Published: June 15, 2021

In these times of division and polarization, if we are going to get anywhere in remembering what it is that we still have in common, we are going to have to get back to basics.

I mean, really basic.

On the evening of June 10, 2021, in a program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, dung beetles were the center of attention, interest, enlightenment, and maybe even of enchantment. The improbable, the inspirational, and the icky came together in a unity that I believe is without parallel or precedent.

A sizable group of us had gathered for a book launching. Hilary Whiton (whose name I fear I might be mispronouncing), is a wondrously energetic teacher with perfect aim when it comes to engaging and holding the attention of the under-12 set. 

It was Hilary’s ambition to create a children’s book that would spotlight the charisma and charm that characterize some (though not all) bugs. Her vision was to write a story that would teach children about the complexity of ecosystems, where cycles of eating and excreting keep nutrition in constant motion.

Last Thursday evening, with twenty or thirty children gathered before her, Hilary Whiton led a peppy discussion of the Great Plains ecosystem, back in the era when very visible bison found abundant grass, and less visible dung beetles found proportionately abundant droppings.

(And yes, I did flinch a time or two when the author referred to this food source as “poop patties.” But then I made a sensible choice to refuse to take this personally.)

The lively exchange between the teacher and the children was wondrous to watch. When Hilary asked a question, a sea of hands went up in response. When she read the book aloud, the romance of Cozmo and Rose held everyone’s attention; the pair were, after all, rainbow scarab beetles, and thereby certifiably colorful characters. (The book’s illustrator Stephen Stone made their color very vibrant indeed.) And, at the end, a young bison and her mother conveyed their appreciation for the nutrient recycling (and also the reduction in the annoying fly population) that the lead couple and their relatives willingly performed.  

And just how will the discussion of dung beetles knit our fractured society together?

Transforming her vision into a reality, Hilary recruited Dr. Frank Krell, Senior Curator of Entomology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as her comrade, ally, and collaborator. As the second speaker in the Thursday night program, Dr. Krell—whose area of study includes dung beetles—quickly built a sturdy bridge over the oft-lamented canyon separating scientific experts from the general public. Perhaps because his area of expertise requires him to speak comfortably in public about the functioning of digestive systems, he is entirely at ease with an audience of people who are not his equals in scientific sophistication.

Having spent plenty of time in conversations with people seeking ways to enhance the effectiveness of science communication, I now have six evidence-based words to add to that discussion: “Watch how Dr. Krell does it.”

The dung beetle discussion also presented a model of intergenerational communication, dealing with a subject matter in which children and their elders could find equal amusement. The children didn’t waste a minute: as soon as Hilary Whiton joined them, they pitched into asking rather graphic and indelicate questions. Dramatically more self-conscious and inhibited, the adults at first attempted to maintain a stance of amused distance. But they were soon transformed into enthusiastic listeners learning about a topic---hmmm, how to put this—familiar to, if not entirely understood by, all organisms fortunate enough to find food to consume.

In the course of last Thursday evening, science and society joined together, and very young people and much older people united.

So why wouldn’t this work with Republicans and Democrats?  

When excrement is the topic, antagonists simply lose their bearings. Revealed to themselves and to each other as creatures whose existence depends on the full functioning of start-to-finish digestive tracts, people on either side of the well-established divisions of our time suddenly have to say to each other, “Well, we do have this in common.”

I conclude with advice from Dr. Krell, responding to a challenge very specific to his profession, but also useful—with only a little stretching—to practitioners in every imaginable profession.

“Always carry handwipes when hunting dung beetles.”

In other words, make every effort not to step in it, but do keep the handwipes nearby just in case you do.

And keep your copy of Hilary Whiton’s The Poopicorn ready to read aloud when discussions get heated.

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