(When asked by a distinguished theologian what he could discern of the Creator by the study of creation -- .)
"That he has an inordinate fondness for beetles."
-- J. B. S. Haldane
I. Tent Caterpillars
The tent caterpillars infested trees that summer, wrapping twigs and foliage in a repulsive gauze, shrouding leaves from light. No tree was spared. The decorative birch in the backyard, its canoe-building bark in silver scrolls; the tall columns of poplars with silvery leaves; the decorative plums with purple fruit; each and every were ravaged. All the fathers went outside with improvised swabs, gasoline-soaked rags wrapped around the end of a broken branch (the corkscrew willows had wetter wood) or length of scrap of lumber. The vapor twinged up in my sinuses. The bugs themselves were soft and putrid, without the bristling strength of a woolly bear. Woolly bears are stout as pencils and striped black-orange-black. The caterpillars are longer thinner softer, sprinkled with mangy short hairs and orange flecks. They creep and seethe. Their guts are gold and green: this has been tested repeatedly on the pavement. The trees' branches are bare. That such small softness could consume so much, that something so minor gathers to bring annihilation.
The bees swarmed over the blossoms of the decorative plums in the parking strip of 180th place. The flowers were popped-popcorn kernel-sized, multi-petalled pink, matching subdued stamen. I collected the bees in a Miracle-Whip jar, holes punched in the lid. Create ventilation by turning the lid onto a scrap of wood and puncturing it with a nail driven my a red-handled hammer. Up close, bees are fantastic monsters: huge black Buckminster Fuller-dome eyes, flat orange red-gold split tongues gathering pollen. I collect them in the jar, tearing off a dozen blossoms out of fear. If you shake the jar, the bees get angry. I place the glass next to my ear to hear the tiny tinny storm of their buzzing. Over several years of doing this I was never stung.
The ichneumon wasp fascinates me. It is a metaphor for pregnancy as parasitism and it challenged the Victorian theologians who would posit a loving and careful creator in refutation of Darwin. To them, it became an example of doting maternity, and the husbandry of the larvae itself was applauded. Here is what the wasp does: the spidery-legged flying thing (hymenoptera) injects its infant into a victim, or 'host.' As it grows, the baby eats its host from the inside-out, saving the circulatory and nervous systems for last, to keep the meat fresh. Divine natural scientists had difficulty explaining such a creature as a manifestation of the will of a benevolent intelligence in the universe. These innocuous spindly-legged things, I do not know where they are native. I do not know if they have a particularly favored species of prey, like ants herding aphids, and go after exceptionally chubby caterpillars, whether specific types have gestations of varying durations. There is just the sated baby patiently gnawing away at the interior of a corpse's husk, drying its wings as delicately as a butterfly, glamorous distant cousin, then flying off to start the cycle, new.