Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”




Existentialism and Grocery Shopping

When I woke up today it was drizzling. It rarely ever drizzles in central Florida in the morning unless a tropical storm is grazing the coast. I knew that the latest named storm in the Atlantic was at least three days away from possibly washing my house off its foundation, and for a second I thought that I was still living in Pennsylvania where gloomy skies are the dominant weather condition. The palm tree down the block was a clear indication that I was mistaken.

The world seemed out of kilter as I staggered to the kitchen to make a diet shake. My wife was still sleeping, and I figured that the sound of the blender would wake her up in time to keep her on her schedule. She croaked to me from her bedroom as I walked by with my drink in hand, and I could see that she was feeling better. (We’re both recovering from a nasty, lingering virus that I probably picked up at work. I teach at a community college, and my students have lately been falling by the wayside, staggering off to the restroom, asking questions with a glazed look in their eyes that looks more like nausea than academic fervor.)

I read too long in the bathroom and ran late for my errand of the day: groceries. I rattled the car keys and Judy emerged from the other bathroom to tell me that she needed three things. I lied and said that I had delayed my trip in hopes of the rain drying up. No sooner had the words escaped my mouth when the heavens opened and a deluge poured down. I accepted my punishment, put on my fedora and a wind breaker, and sloshed through puddles in the driveway to the car. I remembered to take my paycheck with me and decided to stop first at an ATM to make a deposit and get cash.

As I sat at the stop light at Aloma and Semoran I recalled my last trip to a Publix. Three days ago I turned onto an exit drive to head home, and a car flashed in front of me from a gas station to my left. I took my foot off the gas to let the car cut across my path, and the driver slowed down, turned toward me and gave me the finger as he drove past. His expression reminded me of a fat playground bully who had just taken a cupcake away from another kid: belligerent with a touch of self-righteous determination to hold onto what should have always been his. I returned the favor, but it was too late—he had already turned away from me. I considered following him and perhaps ramming my crappy ’94 Honda into the rear of his car, but decided that I didn’t want to be a headline in a TV news story read by a bored anchorman: “A road rage incident at a local Publix turns into a tragedy. Details at 11.” I wondered what the asshole had expected from me when he cut me off—should I have smiled and blown him kisses?

The light turned green and none of the other drivers around me tried anything stupid or possibly fatal as we drove through the rain. The ATM screen at the far end of the Publix lot blinked in a manic fashion as I stepped up to it. I pushed in my card, selected “English” and tried to enter my password. The screen blinked, my card was ejected and a notice came up that the transaction had taken too long. I tried again and stabbed at the keys to enter two numbers of my password before the same thing happened again. A few split seconds were too long for my impatient, automated friend. I gave up and decided to do my shopping by credit card.

The carts were locked together in the entrance way, and when I managed to finally free one it bumped into a kiddy cart which knocked over a trash can. I righted the can and used a hand wipe from a dispenser by the door, and a woman slid up and took my cart. I sarcastically said, “Well, that was my cart.” She stammered an apology, but I waved her away and began wrestling out another cart from the stack. She could take my cart but she couldn’t take away my right to play martyr.

I still wore my fedora and windbreaker as I pushed my cart through the aisles. I attracted no notice from anyone as I trudged up and down except from a thirty year old blonde who looked askance at me as I walked by. She wrinkled her nose and her lips curled slightly in suppressed disgust. Apparently I didn’t pass muster when it came to my choice of rain gear, or perhaps she noticed that I looked like crap from being sick for 8 days. I restrained the urge to sneak up behind her and cough.

After I loaded my groceries into the car I headed to the main exit lane and discovered a semi parked in my way. I waited for the driver to back up the trailer into a loading area along the side of the strip, but he kept idling in place. I had to get home and start lunch for Judy, so I turned around and steered for the middle exit where I would have to take a left on Aloma without benefit of a light. That was a dangerous maneuver in any weather, so I pulled around one more time and found the first exit lane no longer blocked. The truck driver was now idling at a red light at the lot exit. He had apparently been taking a few moments when he blocked the road to relax and think a few happy thoughts. I was so pleased for him as I sat behind the truck and inhaled diesel exhaust, so glad that he had had a chance to regroup his energies for his tasks ahead.

When I got home Judy was sitting on the sofa fully dressed. She had stayed in her night gown and bathrobe the day before. I knew that she was feeling better and my spirits briefly lifted like the raised hand of a dying man bidding the world farewell.

I decided to stay home for the rest of the day, or until the skies cleared. I didn’t want to drag around town as if I were a character in a French Existentialist movie, the post WWII ones in black and white where everyone sits at small tables in dark cafes smoking cigarettes, sipping wine, and saying things that sound elegantly melancholy until you read the translation:

“Where are the baguettes?”
“We are out of baguettes.”
“Yes! And no one knows when the baguettes will return…No one.”