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.

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.

Lichen

Bonded to a boulder,
living on air and random rain,
a forty-year-old lichen
claims a thumbprint of space.
Centuries from now it will be
the size of a dinner plate,
will still be young
when the millennium turns–
not that age applies
to a thing designed to override death.

Maybe this doesn’t sound
like much of a life:
stuck on stone, nothing to do
but make more crust.
Or maybe it’s a thrill a minute,
living up to all that potential.

I would like to find out,
to lie on a sun-warmed rock
and give myself up,
to become with steady assurance
all I was ever meant to be.


























 

 

 



Four Free Audio Stories!

I wish to thank the wonderful writer and editor Mark McNease for featuring four essays from my collection “Strange Company” on his podcast. Mark has published three of my books and his support and encouragement have been invaluable. Please visit his website to read his blog posts, enjoy his podcasts, and find information on his many mystery novels.

To listen to four selections from my book “Strange Company” please follow this link to Mark’s podcast site. After a brief introduction, you will hear the beautiful voice of Nikiya Palombi as she perfectly captures the mood of the pieces. Enjoy!

Great Deal On Strange Company!

For all you nature lovers, the Kindle version of Strange Company, my collection of nature essays is on sale at Amazon. This is a light-hearted look at some of our most curious beasts, a cozy read for these cold winter months. Here is an excerpt from “Consider the Sloth.”

“The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, in some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have sixty thousand thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These sixty thousand thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day-to-day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and has no company other than the mate it couples with every fourteen months or so. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. One hundred? Twenty? Three? I would trade my sixty thousand for a glimpse of them.”

Greatness

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Greatness

An osprey dives over and over,
as many times as it takes to stay alive
and become incidentally superb.

Driving down the road near my house
I see them flying, a stunned fish in their claws,
as if nothing could be more ordinary
than a bird bringing home dinner.

Wings or brains,
we work with what we have.
I can’t snatch a meal from the ocean
at 50 miles an hour,
but I can plant a garden,
make stories out of thin air,
learn the difference
between an aspen and an alder.
Minute by minute,
even I can be splendid.

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

Three Lessons I Learned From The South Napa Earthquake

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While the South Napa Earthquake was a meh compared to grand scale disasters, Hurricane Harvey has reminded me of the lessons I learned that day, which I am re-posting now. My deep sympathy to the victims and survivors of this catastrophic storm. In its wake, may love and good will continue to bloom.

1) You will never look at your home the same way again.

Homes are wounded, some more deeply than others; in fifteen seconds they have aged two decades. Most will need long-term care, the sort of attention that involves forgiveness. With enough money and patience, you can battle the mounting flaws. Alternatively, you can turn tender and live in peace with the wear and tear. You can accept your aging home the same way you accept your imperfect body.

2) Nature will win.

You know this now. Nature’s blows are indiscriminate and nonnegotiable. You have seen photos of the Mount St. Helens eruption, footage from Hurricane Katrina, but until you have been caught inside the roar yourself, flung like a rag doll inside your splintering house, you are not intimate with Mother Nature. Having survived one of her surges, you will love her no less and trust her no more.

3) You are not safe.

Security is an impossible ideal. This does not mean that you should go running full-speed down the knife edge of your life. Neglecting your belongings; falling into drink, debt or despair—these are not answers to your vulnerable condition. Instead, you must shore up what you can and live with what you love: people, plants, animals, objects. However fragile or fleeting, whatever you hold dear graces your days and justifies its place in your life.