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.”




Predatory People

On Monday I got a robo-call from a 360 number.  The halting, slightly metallic voice of the artificial woman sounded hostile as she informed me that “We have been looking for you.  The IRS plans to sue you.  You must call the following number to find out more about your financial situation.”  The call cut off before the information number was given.  I felt a rush of anxiety and redialed the last incoming number listed on my phone.  The line was busy.

I said to my wife, “I just got a call telling me that we’re getting sued by the IRS.”  She didn’t get upset.  Judy said, “That’s got to be a scam.  The IRS would send us a notice first.”  She went on line and found out that this is a widespread hoax, and that the goal of the pranksters is to get social security numbers and personal information from their victims.

On Friday we got a letter in the mail from a person we’ve never met who wants to buy our house for cash.  This is the second time that she’s contacted us, and both times has addressed my wife and I by name.  The first note was scribbled on notebook paper and ended with a religious sentiment that told Judy and me about how much the sender cared for us.  The latest letter was more professional in appearance and more insistent.  She warned us that things can change rapidly in life.  We may not need her services at the moment, but who knows when we might suddenly be forced to sell our house quickly?  She wanted to meet us and get our house appraised in the event that misfortune occurs unexpectedly.  We haven’t contacted her as we suspect that she’s the misfortune about which she is warning.

This reminds me of other times when we were approached by predatory people.  When our first child was born we were beset by insurance agents who wanted to sell us life insurance.  When we bought our house we began to get calls and flyers from home service companies, most of whom were fly by night outfits who provided token service and did damage to our property.  A carpet cleaning outfit soaked the rug in our kitchen and refused to pay a refund when told that it had been ruined.  An air conditioning repairman told us that we needed new lines installed in our house after letting us know that our unit was leaking Freon.  We didn’t trust him and called in another company.  The second repairman brought us outside and showed us where his predecessor had partially unscrewed a hose to release the refrigerant.

Our neighbor Joey is a retired parole officer who served at the Florida state prison in Stark.  He told me that he had hesitated to move to the Orlando area because a majority of the most unredeemable human scum with whom he had dealt had come from central Florida.  He told me this while he helped me bundle up branches left by the tree service company that cut down an oak and a pine but refused to come back and remove the heavy sections of trunk, the limbs, wood chips and branches that they had left in piles and jumbled thickets all over my yard.

Some days I get the feeling that the vultures are circling.  I want to tell these nasty birds that I’m not dead yet, and that they should at least have the decency to wait until I’ve weakened a good deal more before they start to swoop down on me.  But I also recall those moments when I’ve sensed weakness in others and have felt the temptation to exploit the opportunity.  It’s a common failing to see the people around us not as fellow sufferers but as targets, and I know that I am not exempt from this fault.

I try to remember when I start to doubt everyone around me that I’ve got friends, family and colleagues who care about my welfare, and that the world isn’t completely full of people who want to steal from me and make me into their chump.  I try to recall the good moments when a child has given me a hug in a sudden welling up of affection, and when my wife has cried with happiness when I’ve brought home an unexpected gift for her.  These moments of connection are real too.

And I wonder if the predatory people, the vultures, have people that they love.  Maybe the fellow who sends me messages falsely claiming that I have to update my credit card information with my e-mail server is a nice guy who’s just trying to earn money to support his ailing grandmother.  Maybe the individual who somehow got my credit card number and bought a boat load of stationary supplies from an Office Depot in Michigan just wants to start a business where he plans to employ disabled war veterans.

And maybe the lady who wants to buy my house for cash would give me a fair market value for my property.  She might be a good Christian lady who is genuinely concerned for my financial welfare.  She’s probably fond of puppies and kittens and spreads joy and cheer to all those around her like a latter day Mary Poppins…

And maybe I’d be an idiot if I ever let her set foot on my property.  And maybe it’s time to get a guard dog.