Many thanks to editor Corey Cook for publishing “What Is Wild” in Red Eft Review. Several of my poems have been featured in previous issues of Red Eft Review, and I am grateful and honored to be part of his fine journal once again.
Fall is the kindest season,
the way it drenches the trees with color,
then lets each glorious leaf sail away,
as if beauty is a burden meant for release
and worth is what stays behind,
ready for anything.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My deep thanks to Ti at Book Chatter for this review of Strange Company. Ti usually reviews works of fiction, particularly novels, and I admire her penetrating insights and gentle guidance. I appreciate the kindness she offered me in accepting this essay collection for review.
From a frog’s snug wetsuit to a llama’s wooly shag, animals are bestowed with the wrapping they require. Even when the efforts seem excessive, we must conclude that every species has been thoroughly considered, and who are we, anyway, to question Creation?
The first time I saw a picture of a pangolin, I was reminded of pharaohs, of ancient tombs and golden riches and all we do not, cannot, know. Almost every inch of a pangolin’s body is covered in sharp over-lapping scales; no other mammal sports such armor. What is there about this creature that warrants exceptional protection?
There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa. Ranging in length from a foot to a yard, they are heavily hunted for their meat as well as their scales. All are consequently endangered and may well disappear—one more puzzle piece forever lost.
Nocturnal animals, pangolins spend their days curled up in deep tunnels or hollow trees. They feed on ants and termites, which they dispatch with their long, thin tongues. Like giant anteaters, the tongues of pangolins are rooted in the thorax and can extend nearly a foot and a half. They are short-legged animals and use their formidable claws to dig into ant hills. Because they do not see well, pangolins are gifted with a keen sense of smell for locating their prey. Some types hang by their tails from branches and scratch away tree bark to expose the insects beneath. Discriminating diners, they will ignore all but a few types of bugs, sensing perhaps what is good for them and avoiding junk food.
Pangolins are loners, meeting only once a year for mating purposes. Unlike most animals, males, which are larger than females, do not search for them. The males employ a passive come-hither, leaving their calling card in the form of urine or feces, which the females readily find. If competition is involved, males will bash each other with their tails until a victor emerges. Gestation lengths differ depending on the species—anywhere from 70 to 140 days. Most give birth to one six-inch pangopup at a time. Four weeks later, the pup emerges from the burrow, riding on its mother’s back; mother and offspring stay together for two years.
The keratin scales of a baby pangolin are soft and white at birth, hardening and darkening within just a few days. There is an international ban on their trade, but pangolins are widely poached for their scales, which are ground into powder and illegally purchased. In East Asia many people believe, without evidence, that the scales can cure various human diseases, another example of the way we exploit and imperil whatever strikes us as extraordinary.
When threatened, pangolins curl up in a ball and tuck their faces under their tales. They also emit a foul chemical from glands near the anus, similar to skunk spray. Left with a spiny, smelly ball, would-be predators soon lose interest. Unfortunately, these excellent defenses do not work against humans.
Is humanity a failed experiment? Given our swathe of destruction, it would seem so. We have brains enough to redeem ourselves, but probably not enough time. Everything in any case is destined to expire.
Why are we here? Why is the pangolin the only mammal suited in armor? Nature just bounces these questions right back, as if she’s holding out hope, waiting for us to see the big picture. What if pangolins were put here to amaze us and we were brought in to admire them? What if our mission is that simple? What more than esteem does this old earth need?
Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.
But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.
For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.
For nature lovers who enjoy audiobooks, Strange Company is now available on Audible. Listen to a sample, narrated by Nikiya Palombi. I am delighted to hear my essays rendered so beautifully. And thanks again to Mark McNease of MadeMark Publishing for believing in me and this venture.