Seasons in the Sun

In the spring of 2013, the seventeen-year cicadas, called Magicicadas, emerged from their burrows along the eastern seaboard. This was Brood II and involved seven states. In 2012 Brood I emerged in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Brood VIII appeared right on schedule in west Pennsylvania in 2019.

I love this chart—it’s like a treasure map. How wonderful to know that if I show up in a woods in southern Wisconsin in the spring of 2024, I will witness the emergence of millions of cicadas. I would like to be there, peering at the ground, when the very first one sticks his head up. “Welcome,” I would say. “Welcome to this world.”

When the nymphs emerge, their bodies are soft and cave-white. I imagine they are blind, too, which might explain why they show up after sunset: sunlight must be shocking after seventeen years underground. The first thing they do is find a bit of vegetation to rest on while they complete a final molt that takes them into adulthood. In a week’s time, their exoskeletons have hardened and darkened, and they have grown transparent wings with orange veins. Their eyes, now quite large, are bright red. Like stubborn ghosts, the skins of their youth remain in the places they were.

The males, seeking mates, begin contracting their abdomens to make a series of loud buzzing and clicking noises. Often they form choruses high in the sunlit branches of trees, and their considerable racket attracts females of the same species. While the females don’t sing, they answer the males with a noise of their own, a movement called a wing flick, which can vary from a rustle to a sharp pop. Eventually they all find each other and a mass mating occurs overhead, after which the females cut slits in twigs and lay their several hundred eggs. Six weeks later the eggs hatch, releasing nymphs the size of ants that fall to the ground and immediately burrow in. For nearly two decades these pale bugs tunnel through a black world, sucking tree root sap as needed and growing ever so slowly. No one knows why they stay hidden for so long, or what finally beckons them skyward all at once.

Cicadas don’t live long as adults, not even long enough to see their progeny. In a month’s time, they sing, mate, lay eggs and die, leaving an immense litter of dry husks. So many of them come into the world that even after the birds and rodents are satiated, the population remains intact.

I suppose those four weeks of glory is the point of a cicada’s life, but I wonder about the young, who live seventeen years in silence, impervious to cold and wind and noise. I see them tunneling away, no clue there’s another world waiting, no need to know anything but the next quarter inch. It seems a kindness, all that time to be young.

The Solace of Atheism

Religions deny the finality of death, promising eternal paradise or a punishing hellscape depending on the lives we led. A supreme deity decides our ultimate fate and often dispenses rewards and penalties during our lifetimes. In moments of worry or fear we can pray for mercy, allowing that our requests may be ignored—who are we to question the will of our maker?

In this respect we are no different from age-old cultures. What the ancients could not comprehend, they assigned to a god. Bounty or calamity, the gods took credit for it and man, awaiting his fate, cowered below.

We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides, but most people still adhere to the notion of an apocryphal godhead to whom they pray, even if these prayers go unanswered. Perhaps this behavior is ancestral: the desire to belong, to be in a club, to sit shoulder to shoulder with like-minded brethren. Maybe this sense of belonging is amplified, validated, in the new mega churches swollen with righteous believers. How could so many be wrong?

If the world’s religions were self-contained, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, religions bleed into one another. Throughout human history, religious differences and dissension have led to untold atrocities, and the hostility is not ebbing. The more adamant the believer, the more intolerance he cultivates. Warring faiths, with their stringent dogma and divisive rhetoric, will not teach us how to be good.

Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not nihilism, nor denial, nor is it contentious. It is simply a way of living without belief in deities. One may wish to have faith in a god and still be an atheist.

As I find atheism such a peaceful ethos, I have a hard time fathoming its relative lack of popularity—the most recent survey reveals that 80% of Americans believe in God. Christianity encompasses the largest demographic, which is another surprising fact given its bewildering foundation: one god split three ways, the immaculate conception, a contradictory and often savage bible.  

Unable to accept the presence of a preeminent deity, I have no trouble seeing the holiness in everything from a tiny pebble to a blue whale. I am free to love whatever my eyes land on. The world is mine to worship.

When disasters occur, I don’t have to struggle with my faith; I don’t need to reconcile a beneficent god with a catastrophic hurricane, the suffering of children, birth defects or the Ebola virus.

And as for the fear of death, so what if there is no heaven or hell, no god pointing a damning finger? When the body fails and the brain goes offline, we lose consciousness. If we slip into nothingness, which seems the most likely scenario, what is there to fear?

Some cite “life after death” experiences as evidence of a divine dimension waiting for us. These accounts are not incompatible with secular views. Given the mind’s love of stories, flashbacks and images of loved ones strike me as perfectly reasonable. As the curtain closes, why wouldn’t the whole cast of characters be summoned? Why wouldn’t we see once more the people we loved the most?

Consciousness is the awareness of our existence. Being both subject and object, we cannot explain consciousness, we can only tune in or out of it. Many people near death have spoken of a mesmerizing white light which they are compelled to follow. Perhaps that tunnel of light is the trail of our consciousness, flaring one last wondrous time before darkness falls, in soft velvet folds, taking us back to the realm of pure possibility, where all that ever was begins and ends.

The Praying Mantis

I’ve seen what the bite of a brown recluse spider can do; a friend of mine lost a chunk of his thigh that way. The bite of a black widow spider can be gruesome too—scroll through a few internet photos. When outhouses were still common, so were black widow bites, and men, with their thin-skinned, unprotected genitalia, were especially vulnerable. I can’t imagine a more abrupt wake-up call than a spider bite to the scrotum.

Scorpions deliver venom through a stinger at the tip of their tails. Unchanged for eons, these arachnids have become a symbol of power and/or evil, their cautionary image appearing on countless artifacts. While bees have garnered a friendlier reputation, their stings are equally painful and in some cases fatal. Thirty times more painful than a bee sting is the pierce of a bullet ant, common in the rain forests of Nicaragua and Paraguay. Closer to home is the kissing bug, a creature that inhabits the American southwest and transmits Chagas, an infection that kills 12,000 people a year. Leading the pack of dangerous insects is the mosquito, whose disease-rich blood kills one child every half minute.

While all these treacherous creatures command respect, the bug that truly unnerves me, for its stealth, its guises, its casual cannibalism, is the praying mantis. Harmless to humans, this lanky assassin dispatches other insects with alarming speed and can even snatch hummingbirds from the air, a feat I hope never to witness.

Praying mantises are usually discovered by chance. Trimming a hedge, admiring a bloom, we become aware of a slim apparition poised on the periphery. Tan, green, brown or black (camouflage is one of their many endowments), mantises appear ominous in any color, and only the most hardened among us doesn’t startle at the sight of them. These creatures are gluttonous, their appetites keeping pace with their prowess, and some will explode their own abdomens in an orgy of greed. A mantis in the garden is a harbinger of doom: something is going to die, horribly and soon.

Mantises have triangular heads, a beaky snout and bulging compound eyes with which they can follow minute movements and zero in on their victims. A flexible neck allows them to turn their heads 180 degrees. Sometimes mantises camouflage themselves and wait for a luckless bug; other times they actively stalk, avid as egrets. A few fearsome ground species race across the dirt in pursuit of their panicked prey. A mantis’s forelegs are oversized and edged with spines, ensuring a solid hold on whatever they seize. Most species have two sets of wings, the tougher, outer set serving as armor for the more delicate hind wings. Though they are chiefly diurnal, they often fly at night, perhaps to avoid being eaten by birds. To elude bats, they employ a specialized auditory organ capable of detecting echolocation calls. 

Mantises are masters of adaptation. Some Australian species will turn black after a molt, their coloration mimicking the landscape of fire season. Those that live on mono-colored surfaces have flattened bodies to eliminate their own shadows. Some resemble flowers, turning unwitting pollinators into easy pickings.

Female mantises are mercurial, one day allowing a mate to do his business and leave, another day chomping off his head, even before copulation has begun. The headless male is not deterred and will perform with more urgency. Occasionally the female will decapitate the male afterward, or eat him whole, bestowing a boost of nutrition on her prodigious progeny—as many as 400 eggs are produced. The frothy egg mass soon hardens into a winter-worthy case from which the nymphs emerge on a warm spring day, consuming each another as they stream into the world. Only about a fifth will survive their own savagery.

Some gardeners, wanting eco-friendly pest control, will purchase these egg cases and place them in the yard. The problem is, praying mantises do not discriminate; they will eat aphids and cutworms, along with lady bugs and butterflies. They just don’t see the difference.

I learned this up close last week when I spotted a praying mantis in my flower bed. Thrilled, I bent down for a closer look and saw with dismay that it was dining on a bee. A bee! Our most vital and endangered bug. I watched in horror as the mantis munched its way through the striped body. I watched until the end, until the last tuft of yellow fuzz was gone, and the last tiny pane of wing. Only then did the mantis turn its alien head and look up at me. For several seconds we peered at one another. It did not flinch, even when I raised my phone and snapped a picture.

At last it lowered its head, perhaps concluding I was too big to eat and thus of no value or interest. Then, cool as a cat, it lifted a foreleg and began grooming, neatly removing the last bits of bee.

Lizards in Love

Many creatures mate for life. People, who often bungle this commitment, are shamed by such devotion in the wild. Watching a pair of swans glide across the surface of a still pond, we are stirred to admiration, even reverence, knowing how far they surpass us in manner and form.

Swans are inarguably beautiful, as are various other animals that lead devoted lives: turtle doves, wolves, French angelfish, golden eagles. For these glorious beasts, the discipline of monogamy seems a fitting attribute, a sort of noblesse oblige.

But what of the shingleback skink?  Tiliqua rugose: a bob-tailed, slow moving, blue-tongued  lizard. Found only in Australia, this lowly beast is one of earth’s most faithful inhabitants. Every autumn, for up to twenty years, it will seek out the same mate, the male inevitably finding the female by her scent trail. During their initial courtship and upon their annual reunion, the male will lick and softly prod the female. For two months they stay together, the male closely following the female as she makes her way across the outback. If one is killed, the other will stay with the body for several days, giving it a gentle nudge now and then as if to encourage animation.

Tiliqua rugose goes by several common names: stump-tailed lizard, shingleback skink, sleepy lizard, pinecone lizard, two-headed lizard (because the fat truncated tail mimics the head, minus the eyes and mouth). The skin of this reptile is dark brown, sometimes with yellow spots, and the protruding scales resemble armor. The eye are small and reddish-brown; the tongue is a brilliant blue. Reaching eighteen inches in length, the shingleback skink weighs in at a whopping two pounds. During the day it travels across open country foraging for flowers, berries and succulent leaves, as well as the occasional snail and beetle, which it handily crushes with its powerful jaws.  At night it sleeps in leaf litter or under logs or rocks.

Six months after the male locates his mate, the female gives birth to two or three young. This process takes much out of her as the progeny can exceed eight inches in length and weigh nearly half a pound—compare a woman giving birth to a three-year-old child. As soon as they emerge, the young skinks dispatch the placenta, then promptly head out, en route to their own chosen life mates.

So how does unstinting loyalty benefit the shingleback skink? Certainly any healthy female could produce viable young; variation might even strengthen the gene pool. But somehow this lowly lizard was bequeathed with devotion, the urge to seek its private treasure again and again, at any cost. Equally impressive are the researchers who brought us these facts, who braved the harsh Australian outback to study this odd creature day and night, year after year.

Love. Who can account for it?

Fearless

Watering the dahlias, I noticed the evidence of snail damage: ragged leaves, silver tracks. It didn’t take long to find the culprit, an impressively large specimen, lodged on the backside of a stem. “Sorry, buddy,” I murmured. “You have to go.”

Ever since reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s wonderful book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I have a sweeping respect for snails and cannot kill them. So instead of ending its life under my shoe, I gently pried the snail off the stem and carried it across the yard and into the woods. This is not the first snail I have relocated, nor will it be the last.

Most snails in transit will suck themselves into their shell and surrender to whatever fate they’re headed for. This snail was different. Instead of hunkering down, he poured himself well out of his spiral house and stretched this way and that, his four tentacles fully extended. I smiled at his bravura. The trip to the woods must have been dizzying, the world zipping by at a speed not designed for snails. Why wasn’t he afraid?

Snails have rudimentary brains called ganglia, groups of neurons situated around the digestive system that coordinate various functions. Aside from the shell, they have three main body parts: the head, the foot and the mantle. The retractable tentacles on the head provide optic and olfactory information, the foot secretes mucus to ease the creature along, and the mantle seals off the body for protection and produces the minerals needed for shell growth. If the shell is injured, even crushed, the snail can readily build a new one.

Hermaphroditic, snails have both male and female sex organs. They can reproduce at one year and live another four to six. Baby snails are born with tiny soft shells that harden with age. Their first meal is the egg case they came from, which gives them a starter dose of calcium.

Even without a prefrontal cortex, snails are capable of associative learning, pursuing what is good for them—food and damp—and avoiding what is (presumably) painful. It’s a life based not on thought but feeling.

What must it be like to navigate the world only through response? To live without the snarls and loops and dead-ends that characterize thought?

Snails have eyes at the ends of their upper tentacles; though these eyes have lenses, there are no muscles to focus the images. They can discern light and dark, that’s about it. The snail I moved could not see his journey, nor could he ponder what was happening to him. All he knew was velocity.

Most creatures hide from danger, in whatever form they perceive it; this behavior is instinctive, no thinking required. Primitive man feared saber tooth tigers, a useful fear designed to save his life. If he hunted anyway, kept the fear in check, he would improve his skills, put meat on the table and enjoy the respect of his clan. If his thoughts got in the way, rendered him tiger phobic, he would find himself in the back of the cave, dejected and scorned, possibly starving. This snail could sense my fingers on his shell, could feel his world careening, but instead of hiding behind his mantle, he leaned into the trip, felt the sun and wind on the length of his soft, gray body. 

I like to think, because I can, that it was fun for him, a thrill ride, that today I found an exceptional snail, one who felt a dangerous change and met it head on.

And I like to imagine that when I placed him on the mound of blue violets, he knew, he just knew, my intentions were good.

The Cost

You came to me in a dream,
as the dead sometimes do,
and my joy rushed out to meet you.
I remember how your brown eyes held me
while, finally have the chance,
I said what I needed to say.

I must have looked away,
given you just enough time
to leave me.
I knew that you had died again
and that the cost was fair.

New Essay in bioStories

Many thanks to editor Mark Leichliter for publishing my personal essay “Letter to a Phantom” in the latest issue of bioStories. Mark has been kind enough to accept several of my essays and he is indispensable in suggesting edits that make them stronger. It is always a privilege to be featured in such a fine journal. If you enjoy this piece, I encourage you to “like” and “share” it on the links provided and follow the magazine.

From the bioStories website: bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.

View the pieces of the lives presented here as portraits, sketches, tributes, memories, remembrances … pieces of lives that enrich our experience for having shared them. We ask writers to, as Toni Morrison has said,”Imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar.” Share a life. Introduce us to someone we don’t yet know.

New Paintings

It’s been awhile since I posted any artwork, so here are a few photos of some recent work, most of it in collaboration with my woodworker/scroll saw maestro wife. I am doing more and more commissioned pet portraits–canines are much in demand.

New Poem in Star 82 Review

Many thanks to editor Alisa Golden for publishing “A Christmas Poem” in the new issue of Star 82 Review. 

“Star 82 Review is an independent art and literature, online and print magazine that highlights words and images in gemlike forms. Each issue features flash fiction, creative nonfiction, erasure texts, narrative art, postcard lit and poetic storytelling featuring subtle humor, humility and humanity, the strange and the familiar, and hope.”

Write A Letter

Write a letter to your younger self,
they urge: It’s cathartic.
Be kind, be supportive,
guide her gently toward better choices.
Fat chance she’d listen.
Pearls of wisdom, cautionary tales–she heard them all.
And what, precisely, to offer?
Don’t settle? Don’t worry? Stay out of the sun?
I wouldn’t listen to me either.
If I took another tack,
told her she was strong
and worthy, capable of anything,
she’d only shrug and look away.
Not for a minute would she have imagined
a soft landing in her sixties,
four-bed/two bath, a steadfast spouse.
In any case, who am I to interfere–
she got me this far, didn’t she?
Better to leave her hurtling
into plight and fervor and folly
so that she can show up here
and astonish me.
“See?” she would have said.