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Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

For an audio version of ‘The Sum of Quiet Abundance’ click the play button.

Insects are contagious, both in their profusion and appeal. In the cool hours of early spring they are few and far between, like solitary wanderers striking out across a desert. A roving ground beetle might rise into view, clambering with slow deliberateness over the dunes of bare earth. A bee occasionally drones across the March garden, its sound a solo when it will soon be orchestral. With the first flowers unfurled by the warming air insects multiply beyond all calculation, waking from a winter torpor or hatching out from safely-stowed eggs and pupas. The world fills with the most fruitful of things.

The lilac in the garden sways with more species of bees than I can count on my hands. The perfumed bundles, purple and drooping with the weight of their splendour, are an irresistible magnet in the brief span of most insect lives, like the bright lights of cities are to youth. They taste urgently, diving into the depths of what must be the insect equivalent of ecstasy: bees weighted with pollen grains, dusted and furred about their legs like they wore anklets of gold; the emerald sheen of chafers glinting in the sun, drunk on nectar and nuzzled into pillows of soft petals or moving woozily about the leaves. Time slows like a ceremony when I see this sweet ardour.

Around the lilac butterflies lose some of their timidity, having weighed up the gains of such riches and shed their natural caution to make the most of it. The delicately furred swallowtails, their cream-white wings ribbed with black veins and flecked with eyes like blue summer seas, almost touch my nose as I edge nearer. The proboscis works like a mechanical drill, plunging into the purple tubes in search of a sweet nectar seam. Carpenter bees swarm around the aquilegia; despite their size and heavy flight, they hover without being awkward, drawing shy and lazy circles about the hanging lamps of rose, mauve and maroon flowers. On a walk a sea of baby grasshoppers part with my steps like waves before a boat, jumping as though one. And amidst this brash and brazen plenty hunting spiders lie in wait, sharing in the prosperity. Still and unseen behind a petal, the spiders await the inevitable moment when an insect strays to the chosen flower in its random and roaming way, poisoning their prey into paralysis.

Each afternoon a hush descends on the village with siesta, when farmers draw curtains against the sharp mountain light and birds relinquish their songs until evening. Even the dogs curl quietly into the shadows cast by trees. But it’s a surface hush that I’m aware of, swimming in the foreground of my consciousness – a silence that is neat and obvious. At the edge of the world is a murmur, the thrumming cadence of untold other lives, small and often inconspicuous affairs. The insect song drones throughout the hours, like the heat haze that wraps itself about the day. I listen in – perhaps tuning in would be more accurate, like it were a radio signal, fainter and more distant than birdsong and machinery, nearly out of range in the ebbing afternoon. But as I still myself it clears, focusing into the notes of a complex, creaturely music, as varied as their kinds.

There are few things as numerous as insects. About a million species have been discovered, named and described, and each year more of them are found throughout the world. Their number is greater than all other known fauna put together, comprising perhaps as much as 80% of the animal species present on the planet, an abundant sum whose total weight would easily dwarf the biomass of man. Whether it’s mosquitoes rising from warming ponds, a trail of ants sending intricate signals with a touch of their antennae or the entrancing work of butterflies opening for the first time to fill their fragile wings with blood, building them up into weightless scaffolds of flight, insects are about us at any moment in numbers beyond our knowing, in water, in earth, in air. But despite their achievement, their pervasive presence across the planet, insects are as vulnerable to threats as the less numerous mammals and birds. In recent years the mass die-off of bees has shown us how fragile abundance and diversity can be. Colony collapse disorder has decimated bees throughout Europe and North America, putting at risk an insect crucial to crop pollination and the health of plant communities. Amongst a litany of probable causes, the intensive use of pesticides and diminishing numbers of wildflowers due to habitat loss are high on the list. There is no safety, necessarily, to be found in numbers.

When everything seems still I listen for the buzz and the hum, the murmur of a million things. Across the sunlit hills and meadows, the rain-soaked garden and plain, this chorus of trilling and clicking leads to some of the most commonplace and charismatic creatures about us, the countless minor lives burnished with a brief beauty, blazing through the afternoons with no time to live any other way. And while spring pulls us into summer, the quiet is more song than silence, abundant, rich and full.

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To listen to an audio version of ‘The Circumference of a Second’ please press the play button.

for Dimitris Noulis

Sometimes just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a 17th century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. There was something luminous and of great value in the line, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of ‘Eternity’ with the rather commonplace ‘the other night’ – radical in its ordinariness, as if the poet had said, “I saw Edwin the other night,” or “I saw a boat the other day.” Didn’t a vision of such significance, of eternity itself, demand a more grandiose delivery? Clearly Henry Vaughan didn’t think so.

A few days later Julia and I went looking for orchids. The lake basin where we live in Greece is divided geologically in two. On one side, where our village nestles in the crook of an alpine valley, the land is underpinned by dark, brooding granite. The other side, however, is composed of limestone, and fits easily with the country of myth – simmering, dry slopes awash with butterflies; bundles of wild thyme crushed underfoot; junipers twined like coiled lovers, rooted there for centuries. It’s a place of lucid, Mediterranean light.

The parched, stony earth of the gods is home to a wild profusion of flowers. They strike out in spring for the bright, Homeric light; a brief twirl in the splendour of the sun. Bee orchids hovered beneath trees while electric blue anchusa lit up the glades. We steered through a dream of coloured blooms: love-in-a-mist, wild geranium, forget-me-not.

A half-day later and the heat had drained us; we were tired and hungry, slipping on sand and loose stones. We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk and started back, doggedly combing the last slopes for overlooked flowers. When a nightjar rose from the earth we were only a step shy from standing on it. It lifted itself on wings the colour of old leaves, hovered at knee-height for a breathless second, and then arrowed off.

The nightjar spends its camouflaged days on a branch or the ground, waiting patiently for the gathering dark when it begins hawking nocturnal insects. The bird we had startled from sleep settled on a low, leafless branch a few metres from us, blending into the wood until it was nearly invisible. It folded its scythed wings back in, which left only its dark eyes to distinguish it. Then it closed them slowly, as though having seen enough of the day, and sealed them against the light.

We left the nightjar to its dreaming and stumbled down the slope, ecstatic in the moment that had just passed – a rare glimpse, gifted to us in the midst of the everyday. The wide dirt road we came out on was hard-panned by the heat. Moving across its bare, blasted surface was a caterpillar of one of the bagworm moths. What is remarkable about these caterpillars is how they carry their homes along with them. Each tiny creature spins a silken tube around itself which it layers with fragments of debris. This one was a piece of mobile forest floor, built from bits of bark and twigs and leaves that far outsized the insect itself. The caterpillar inched across the grainy surface by extending a small length of its body, and then dragging the woodland sleeve behind it in the heat. Again and again it crept forward, towing its marvelous home on miniscule legs.

I lowered myself to its height, entranced by an inconceivable life. The day suddenly stilled while I watched, held in place by the mesmeric sunlight: orchids in purple splashes across the pale slopes; the insistent insect drone; the scent of ancient junipers unfolding on the air. In that simple moment, Henry Vaughan’s opening line became clear. Eternity can be anytime, any day or night, seen in the closing of a nightjar’s eyes. While something as small as a bagworm’s home can house the infinite.

– first published in Wild Apples: A Journal of Nature, Art and Inquiry Fall/Winter 2011

 

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Despite its colour having faded to a pale relic of its name, the lavender in the garden remains an illuminated host. For much of the summer its spires of scented stems attract the bright and the beautiful: the glazed and glossy greens of chafers drowsily clambering about the flowers; red admiral and swallowtail butterflies clinging with filament limbs to the bursting blooms; the tail of a green lizard swishing beneath a branch; the thrum and dance and swagger of bees.

But autumn brings change and a subsequent shift in the creaturely calendar. Although a few late lavender flowers rise expectantly through the rain they soon slump from the weight of it. The leaves darken with the wet weather and the whole plant carries an aspect of seclusion, a cold-season refuge harbouring the garden solitaries, the reclusive creatures that withdraw into its autumnal wreath of fading shades.

October shimmers with the spinning of silk, brilliant orb-webs slung between stems by the Argiope bruennichi spider. What is unusual about the web of this beautifully banded black-and-yellow arachnid is the ‘stabilimentum,’ a vertical zig-zag of reinforced web used to strengthen the silken snare. They’re spun near the eggcases that suddenly appear in autumn as well, mottled sacs tucked down amongst the lavender stems and suspended within a gossamer cage. They’ll hang there through frost and snow, through the winds and rains of winter until the first warmth of spring brings thousands of spiders the size of sand grains hatching their way through. The baby spiders are so small that the lightest breeze will carry them away with ease, swinging them on strands of silk through the vast and uncharted garden world to renew their kind again.

A praying mantis haunts this lavender world. Perhaps even two or three. Despite scouring the plants I easily lose track of them as they blend into the tangle of bent stems, only to resurface hours or days later. ‘Mantis’ comes from the Greek, meaning prophet, and the common name which has come to be regularly used for many of the world’s 2000 mantis species is derived from the prayer-like stance of the insect’s arms held clasped together before its face.

While watching the mantis, however, it occurs to me that the name might originate from an aspect of the creature’s character rather than its posture: the nature of its stalking. The praying mantis barely moves while it hunts small insects such as grasshoppers, shield bugs and wasps, waiting until they come within reach before unfolding its hands from prayer to snare its slowly closing prey. And when it does move, its appendages shift meticulously and its head swivels with such precision that I’m immediately reminded of the realm of the contemplatives. There is something monkish and devoted about its deliberateness, expending no energy other than necessary. There’s no frivolous fussing about; each turn of its compound eyes is graceful and without waste, as though its true purpose were of another, higher and invisible, order.

Standing beside the lavender I hear a deep hum circling what’s left of the blooms. It’s a hummingbird hawkmoth traplining the flowers, returning at the same time each day to a particularly rich store of nectar. There’s no certainty on how this memory-route is encoded, or even achieved, which seems apt for a moth blessed with such a mysterious form of hummingbird flight.

I try photographing the day-flying moth but eventually put my camera away without success. It seems that some things I’m not meant to slow. The hawkmoth blurs through the images, a ghostly apparition, a streak of flared and fading light that arcs over the wet gardens and pale meadows of the village at the dying of the day. So I crouch beside the lavender plants instead, waiting until the hummingbird hawkmoth eventually nears, as it always does, without any concern for my presence or proximity. It’s balanced on the very air itself, a stillness in unending motion fluttering beside my eyes. I watch its proboscis unroll into a flower like a river finding its way. I think of cupping my hand tenderly around its body to feel the pulse of 80 wingbeats a second vibrating through my veins. When its nectar gathering is finished it arrows off into dusk where it will settle with its wings at rest on a stone for the night. But tomorrow evening, by whatever complex internal map of flowers and scents it stores, it will make its way back to this same nectar patch, this straggle of fading flowers, this undimmed lavender world. 

I’m pleased to have a new piece of writing published this month in The Redwood Coast Review. Set up to support an independent and volunteer-run community library in Gualala, California, it’s a terrific publication whose efforts support a dynamic local initiative. My piece, ‘The Distance Between Us’, can be read in an online version here, beginning on page five.

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