When I was living across the river from Kingston, Ontario, I enjoyed taking the ferry over to Canada for a day trip of shopping and good eating. Later, when I moved further east, Ottawa became a destination, and then Montreal. Over the years, Quebec City remained “too far” away. But this week I’ve overcome “too far” and am being rewarded with the beauty of the city and the friendly welcome of its people. We arrived before dark, but just, and had the pleasure of watching the moon rise over the St. Lawrence River.
I love photographing insects and spiders and discovering details I didn’t see until I opened the photographs on my computer – the lovely striped abdomen of the Drone Fly, the butterscotch color of the Deer Fly, the slim white line that etches the outline of Sehirus cinctus, the White-margined Burrower Beetle.
I love the sense of wonder when I realize that what I have seen and photographed is a grasshopper laying eggs, a wasp with her long, slender ovipositor slid into a blossom’s bosom.
I love discovering a crab spider on the yellow petal on which I saw and photographed a Jagged Ambush Bug: in successive frames they edge closer, then edge away.
I love the names of insects – the scientific names I would stumble over if I tried to say them aloud, but which somersault on my mind’s tongue with joy: Agelenopsis, Araneus trifolium, Neoscona Arabesque, Ellychnia corrusca, Reduvius personatus, Lygaeus kalmia, Podisus placidus, Stiretrus anchorago, Herpyllus ecclesiasticus.
And the common names: Grass spider, Shamrock and Arabesque Orbweavers, Winter Firefly, Small Milkweed Bug, Masked Hunter, Predatory Stink Bug, Anchor Stink Bug, Eastern Parson Spider.
I love the practicality of the names that describe their appearance: Three-lined Potato Beetle, Tortoise Beetle, Fourteen-spotted Lady, Thinlegged Wolf Spider, White Admiral, Painted Lady, Pearly-eye, Zebra Caterpillar Moth, Twice-stabbed Stink Bug.
And I love the names that describe their behaviors: Tumbling Flower Beetle, Jumping Spider, Fungus-eating Lady, Cobweb Spider, Rose Chafer, Oil Blister Beetle, Sharpshooter. And the names that do both: Milkweed Longhorns, Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer, Four-spotted Skimmer, Longbodied Cellar Spider.
And I love this world of wonders in which the Lady Bug is not a bug but a beetle; in which the nymph of the Masked Hunter covers itself in dust and lint and patrols our sheets and pillows for bedbugs; in which the hummingbird is, in fact, a moth.
Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):
In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story. She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”
Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives?
The quarry man bought the old house and its acreage, scraped the topsoil off the meadow, and sold off the house with two acres of the meadow and its partial border of trees and shrub. In the house, a bathroom went in, and in a child’s room, a fat rainbow – floor to ceiling to floor – was sketched out and painted.
For thirty years, owners kept the meadow mowed. Between mowings, grasses grew, and golden rod, oyster plants, milkweed, and asters. Each late fall the meadow’s summer growth lay itself down, and in that flattened landscape the old disc harrow, stranded in its long-gone farmer’s field, reappeared.
Twenty years ago the clothes line, built with sturdy wooden posts and cross beams, stood on the far side of the cedar tree. Now its northern post is engulfed in branches. The outhouse, still visible in its pile of moldered lumber when I arrived, has long since joined the remains of the wildflowers that grew up between the boards, fell over, and decomposed. It is almost twelve years since the meadow was cut, and it is only in the last two that wild cherry bushes have spread from individuals to patches of isolated mini-woodlands that shelter bird and spider nurseries.
Each winter I cover the rain barrels and shovel the long driveway; each spring I listen for the voice of the wood frog and try to avoid the black flies’ bite. Every other summer or so I get to the task of clearing the meadow, cutting all the box elders’ sprouts to the ground. In the fall I greet the disc harrow and Orion on their return to my view, and wonder which Turkey Vulture sighting will be my last of the year.
Eventually, I will leave this place. The meadow will give way to box elder trees, or not. As I sleep beneath the child’s rainbow, my window open to the night, what is sure for me is the Little Dipper, pinned at its tail by the North Star, circling overhead. What is almost as sure is the topsoil, building. Slowly, slowly.
Last night’s light frost held no danger for the gardens; even the dahlias took no notice. By 7:30 in the morning it was only slight water dripping off the roof gutters into the rain barrel, and a puddle of fragile light the shape of the shadow cast by a berm on the far side of the barn. The fall-bearing raspberries, just thinking of coming into ripeness, were untouched, and the grapes offered no signs that they had noticed the chill that in the house had us bringing out blankets and talking about which day we’ll finally turn the heat back on.
In this first week of April, the snow pack that illuminated the fields even on cloudy nights has at last given way to the incessant rain. Last night when I stepped out into the yard with my dog on our last venture of the evening, it was a misty rain that greeted us. I stood a moment to feel the mist, acknowledge the shift in seasons. And was rewarded with the buzzy “peent” call of the woodcock sounding from the field beyond the barn. There has been no return of the spring-warmth that visited us in February, but the woodcock’s arrival assures me – spring has arrived within its beating heart.
Today I saw the first robin of the year, but she flew from branches dusted with snow and will have to tolerate degrees in the teens before she is done with this week. But her arrival is a sign that spring will win soon, and mornings of waking to a wonderland of snow that brightens the landscape and records the paths of critters that cross the back field are coming to a close. While it is still winter-like I thought I would share this winter poetry, “Whiteout Conditions.” It was selected by poet Maurice Kenny to appear in a collection he edited, On the Quad.
Through the country night snow falls
two inches an hour, warp speed at my windshield.
Star Trek star fields have nothing on these
accelerating toward the glass.
All speed ahead
All speed mine
To the left, to the right, flakes drift
casual, to the ground.
Where I live, the day after you decide that most of life has hunkered down to a private realm of winter-slowed heartbeats, a white weasel scales the rough-cut siding outside the kitchen window to perch below the eave, and a Barred Owl hunts the daylight hours on a low branch just the other side of the garden.
Where I live, if you discover on your country road an old half-ton truck stopped in its tracks with a flat tire, and part of its load of split wood strewn onto the road behind it, pull over and, in imitation of the luckless driver, begin to toss pieces of firewood to the roadside. Nod when he explains, “They’re gonna have to unload it all anyway to fix that flat.” When another person pulls over and bends, wordless, to the work, nod to him as well. Some other day, doing some other thing, each of you would ease your way with banter. But today there is the task at hand for ease, and you three move, quiet, within the measured beat of rural life.