Yes, of course it is. It’s weird. And it’s weird because we associate the gloom and claustrophobia of a catacomb with unknowable mysteries. The subterranean illustrates the subconscious, a manifestation of all those urges we can’t control.
And Harrison Dyar had urges. For years he carried on a love affair with unwed kindergarten teacher Wellesca Pollock. He fathered children out of wedlock and went so far as to concoct a fictitious husband for Wellesca. The tunnels may have been the least odd thing about him.
Some believe Dyar dug the passages so he could sneak between his families. Not true. His two houses were miles apart. While it’s conceivable Dyar had assignations with Wellesca in the tunnels he built under his home on 21st Street NW — there were at least two entrances — I doubt it. His son Otis used to play in them. Dyar couldn’t have risked discovery.
But the main argument against the tunnels being used to reach Wellesca is this: Dyar dug another set under the B Street home he shared with her.
This isn’t to suggest that the tunnels were just tunnels, the way a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. I see the tunnels as the physical manifestation of Dyar’s duality: analytical on the surface, passionate underneath. What interests me as much as his nocturnal excavations is this: Did Dyar ever feel guilty about the lies and the subterfuge?
I think the answer can be found in the Latin carved on an arch in the B Street catacomb: Facilis descensus Averno. From “The Aeneid,” it means, “The way down to Hell is easy.” But Virgil’s passage continues: “The path out of Hell is hard.” Maybe Dyar chose that line because he knew he was a sinner, unable to resist his urges.
Odd as Dyar might have been, he was a master entomologist, describing about 3,000 new species of butterflies and moths and 600 of mosquitoes, either by himself or with collaborators. His colleagues named nearly 70 insect species after him, from the mosquito Dixa dyari to the moth Euleucophaeus dyari.
Marc Epstein probably knows Dyar better than anyone. He is himself an entomologist who worked at the Smithsonian, an expert on limacodid moths, one of the moth families Dyar was most passionate about. Today, Marc is an entomologist for the state of California, and over the past 20 years he has been working in his spare time on a detailed biography of Dyar.
“His story is pretty widely circulated in entomology,” Marc said. “He really laid down some amazing big-picture stuff on what we call phylogeny.” That’s the study of how organisms are related, much like a genealogy, but based on evolutionary theory.