Late Night Musings on Bugs and Art

August 30, 2009

(Note: This is a slightly written version of a column written many years ago.)
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In the King James version of the Bible, the 19th Psalm has it that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shewith His handiwork.”

These deep summer nights, when I watch the spiders harvesting moths snared from their ecstatic loops around the floodlights on the deck, it seems as though He is “shewing” us a dark, fevered Nature unlike the brave, noble version most of us were brought up to believe in.

In an earlier essay I wrote about the praying mantis that lived in a potted plant on the back porch of our apartment in town. I admired her for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her role as a reminder not to become overly sentimental about “nature.”

Most often, when you hear somebody say they love “nature,” what they really mean is they enjoy scenery, the “Nature” that they see in the advertisements for 4X4 vehicles and motor homes.

“Nature,” after all, is the whole package, from the dawn mists around a forest cataract, to the shelled and jointed things humping and dragging their way through the leaf mold. These are what the essayist Loren Eiseley called the “ugly, innocent, necessary” aspects of Nature with a capital “N.”

When I lived in town, I would often say, thoughtlessly, that I missed Nature. It is an absurdity, of course, like standing in a forest and saying I longed to see trees.

French naturalist Henri Fabre (1823-1915) once said his own back yard contained enough nature to keep him busy for a lifetime. I read somewhere else that the typical suburban yard contains some 40,000 spiders of various sizes and species, and a cubic foot of soil from that same yard may contain billions of individual living creatures.

American nature writer Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), described his early interest in nature starting at his grandparents’ farm in Indiana. In his book “Near Horizons,” Teale described tucking himself away into a burrowed-out hollow in a field of rye, to spend hours observing ants, beetles, snakes, and other creatures in their everyday existence. He wrote that returning home that evening was like returning from a “distant voyage of discovery.”

What all this means, if one lives in town, is that one does not need to look far to find a very busy nature; one need only look more closely. Even in my third-floor apartment, surrounded by asphalt and a few houseplants, I still found plenty of things to watch.

The mantis, for example. She is cousin to grasshoppers, cockroaches, crickets and walking sticks. Like other insects, she has just enough brain to operate her angular body and that’s about it. Insects are hard-wired, operating on instinct, each species mass-produced by nature from a single mold.

Once I watched a spider, trying to salvage her web during a powerful storm, mooring one of the stays on a branch of my night-blooming cereus, near the spot where the mantis poised, all patience and severity. In the morning, the abandoned web fluttered in the light breeze.

The next day the mantis, calligraphy against white boards, watched as I walked past, her strange, triangular head pivoting on its ball-and-socket neck.

The next night I sat again, watching as she ate another mantis. The female mantis usually eats its mate. The unfortunate Romeo usually gets his head eaten off during the mating, possibly to prevent him from changing his mind.

This mantis lay horizontally before “my” mantis, clutched in the spiked front legs, being eaten aft to fore. Horribly, the victim continued to gaze about, only mildly interested in the proceedings, its antennae waving a vague semaphore while the clockwork mouth parts of its destroyer munched away.

These are the things that inhabit my summer dreams. The profligacy of insects is necessary but the stuff of pure nightmare. If predation and sheer accident did not kill most of the young, who wriggle and rattle near the bottom of the food chain, we would be wading through seas of the things in a matter of weeks. The clattering females of the thousands of species must each lay eggs by the tens of thousands in order to keep ahead of the mortality curve.

The same day I watched the little act of mantis cannibalism, I watched two dragonflies trying to lay their eggs in the parking lot behind the apartment. Female dragonflies lay their eggs by dipping their tails into the water of ponds and streams.

The dragonfly in flight is a spectacle worth watching; perhaps nothing else in the insect world is so graceful or so swift. Teale, who called them “winged bullets,” said some species can achieve speeds approaching 60 miles per hour. The largest living species reach wingspans of seven inches. Fossilized dragonflies with wingspans of 30 inches have been found.

The dragonflies are almost wholly creatures of the air. They scoop their prey into their clustered legs and eat literally on the wing, letting the drained bodies fall without missing a wing-beat.

For all their grace, they are not bright. The dragonflies in the parking lot tried to lay their eggs on the shiny roofs of automobiles. The hapless bugs flew from car to car, thudding uselessly against the shimmering surfaces.

I can watch this kind of thing for hours, on walks in the woods or along a pond, until I just cannot watch any more, and my uneasy sleep is haunted by hockey-mask faces and Rube Goldberg movements.

After awhile, though, I go back, ever curious. If I have learned anything in my somewhat spotty education, it is that “nature” like “art” is a process, never a finished thing. More importantly, as in art, one cannot begin to learn from it until one casts aside any expectations that it’s all going to be pretty.
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© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

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4 Responses to “Late Night Musings on Bugs and Art”

  1. Evelyn said

    Hey, you might want to check out this recently published children’s book, The Curious Garden:
    http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Garden-Peter-Brown/dp/0316015474/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251680897&sr=1-1

    It’s not a spot-on reprise of what you just said, but it strikes a chord with the “Nature is in the country, and Cities don’t have it” sentiments of your piece. I shared it with the Liam in my life (main character’s name), and we found it to be a compelling book, in its simplicity and in its fantasy.

  2. Nancy said

    Hi Terry,
    A very good blog, good writing, as usual. It is nice to see you are keeping on. Greetings to Sue.
    Nancy and Dave Perlis

  3. judecowell said

    Keep on keepin’ on, Terry!

  4. T.W. Burger said

    Doing my best, Jude!

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