Lyme Ticks and Ladybugs

For nine to ten months each year the male bowerbirds of New Guinea work on their bowers. The style of the bower depends on the species. “Maypole” builders place hundreds of sticks around a sapling, winding up with a great mushroom-shaped structure. Other birds create “avenue” bowers, vertical rows of twigs imbedded in the earth between a narrow passageway. After construction, some of the more fastidious males will use their sharp beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. Finally, the birds begin to decorate, using whatever strikes their fancy: hunks of moss, red berries, silver snail shells, golden leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Their whimsy extends even to manmade items: discarded batteries, toothbrushes, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their treasures and adding to the plunder―stealing from one another is a common practice.

And the purpose of these sylvan palaces? It’s the same old story: seduction. Year after year these indefatigable birds give everything they’ve got for the chance to spend a few glorious seconds on the back of a female. Rich in suitors, the female bowerbird flies from one endeavor to another, assessing and rejecting, till she finally lands on the threshold of the bower she likes best. Sometimes she obliges the waiting male right away; other times she requires coaxing and the frenzied male will offer her gifts, a blue paperclip, an orange leaf. If these fail him, he will strut back and forth, extending his wings and chattering loudly so that she can see what a superb specimen he is. Many females end up selecting the same male and returning to him the next year, paring the chances for the other males whose efforts are nonetheless worthy.

So what becomes of all the bowers that don’t make the cut? Do they fall into disrepair, victims of time and weather? Or do the builders themselves do the dismantling, starting from scratch each fall, their bird brains brimming with fresh ideas?

I have no trouble believing that the initial impulse to build a bower is a reproductive imperative. At some point, though―perhaps after the forty-eighth golden leaf, the first dozen blue parrot feathers—I think this primal urge is forgotten and what drives the male after that is his own enthusiasm, craft turned to ecstasy. For what difference would it make to the no-nonsense, time-constrained female that there are thirteen parrot feathers instead of twelve, or that the interior, which she may not even bother to inspect, is freshly painted?

Only to the builder does every leaf and feather matter; each year, from fall through spring, nothing matters more. That his work may be in vain is something he is not prepared to ponder.

People, on the other hand, expect reward. The formulas we are taught—hard work equals success, healthy living ensures longevity, good deeds bring good luck―these ideas die hard and not without bitterness. Our house is blown away; the tumor is malignant; the dog we adopted gets hit by a car. “It’s not fair,” we cry; moreover it doesn’t make sense. Why would God allow such things? Why are we sharing our home with polio and salmonella and brown recluse spiders? Where is the virtue in poisonous toadstools and powdery mildew? Indeed, our madcap inventor seems to have as much interest in the growth of a fungus as he does a fetus.

Whatever your religious views, one thing is certain: a long time ago this ball got rolling and a force we can’t fathom gave it the nudge. From that point on, life never looked back.

Consider the extravagance of species on this planet: 140 kinds of sparrows, and every one of them changing, each generation bringing better beaks, designer tails, new come-hither stripes. So many versions of a small brown bird, all of them vying for a little more time. Why not, say, a dozen species? Wouldn’t that be a sufficient sparrow allotment? Why is the earth burdening itself with this colossal balancing act?

Watching children play or dolphins leap or eagles soar, it’s easy to conclude that life is fun, that we are put here to enjoy ourselves. Take male lions, which spend their days on grassy plains, dozing in the sun, dining on warm fresh prey, thanks to the prowess of their harems. Then take a look at male emperor penguins, which spend long winters on open ice, huddled together for warmth, risking starvation, a single precious egg balanced on their frigid feet. A tortoise trudges along for well over a century; a mayfly gets less than a day. One bird scores a mate with just a couple songs, while another must build a palace. Not one of these creatures knows the difference. “Why” is a question we might all do without.

To be born is to have worth. Lucky or not, lovely or not, everything on this busy blue orb gets a fighting chance to do its best. Rust and roses. Slugs and swans. Lyme ticks and ladybugs.

Does it feel good to be a ladybug? We can’t say. All we can witness is the effort: one tiny being earning its life.

It hurts to be alive, too much and too often for pleasure to be the point; much of the time we manage without it. Now and again we are taken by surprise. In the oddest moments—spreading mulch, washing a plate, buttoning a child’s coat—we are suddenly, inexplicably, happy. For the bowerbird, whose life amounts to little more than labor, the joy is built right in.

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 Common Lacewing

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A green lacewing. Isn’t it stunning? The looping cellophane wings, the extravagant antennae, the eyes a pair of shining beads. And that streamlined body–in all the world, could there be a truer green? Imagine taking flight with those diaphanous wings, sailing into darkness with see-through tackle. Maybe, with lives this brief, beauty pre-empts sturdiness.

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Adult lacewings are nocturnal and fairly passive; most feed on nectar, pollen and honeydew. At some point during their four-to six-week lives, they find a mate, touch antennae, mingle mouthparts, and finally join abdomens, jerking and vibrating in a vertical position. The female soon lays 100 to 200 eggs on foliage, ideally with plenty of aphids nearby. Each dainty white egg is secured at the end of a filament about a half inch in length. After a few days the eggs hatch, molt, and the emerging larvae climb up the stalks and into the sunshine. Immediately they start feasting on whatever they can find: aphids, mites, caterpillars, other small bugs and eggs. These creatures are so proficient at dispatching aphids that lacewing eggs are shipped to gardeners and farmers for use as biological pest control.

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Unlike humans, who are most comely in their youth, lacewing larvae are not what we’d call attractive. Their humpback bodies are swollen in the middle, and tufts of bristles protrude from their sides. These bristles are neither armor nor adornment. They are there to help secure dead victims and other debris to the backs of the larvae. As the gruesome collection grows, it serves as camouflage from birds and other predators, while offering the host cover for hunting.

Green Lacewing Nymph (Chrysopidae)

Lacewing larvae tend to swing their heads from side to side as they search for food, seizing what they find with their strong mandibles and injecting it with paralyzing venom. The hollow jaws then draw out the body’s fluid, after which the corpse is tossed onto the heap of other luckless prey. Occasionally these rapacious predators, also called aphid lions and aphid wolves, will even bite humans. In two or three weeks nature cues them to stop eating and start spinning cocoons, from which adult lacewings appear five days later to repeat the cycle.

Fearsome youth or fragile beauty–makes no difference to the common lacewing, who is always both, forever coming, forever going, a crawler with notions of flight, a flyer with flashbacks of sunshine.

Photo by mbrochh on Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo by dreed41 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA 
Photo by Pasha Kirillov on Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo by Marcello Consolo on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Stranger Upstairs

Spooky, isn’t it,
when you pull into your driveway
and realize you don’t remember the trip,
not one light or turn or stop sign.
While you argued with yourself, heedless to hazards,
your mind, loyal as a dog, brought you home.

For something we carry around every day,
we don’t know much about the brain.
How can a wad of lumpy grey tissue
run the show?
Do our fears and memories live in its folds?
When we sleep,
how can that cold blackness inside our skulls
create the smell of bacon,
a sun-spangled lake,
an orgasm?
How are we fooled night after night,
dropped inside a carnival world,
made to do unspeakable things?
For whose amusement do we perform?

“Where are my glasses?” we say to ourselves,
as if we are speaking to someone else,
a steadfast companion forged at birth.

Just a little bigger
than two clenched fists,
the brain is a riot of neurons:
100 billion twitchy cells,
each one connected
to thousands of others
in a tireless bombardment
of electricity and chemicals.

I picture it as a city.
A crisscross of streets
with lights and signs
controlling the traffic,
some roads well worn,
others unknown;
one ways that limit us,
dead ends that stop us.
There are places we frequent,
shadowy neighborhoods we avoid,
here and there
a rousing new enterprise.

Aim for the horizon
or stay on the tracks—
it’s your life,
at least for a while,
until all the streets
begin to look strange,
one after another
going dark and quiet,
leaving you stranded
in perfect stillness.
Home at last.