I give my deep thanks to the editors of Woodlands nature~magic~mystery~myth for including my poem “Lichen” and my essay “Lyme Ticks and Ladybugs” in this wondrous new anthology. A perfect tonic for the busy holiday season, Woodlands is now available on Amazon. Stoke the fire, curl up your sofa, and enjoy this treasury of nature writing.
My deep thanks to the editors at Shot Glass Journal for publishing my poem Some Days in Issue #38.
“Shot Glass Journal is an on-line poetry journal devoted to short poetry. Where other poetry journals publish poems of various lengths and forms, Shot Glass focuses on both free verse and form poetry of 16 lines or less. Shot Glass Journal believes in fostering emerging talent as well as publishing well established poets. Why only short poetry? It is far more difficult to capture a message in fewer words and still have an effect on a reader. Shot Glass is dedicated to those poets who have much to say in the fewest words possible. As William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘…brevity is the soul of wit…'”
How we view time can be a source of comfort or pain. Many people, particularly eastern cultures, adhere to the belief that we live any number of lives: time is seen as cyclical and forgiving. Westerners tend to see time as linear, something we use up, something we never have enough of.
Whatever our beliefs, we all know that the lives we are living now will one day end. This knowledge is the ultimate spoiler, the price we pay for having a neocortex. Other animals are not saddled with this awareness—at least I assume, I hope, they are not.
In 1777 the British explorer Captain Cook gave a newly hatched tortoise to a royal family in Polynesia, who kept the creature as a pet until it died of natural causes 188 years later. That turtle pulled its heavy self across the ground, presumably the same well-worn ground, for 68,620 days. Was it weary by then? Bored? Might it have opted for a life half as long?
On the other end of the spectrum is the mayfly, a creature whose adult life amounts to less than a day; in some species, just a few minutes. The larval versions, naiads, can live up to a year, during which they hide in aquatic debris and progress through several stages—instars—before growing a pair of wings and becoming immature adults. The winged juveniles last no longer than the final version and are not sexually viable until a few hours later, when they emerge from their last molt with features unique in the insect world, paired genitals: two penises for the males and two gonopores for the females. They do not feed: their mouths are useless and their digestive tracks are filled with air. This day, their first and last on earth, all they do is mate—little wonder our creator doubled up on their genitalia.
Like locusts, mayflies “hatch” in stupendous numbers, trillions at a time. The males begin swarming over a river and the females fly into this mass. With specialized legs, the male grab a female and copulation takes place in mid-air, after which the female falls to the water’s surface and lays her eggs before dying. The spent females cover the water, providing a feast for the fish below. The males fly off to die on land, a boon to local birds.
Even the waiting wildlife cannot keep pace with these mayfly windfalls, and in some municipalities snow plows are deployed to clear away the mountains of corpses. While Americans consider mayflies a nuisance, tribes in Africa make nutritious patties out of them.
It would seem that a mayfly’s fleeting life amounts to nothing more than sustenance for larger creatures. Mayflies, all 2500 species of them, are designed as sacrifices, put here for the greater good. Twenty-four hours is all the time they are given and all the time they need.
The ancient Greeks had a saying:
“There is not a short life or a long life.
There is only the life that you have,
and the life you have is the life you are given,
the life you work with.
It has its own shape, describes its own arc, and is perfect.”
A whole life in one day. It must be glorious.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.