The Beautiful Insects of Summer

UPDATE: You can listen to Fred’s radio essay audio of this piece by clicking here.

I have an odd confession to make to you: I actually look forward to the insects of summer.

If this seems hard to imagine, do this: well after dusk on a warm and moonless June or July evening, take a lawn chair to the darkest part of your yard anywhere in Southwest Virginia and witness what few adults-or children-take the time to see: the bioluminescent dance of the fireflies. If there is magic in the insect world, it is here.

Pulsing, calling in a code of cold light, legions of lightning bugs lift from the bracken fern in our meadow, fall strobing from the crowns of the maples that shelter the yard. Close to leaf or trunk or ground, their lightning-fast flash casts a quick brightening over that surface, a miniature of their meteorological namesake. Each summer I watch their Morse code loves song reverberate between indigo hillsides at midnight, and the hair on my arms stands up: far more is spoken in the soundless words of this ancient ritual than we can ever comprehend.

Now I would be willing to bet that even those people who consider themselves squeamish when it comes to “bugs” would put butterflies on their very short list of “beautiful insects”. These wispy six-leggers don’t sting, stink or eat our garden vegetables. Their silent flight flaunts an abundance of form, color and pattern in garden and meadow.

But if I want to see butterflies up close and in large numbers, I find them gathered in an activity that’s called “puddling” along the road or in the yard. Different kinds of butterfly prefer different places for where they aggregate, and it is not each other’s company they seek but the common quest for salt that brings them wing to wing at the watering hole.

There is nothing more cheerful and welcoming than to round a curve on our Floyd County gravel road home and flush from a shaded seep two dozen tiger and spicebush swallowtails. They swirl and rise in a shaft of sunlight. But be warned: this time of year, my Subaru should have a bumper sticker that reads “This car brakes for butterflies.”

And finally, the group called the Odonata belongs in my top three favorites of summer’s flying arthropods. This insect order contains both the dainty Damselflies and the more robust and familiar Dragonflies. Because we have plenty of water for their young, a battalion of these insectivorous insects works for us, patrolling the airspace over the valley where they were born.

Of all the insects, these seem to me the most agile and the most intelligent. Their huge compound eyes give them a 360-degree view on the world that is exceptionally effective at detecting the motion of tiny insects on the wing.

I often watch them lying on my back on the walkway outside the back door late in the afternoon. A half dozen X-winged cruisers zip back and forth along their personal territories just above the roof of the house, thankfully, feeding on those insects that don’t seem so beautiful or desirable: the midges, gnats and mosquitoes that also need water for birthing their young.

They all play their roles in our living economy-the voracious insect-feeding dragonflies-AND the bats that take their insect meals a little higher above the house, and the swifts and nighthawks far higher still that patrol the outer sphere of this summer globe of life on Goose Creek.

NEWS FLASH: See Marie Freeman’s incredible dragonfly on-the-wing photos!

This essay appeared in the Floyd Press, July 5, 2007, in my column, The Road Less Traveled. — Fred


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I have never been able to figure out this chicken-and-egg relationship between an insect with mouthparts, behaviors and life cycles that are exquisitely adapted to a specific plant species and the plant’s perfect accommodation to and absolute dependence on those same insect adaptations for its survival. This relationship is often given as the textbook example of co-evolution.

The insect: the Yucca Moth. The plant, what we call Spanish Bayonet, Yucca filamentosa. You can read more about the biology of this relationship here (note the my Natural History page!). The plant from which this photo was taken is just beyond our front porch. We think the species name is based on the word YUK because they are taking over a half acre of pasture down where Goose and Nameless Creeks meet.

And more evolution: I think I have come upon the narrative thread, purpose and theme of a future book that will be a full color nature-related work. I can’t tell you too much about it just yet (for both reasons of it’s present state of immaturity and because I need a certain degree of nondisclosure to protect the concept). But it seems like one of those AHA! coming-together moments. It will likely take two years to carry to print. But at least I have the sense just now that even though there is not much forward motion in this long journey, the destination is known.

And if this project reaches the conclusion I hope, it will represent the co-evolutionary end point that brings together my long-standing love of light seen through the lens of a camera, my equally enduring compulsion to connect the sense and senses of field-trippers in nature, and my relatively new passion for writing about the images from such personal field trips just out our door.

Plastics Are Forever

One word: plastic.

Benjamin Braddock as The Graduate in the 1967 film may not have been at all interested in it.

Meanwhile, America has swooned to the seduction of plastic after finding a generation ago that “cheap oil” could be made into so many versatile, colorful and inexpensive tools, toys and trinkets.

Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic are produced around the world. And the best thing about plastic we discovered since the sixties is that it is practically indestructible.

And maybe the worst thing about plastic, Benjamin: it is practically indestructible.

Take plastic shopping bags, for instance. They are so prevalent across the landscape that I propose that they be named the new national flower. Lifted to bloom on tree limbs by the prevailing traffic-winds of speeding eighteen-wheelers, they are the most lofty blossom of humanity’s love affair with plastic.

It’s hard to believe it has only been some 25 years since we were first faced with that awful but lightly dismissed environmental conundrum: paper or plastic? And overwhelmingly in recent years, the answer has been-you guessed it-plastic. Fully 80 percent of shoppers choose it. I read recently that “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year”.

But wait. Let me set the record straight: that many bags are made and are utilized. But dear hearts, they are NOT consumed. They are NEVER really consumed. They are however, unfortunately, sometimes eaten-but more about that distinction in a minute.

So. Where do all those trillion plastic bags go when they disappear from our lives-the ones that don’t end up in the high branches of roadside trees? First, we’ll watch a bag settle into Goose Creek right out my window here, blown from the back of someone’s passing truck.

From there, it will wash into the South Fork and on downstream, into the main flow of the Roanoke River. It may perhaps in high water become temporarily hung up in the branches of a piedmont streamside alder. But eventually, it will find its way to the ocean. And there it will not be alone.

Let’s follow our wayward bag to its not-quite-final end (a Styrofoam coffee cup would follow the same route) all the way into one of six ocean “gyres”-great swirls of listless ocean sometimes called the “horse latitudes” where much of the world’s floatable trash ends up in unimaginable abundance. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between Hawaii and California can swell at times to twice the size of Texas and has come, just within our lifetimes, to contain many times more plastic than that area of ocean contains in living matter (biomass.)

Bad enough that our trash plastic unaltered and whole can strangle an albatross or seal (six-pack holders are notorious for this kind of death) or choke a green sea turtle that fatally mistakes our ocean-drifting plastic bag for a tasty jelly fish.

But perhaps the most ominous thing about the durability of plastic is that it can, over long stretches of time, wear down by sheer mechanical action into smaller and smaller particles without reverting back to its constituent carbons and hydrogens.

Many millions of pounds of these tiny non-digestible particles are destined over decades, centuries perhaps, to float in the ocean currents. In time, tiny bite-sized bits of plastic will be munched but not digested by zooplankton, the bottom tier of the marine food chain. These tiny animals by countless metric tons will be eaten by bigger and bigger fish, on up the food chain and into the grocery stores. And the plastic-and its constituents (a rogue’s gallery of dangerous additives) lives on, and on, and on.

Consider this: “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated-and it’s a very small amount-every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year. And you have to wonder: do we need filtered-water bottles that will last for 500 years?

Where does this leave you and me? Perhaps we are on the verge of a slow substitution of non-degradable with break-downable “plastic-like” shopping bags and six-pack holders and drink containers and Barbies and Kens that don’t require fossil fuels. As nearby as Virginia Tech, new, less persistent polymers for this purpose are being created using chicken feathers!

So the next time the nice young man at Slaughters presents me with that impossible paper-or-plastic dilemma and I don’t know how to answer, I’ll be toting a canvas shopping bag (it’s a start, and something we can do in the near term) and I’ll smile as I imagine a green sea turtle off the coast of Myrtle Beach munching contentedly on a real, digestible, peanut-butter-and-jellyfish.

Polymers are Forever
Plastic Ocean
Plastic A’int my Bag

A Poem for Father’s Day

So here we are, the parental empty-nesters, sandwiched once more on the late spring calendar between Special Days for mothers and fathers. Our adult offspring (the term we substitute in recent years for the word “children” when describing our small but matured brood) live far away and it’s easy to misplace even the memory of the satisfaction and anguish of having actively, presently, physically been someone’s parent so long ago and far away.

Now I will readily confess that I have a curmudgeonly and cynical opinion of these parental “holidays” as being manufactured for the bottom line of the likes of Hallmark Cards and Russell Stover Candies.
But I will also admit that at times, to be remembered in the small way of a special phone call, a hand-written letter or a cross-country trip on these designated days of appreciation are, well, genuinely appreciated.

Saved, Remembered, Found: a father’s day poem-a toast (and cleverly veiled roast) for Father’s Day 2004, received from our son, Nathan, then a single scholar just moved to British Columbia, and today married and moving into their first owned home in Columbia, Missouri-still far too far away.

I thought I would share Nate’s poem with you this Father’s Day in the hopes that it might help you to recall: that seeming crisis in your relationship with your dad that looking back was so silly you can laugh about it now; the way you respected him but never got around to telling him because at the time, he rightfully thwarted your idiot dreams; the lessons he taught you by example, good and bad; and the pride you know he has when he hears from you, a grown or growing young man or woman who occasionally takes the time to say “thanks, dad.”

Do consider using the short phrases of this “poem” as a model, and give a single page a single hour of your time, a gift to give your dad this year, while there’s time. Chances are, he’ll never forget it.

A Father’s Day Poem For Dad, 2004

For all the times you made me hold that damned ladder;

For all the times you said, “if you throw that tennis racquet again, we’re going home,” and I threw the tennis racquet again, and we went home;

For that time you wanted to go hiking in the Smokies, and I wanted to go to Amy Harris’s pool party, and I pitched such a fit halfway to the Smokies that you turned the car around and drove us home at breakneck speeds, only to give in half an hour later after I pitched another fit, and we went to the Smokies, and had a nice time;

Father's day way backFor beating me every time at every sport and every game, many years after I was sure I was better than you;

For the thirty-seven times you told me the name of the same green-metallic beetle, while each time I was thinking about some girl or some song I’d like to write, or some song I’d like to write about some girl, only half an hour later to see a green metallic beetle, and wonder what kind it was;

For the times you crushed between your fingers something sweet-smelling, or sharp-smelling, or minty-smelling, or putrid, and shoved it toward my nose, saying, “Nature snort;”

For all the arguments we’ve had about religion, and all the agreements we’ve had about politics;

For all the times we’ve called each other “smart-ass,” audibly or otherwise;

For every time you should’ve made fun of me for the way I split wood, and the vast majority of times that you did;

For all those really stupid ideas I’ve had, which you vehemently opposed, until you knew I’d go through with them anyway, at which point you supported me;

For all those trips I’ve taken, and you’ve secretly worried about, even while you tried to project all your concerns for me onto “my mother;”

For teaching me to light the water heater-and to rake with full, efficient strokes, and curse at the weed-whacker, and spread the peanut-butter clean out to the crust;

For all the creative ways you punished me, with just enough consequence to sting, and just enough humor to tell stories about later;

For finding your craft, your voice, and a fulfilling sense of place–for living my aspiration and giving me a sense of belonging, even as odd as I feel to live vicariously through my father;

For all those times, all those lessons, all your friendship and love, this father’s day I bought you an ice-cold bottle of beer,

Which I’m drinking now as I write you this poem,

All the while thinking, man, he would’ve enjoyed this.

Thanks, Dad. Love you. I’ll spot you that beer sometime. — Nate

Of Remotely Possible Interest

For any of you thinking of getting a book published, or know someone who is, consider this: Success can be failure. Let me explain.

I sat in the audience of a panel discussion in Galax on Saturday. Editors from JF Blair, McFarland, and Norton and one highly-successful NYC agent (a Galax native!) discussed the world of publishing. I took the opportunity to ask a question, whose answer I anticipated would hold interest for other authors in the room.

“Given a self-published book that has met with modest success (1100 sold its first year) what would you recommend to move such a book up into wider distribution? Would it be thinkable that a publisher (like Blair) would accept submission of such a book, the self-published copy being the “manuscript”, and work to distribute it to a wider market?”

The answer: NO

They all said “be happy for your successes to date. If we’d picked it up, that’s about what we would have projected for sales.”

And of course, the publisher would have taken no small percentage of the costs over printing. Keeping full control has allowed me to keep more of the returns. And going with a “real publisher”, for all the angst and delay that would have required, might not have gained me that much after all.

So if you’re thinking of going the way of traditional publishing, shop your manuscript early, before it becomes a trial-balloon short run book. If it succeeds in this latter form, it may fail to get past the front desk with the editor. They want the same low-hanging fruit you want, and if you pick it first, they won’t give you a look. Now I know.