A changing climate. Old boundaries disrupted. Chaos.
Communities must reorganize. Spread north. Dive south. Retreat up mountain slopes. Or fly upwards into the atmosphere and disappear forever.
Some seek refuge and hibernate beneath the desert soil or in the leaf litter. Others finally reemerge after decades into a newly formed world.
Strings that had become tangled and frayed from change too fast, are now being worked and restrung. The communities are reforming, different, slightly alien, but always interesting.
Today I worked on my first photograph in three months.
It is not quite the same as all those that came before. Subtle differences. Pulled back. A fuller view. And completely unanchored.
Maybe most significantly, it was produced during a teaching moment. A workshop I lead in the desert.
I surprise myself every day. And now that my photography has wiggled its way back to the surface, I’m curious just how my art will interact with this new landscape.
Eumorpha typhon – Portal Arizona
Caterpillar wrangling. Over a cappuccino . These caterpillars aren’t from here. The deserts of Southeast Arizona are far away from New England.
But their world consists of a few leaves in a Tupperware container. And though they have left their natural hosts behind, they seem satisfied with the honey locust and privet that I’ve collected for them.
Who knows though, maybe they dream of their lost homes too. The Ocotillo. A vision from Dr. Suess. A creative texture both from a distance and under close inspection, on a caterpillar’s scale. The Mesquite. Part of a landscape of legumes. Familiar thorns and explosions of brush flowers. Unmistakably Sonoran.
And now I’m in a new place too. A new coffee shop in a new town. A new school and new people. New ideas and new challenges. I do dream of my lost leaves in my lost desert every night. And think about them again every morning.
But I struggle now also to define the nature of my habitat. Is this life the Tupperware container? Or have I been returned to the wild after a captivity held me safe, but for too long.
As the contrast grows between old and new it is tempting to try and describe one version of myself as true and one as false. One as captive and one as free. The caterpillars just roll with it. I’m relatively certain they don’t struggle to define their situation. As real. Or fabricated. As honest. Or deceptive.
But I’ve left too many habitats behind in my life. Even the memories of them becoming unnaturally vague. Whatever the nature of my past existence – wilds, plastic, home, or wayside – I’m going to keep the dreams at my side. And face the memories. Even if it makes my current life just a bit harder to understand or accept. If it makes home a little harder to find again.
I guess in the end I’m quite a bit more complicated than a caterpillar. That at least is worth celebrating. Right?
An evening window:
Four panels of glass and a wooden cross. Quadrants of light. Texture. Life. For now frozen and absolute. A painting.
One panel shows the violet inflorescences of a Buddlea. The Venessa that crowded the blossoms earlier have all departed now. Without the sun. A flutter of constant movement replayed as a memory. Shifting wings and light and air. From an afternoons garden wander.
Another shows sharp angles and perfect cylinders. White. Pink. Purple. Just a fragment of this old farm house. Built upon. Loved. Something of pride for those who have worked so hard over the years. Something of deep commitment. Softened and made more lovely still by sprays of clematis creeping amongst the more rigid forms.
Bellow is the darkest vision. The shade of leaves. Night already fallen. And moist with trails of slugs and isopod footprints. Reflections of the interior already visible against the glass. A reflection of me. Writing on my phone. To be.
Finally, above. Depth and a ray of light. Canopy of oak a quarter mile out. Branches of red maple sweeping into view just before. Fingers of larch creeping in like veins, or tendrils of lush fungus under sickening bark. The last evening light. Falling on my legs and reflected back in the darkest pain of glass. Legs and slug trails.
I write often to find some kind of calm. Or myself? Another day filled ultimately with some nagging sadness. Despite triumphs. And all the wonderful things I’ve begun to place. A window at the end of the living room. A view split up. Plotted for research. Like the junipers in Arizona. My reflection and this view and the glass between us.
Maybe I write for realization. Like now. It is the slug trails. The slime laid down on the glass. It is that texture in time and place that make this view more than a painting or photograph. It is glass. It is a window. I can always get up and walk into this beautiful garden.
And watch the nighthawks heading south. Far above. Or find a slug in the leaf litter. Just at my feet.
A new Title:
In Arizona I was continually referred to as a “Zenner”. A rare beast who uses only his senses to track down caterpillars and other insects. Turning his back on modern technology – the beating sheet and sweep net.
A Zenner – heightened awareness keyed in on piles of frass, clipped leaves, and recently damaged foliage. Thousands of relevant search images loaded and ready. A Zenn
This is what I could speak to. It is what I could teach. By Zenning I learned of behavior and life history beyond those who collected in more traditional and efficient ways. By Zenning I learned how to fill each of my photographs with the life stories of each species. By Zenning I gathered all of my most cherished secrets.
I’m happy to share this new title, this new word for what I do, with so many of my natural history friends. We Zen my friends. We learn secrets, stories, life histories. We absorb information that light traps, beat sheets, and pheromone lures, could not hope to divulge. Zenners rock – don’t let anyone tell you differently!
It is early spring at Fowl Meadow in Milton, Massachusetts. A small pussy willow sapling has struggled over the winter months and many of its branches have shriveled and died. Two full-grown viceroy caterpillars wander the plant. They have already devoured all signs of emerging leaves and they will have to move on if they want to keep feeding. A third viceroy still rests inside its silky hibernaculum. Maybe if it bides its time, new leaves will grow. So much of a caterpillar’s success depends on timing.
Eupithecia species ‘Blue Vervain’
An expanse of white linoleum. Scattered across the surface are tiny black grains, like spilled pepper. Looming above is a vase of cut flowers taken from an early summer field: daisy fleabane, blue vervain, and a sprig of goldenrod. Each is home to one or more tiny uninvited caterpillars, dropping frass into untidy piles far below on my kitchen counter.
“Hey Ol’ Blue Eyes” she would say as I walked by. Making me shutter. She was the first person to ever isolate this quality in me. My blue eyes. And I hated it. It was a creepy sort of attention, even when I got in trouble with her she would smirk a little every time she scolded me with the name “Ol’ Blue Eyes”. What was with this woman? Had she been some starlet once, seduced by Frank Sinatra, the original Ol’ Blue Eyes?
Of course, over the years I heard much more about my wonderful blue eyes. Dunkin’ Donuts girls at the drive through window, who just have to make a comment. Meeting somebody new, who just must tell me about my eyes during a handshake. People visiting my photography show openings, or my caterpillar exhibits too. It just comes up in conversation. Again and again and again.
And I had always hated the comments and the compliments. They made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. My eyes are just a feature, and I’m generally a shy person. Forced to think about my physique, what may or may not be attractive, it has made me squirm. I built up some kind of resistance to it, a modesty gone too far. And maybe it all started with that terrible lunch lady.
But I think I may be moving beyond this now. Call it a personal challenge. Or a change in perspective. I’m tired of my modesty, or hiding my eyes. My eyes are beautiful. I mean they are bright freaking blue! Beat that. I will wear them with pride from now on. Wanna talk about them? Let’s start up a damn conversation. And how about my chiseled jaw line? Come on, you know you like it too. I’m not a bad looking guy. And that is probably the first time I’ve said that out loud.
I’m not really on some hyper ego trip here. I’m just trying to shake off years of low self esteem, cautious modesty. I’m walking along beaches with my hairy chest exposed. Exercising, jogging, not always wearing a shirt either. My eyes, my face, my body. I’m done hiding it. It is what it is. And its ok to be proud of it too. I feel proud of it now.
Hopefully this all helps to explain that dude with the glasses that showed up as my profile picture, and now the solitary blue eye. Who knows what’s next.