Teachings of the Dung Beetle

2 min
at 10:43 PM

Ellen Greenblatt watched transfixed as a humble dung beetle did his thing, and in the process gave her a lot to think about.

The dung beetle, which, you will not be surprised to learn, lives in manure, is not high on anyone’s list of must-see critters on a trip to Africa—or a trip anywhere.

But I recently learned a lesson from a dung beetle clearly focused on what a dung beetle often does; rolling a ball of dung along the dusty ground at a good clip. Neither pebbles nor bumps nor even a freeloading dung beetle, dancing around on top like a circus trickster, seemed to interfere with transporting the eggs at the center of the ball of dung to the dung beetle nest, wherever that might be. The sense of purpose was indisputable even if indecipherable to any non-dung beetle.

But then the dung ball rolled into a hole. It wasn’t a big hole, but it was substantial enough to end the forward progress. As I watched, the dung beetle tried several angles to push the ball out of the mini-crater. The freeloading dung beetle rider on top hopped off, maybe to lighten the weight or because the fun was over. To no avail.

What might have turned into an existential crisis turned into an exercise in pragmatism. Instead of simply giving up and abandoning the dung ball, the dung beetle decided that where he was was where he wanted to be after all. He embraced being both in the crater and in the moment, maneuvering and spiraling the dungball into the dusty hole as deeply as he could. Or maybe it wasn’t as deeply as he could. Maybe it was just enough to allow him the liberty to abandon the ball and its eggs and move on.

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I was riveted. How was he so certain of his goal and also so certain of when it was time to give up and move on?

Walt Whitman wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.” I would say the same of my dung beetle.

With a Perspective, this is Ellen Greenblatt.

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Ellen Greenblatt is a Bay Area educator.

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