn’t the draw here. Moss was interested in the ephemeral urgency of the project itself, the doomed beauty of it. “I wanted to talk to him about making this thing that he has one day to do, and then perishes at the end of it,” Moss said.

Sandcastle-making requires an almost supernatural focus to get it done in the allotted time. (It helps that Adelman has Attention Deficit Disorder, which actually produces the opposite of distraction – a kind of “hyperfocus”— in things you’re really interested in.) Castle-makers spend the whole day basically in a flow state of controlled physical sensation. Adelman compared it to the feeling he has on a bicycle riding in traffic in New York City, dodging cars. It is the very definition of living.

Sand sculptors are partial to making animals, from octopuses to dragons to lions. But a truly meta thing to sculpt out of sand would be a mayfly. Not sure how you’d do the wings.

“Aspire to live today as if it is your last day on Earth,” the dictum goes. Be the Mayfly. But should we, actually? I kind of like where the podcaster James Altucher takes this. He prefers to give the cliche a quarter turn: “Treat everyone you meet today like it’s their last day on Earth.” Confer upon them almighty respect. Ease their passage.

James has said many times that he expects to live forever. So far, so good.

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