Friday, September 7, 2007

The Horror of Insects

With my usual obsessive compulsiveness, I've gone out and bought three more books by Annie Dillard (luckily for me, all three have been collected into a single volume, so I do not have to be as embarrassed by my indulgence as I could have been). Almost seventy pages into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is a kind of morose and sublime Walden for a generation even less familiar with the actual natural world, I come across Dillard's exploration of insects. It's hard for me to read about bugs. Of all the things I'm afraid of--and there aren't so many these days--I have an irrational squeamishness and horror of insects that I can never overcome. I've learned not to flinch when the occasional bony wasp or tubby fly wanders by me as I sit out on my bedroom balcony, and I've overcome my fear of butterflies by paying closer attention to their flight paths and the shadows they cast across the ground, and less attention to the terrible needle of a mouth they slide sickeningly into the innocent dark recesses of the blossoms on which they feed like seductive daylight vampires clothed in the deceptive remnants of a once luxurious living. God, am I afraid of butterflies!

Of all the insects I know, I am least afraid of bees. I could watch a bee for hours, sorting carefully through the thousand miniature petals of a single clover bud, as if tuning the strings on a silent, orbed instrument. Or nestling down into a flower, bustling about like a toddler looking for a candy at the bottom of a box full of those white Styrofoam packaging peanuts, bits clinging to hair and eyelashes with crackling static. Walking to work at the beginning of this summer, I passed the corner of Wightman and Beacon, where every morning a fat, heavy bumblebee hung lazing in the air as if it were waiting for a bus. Of course I couldn't know for sure that it was the same bee every day, but that's what the mind naturally assumes, until the tiny, unlikely thing floating there was as friendly a sight as the gray-mustached crossing guard on my walk home past the local Yeshiva school, who always smiled hello and asked what new book I'd bought recently and if my father liked the bird-watching guides I bought him for Father's Day.

I'm writing like Annie Dillard now, letting my mind wander over old memories, free-associating on all the things I've noticed about the natural world living in the city the past few years. Today, while eating lunch at the local sub shop between the bank and the grocery store, I realized I love this city. If I had the chance to leave, to go live with a friend or a significant other in a real house, with a garden and a driveway, in some other state... I'm not sure I could. But then, I've loved all the places I've lived--my hometown, Lancaster, with its rolling fields and farms set just across the street from happy suburbia scattered with unexpected parks and some neighborhoods so old they still have sidewalks on both sides of the street and houses that were built to pass onto the kids; and the tiny town of Collegeville, whose welcoming sign on Main St. says, "So named because Ursinus College is located here," as if there could be any other reason, as if the town itself wasn't almost entirely a college campus, with a Dairy Queen at one end and a WaWa at the other. I love all of the places I've lived, most likely because I follow my intuition before I move on to a new place. I fall in love with the vibe, I groove on it, I make it my home, and so I swing from one home into another without losing my footing.

But (I digress) every place has insects, and somehow I can never seem to manage to learn to love them. There is something uncompromisingly horrid about them--horrid, horrible, horrifying, all such adjectives. I can't put my finger on it--frankly, I wouldn't want to and the thought makes me squirm a little. Of all things that move and eat and reproduce in this world, insects seem dangerously oblivious to us. They have no sense that I am larger, that this body is a living landscape not to be colonized, its secret places not to be planted with their awful, bubbling eggsacks, its hot veins not to be sucked dry or injected with poisons. I have no trust in insects, I do not know what they will do. It might be that deadly bites and cocoons hatching inside a person's ear or eye socket only happen in scary movies, but that irrational part of me believes these things are possible. I am all too aware that I am edible, that I am warm, that I might make a good home. Insects intrude, they trespass. If not in fact, than at least in possibility.

And then, I came across this passage in Dillard's book, during her discussion about the stubborn stupidity of the insect world, which I'm going to quote in full:

Although the new studies show that some insects can on occasion strike out into new territory, leaving instinct behind, still a blindered and blinkered enslavement to instinct is the rule, as the pine processionaries show. Pine processionaries are moth caterpillars with shiny black heads, who travel about at night in pine trees along a silken road of their own making. They straddle the road in a tight file, head to rear touching, and each caterpillar adds its thread to the original track first laid by the one who happens to lead the procession. Fabre interferes; he catches them on a daytime exploration approaching a circular track, the rim of a wide palm vase in his greenhouse. When the leader of the insect train completes a full circle, Fabre removes the caterpillars still climbing the vase and brushes away all extraneous silken tracks. Now he has a closed circuit of caterpillars, leaderless, trudging round his vase on a never-ending track. He wants to see how long it will take them to catch on. To his horror, they march not just an hour or so, but all day. When Fabre leaves the greenhouse at night, they are still tracing that wearying circle, although night is the time they usually feed.

In the chill of the next morning they are deadly still; when they rouse themselves, however, they resume what Fabre calls their "imbecility." They slog along all day, head to tail. The next night is bitterly cold; in the morning Fabre finds them slumped on the vase rim in two distinct clumps. When they line up again, they have two leaders, and the leaders in nature often explore to the sides of an already laid track. But the two ranks meet, and the entranced circle winds on. Fabre can't believe his eyes. The creatures have had neither water nor food nor rest; they are shelterless all day and all night long. Again the next night a hard frost numbs the caterpillars, who huddle in heaps. By chance the first one to wake is off the track; it strikes out in a new direction, and encounters the soil in the pot. Six others follow his track. Now the ones on the vase have a leader, because there is a gap in the rim. But they drag on stubbornly around their circle of hell. Soon the seven rebels, unable to eat the palm in the vase, follow their trail back to the rim of the pot and join the doomed march. The circle often breaks as starved or exhausted caterpillars stagger to a halt; but they soon breach the gap they leave, and no leaders emerge.

The next day a heat spell hits. The caterpillars lean far over the rim of the vase, exploring. At last one veers from the track. Followed by four others, it explores down the long side of the vase; there, next to the vase, Fabre has placed some pine needles for them to feed on. They ramble within nine inches of the pine needles, but, incredibly, wander upward to the rim and rejoin the dismal parade. For two more days the processionaries stagger on; at last they try the path laid down the vase by the last group. They venture out to new ground; they straggle at last to their nest. It has been seven days. Fabre himself, "already familiar with the abysmal stupidity of insects as a class whenever the least accident occurs," is nevertheless clearly oppressed by this new confirmation that the caterpillars lack "any gleam of intelligence in their benighted minds." "The caterpillars in distress," he concludes, "starved, shelterless, chilled with cold at night, cling obstinately to the silk ribbon covered hundreds of times, because they lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason which would advise them to abandon it."

Upon finishing this passage, I can't help but suddenly feel struck by the notion that perhaps the gods, if there are gods, must be horrified by us as we are horrified by insects. If there are "advanced races" of extraterrestrial origins, if there are Watchers or ascended Masters, how awful we must appear, squirming our way into the sacred places of the earth, oblivious and stupid, trudging in our hopeless, self-paved paths when we are long past weary. How eerie and disturbing the mantic, praying monks of the world's religions who must seem, for a moment, to have a look almost familiar to the angels, before turning abruptly to commit an act of ravenous violence against our own kind in the name of life and creation.

Yet maybe there is something beautiful and alien in us, too, that greater beings, if there are greater beings, might embrace; a love that is not borne of kinship but of necessity, a connection held firmly in the grasp of the larger Divine that is otherwise so hard to recognize. Insects abound, and they are strange and beautiful and awful. I try to appreciate them, but my unease undercuts simple enjoyment every time. The best I can do is reach a kind of sublime adoration, a tension between praise and repulsion. Still, I make the effort. I restrain my hand from the death blow, I wait patiently for the buzzing to pass, for the legs to carry the hard, spiny bodies away out of sight, into the corners, up the dusty curtains, along the crack between window and sill... back into the world in which they belong, to which they are adapted and suited. It is the insects' business what kind of world that will be. But I can watch, at least, occasionally escorting the lost moth or the exposed spider back into freedom, and I can try to get a feel for it. I can reach for understanding, feeling cautiously this way and that on the silk line of my own well-tread humanity.


  1. "What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where YOU come from?" the Gnat inquired.

    "I don't REJOICE in insects at all," Alice explained, "because I'm rather afraid of them -- at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them."

    "Of course they answer to their names?" the Gnat remarked carelessly.

    "I never knew them do it."

    "What's the use of their having names the Gnat said, "if they won't answer to them?"

    "No use to THEM," said Alice; "but it's useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?"

  2. According to Bill Bailey, we will soon be "Human Slaves In An Insect Nation".

  3. You are so damn awesome.

    I feel some gods definitely are horrified and repulsed by us. I'm thinking of the gods less concerned with humanity, less connected to us -- the insect gods, yes, and the gods of the fish in the deep places... the gods and spirits we're fouling with our pollution and plastic. I feel there are other gods, more closely connected with us, who are more conscious of that connection and love us despite -- and because of -- our flaws.

    On the other hand I had a dream / meditation once in which an ape presented me with a gift of a crystalline living / mechanical honey bee. Bees... yeah. They're awesome.