The Red-Headed Bug

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The car kicked up a cloud of dust as I hurtled down the long driveway. In my rush, I turned onto the county road and traveled another half mile before I noticed the creature that furiously held on just outside my side window, some kind of small waspish fly, its bulbous eyes perched like wire-rimmed glasses on its orangey-maroon head, its tidy black veined wings tucked sleekly along the sides of its narrow black thorax. Its thin legs flexed and strained to remain anchored in spite of the force of the air stream as I sped along.

This was not a singular event. My rural wooded property hosts bugs of infinite variety, some of which end up resting on my car.  On any given trip to town, I might inadvertently transport tan walking sticks, red, yellow, or black wasps, skinny dirt-dobbers, black, blue, or green flies, beetles of every conceivable shape and shade, spiders, ticks, bees, mosquitos, gallinippers, moths, ants of assorted size, and any other of so many multiple-legged beings that I suspect some of them have, to date, escaped scientific classification.

Notable creatures such as the saddle-backed, black stinkbug or the lime green preying mantis usually merit my immediate pull-over where I carefully remove them to roadside vegetation wondering if they find any advantage in new territory. I’ve considered whether higher insect intelligences, like flies, might purposefully plan for such transport. One large green fly made it all the way to town, having carefully positioned himself in a joint of the windshield wiper, perhaps with a particular lady city-fly in mind.

I rarely see them as I load in my gear, back up, and drive away, not until I have picked up speed, until they begin to slide, inexorably, across the waxed paint of the car’s body or the smooth glass of the windshield. They ride in ignorance, misunderstanding the threat. From their egocentric viewpoint, the problem is not that they are unwitting passengers on the rides of their lives, but simply that a strong wind has sprung up.

The challenge is to hold fast.

On this particular morning, the red-headed fly had arrived at my parked car door, at what seemed a perfectly fine spot to rest, groom, and digest his latest meal. As I began driving and the sudden gale blustered around him, he braced himself, securing every foot firmly to the spot. He had no concepts through which to anticipate that his greatest risk came with hanging on to what seemed familiar surroundings, that ultimately he would be farther away from what he knew and desired than he would have been if he had simply let go.

As I cruised along the road, the tiny red and black fly gripped ever more frantically to maintain his hold. In order to offer the least wind resistance, his body bent and contorted, stretched and elongated, the severity of his effort betrayed by erratic flare-ups of his wing tips.  Staring at me through the side window glass, he seemed to question me in panicky stares.

I advised him based on my previous experience.

Some bugs come to a forty mile per hour realization, I said. While I’m still on this back road, in a serendipitous flash of insight, they let go.

I waited for his response. He tensely adjusted his wings and aimed his head more into the wind.

After some scary free fall, I continued, they find themselves in the thickets near Miller’s pond. We drove farther and his stance remained resolute.

Or in the rocky ditch, I said, or in the middle of Mr. Breedlove’s herd of Angus. Wherever you might find yourself, I’m sure you could optimize the situation—you know, discover a trove of aphids or a lonely female.

I glanced to see if he was listening. The red-black fly showed no hint of a high-speed epiphany but instead re-exerted his desperate clench.

Ignoring the urging of my more generous side, I accepted little ongoing responsibility as to the fly’s future well-being. It was, after all, an insect. And I was in a hurry.

The road merged onto the highway, and I accelerated. Listening to the radio, absorbed in anticipating my day’s schedule, and maneuvering through heavy traffic, I failed to notice when his tiny sticky foot pads ripped loose from the slick paint of my car door.

Halfway into town, I realized he was gone.

Briefly, I suffered anxiety on his behalf. Had he made his leap at the right moment, I wondered? Was his grip torn free in the surge of a passing truck, bringing him to join countless distant kinsmen already pasted to its front grill?

Had he ever understood the threat?

Had he understood and somehow just hadn’t figured out the best timing?

I narrowed my thoughts to more pressing considerations. The city lay ahead. In a continuing ethical quandary about my role in the greater scheme of things, I decided to believe that he knew what he was doing all along and got off right where he intended.

From the collection I Met a Goat on the Road and other stories of life on this hill. Available in paperback with the original watercolor illustrations, or as an unillustrated paperback, or as an ebook.

Unillustrated paperback: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500913197

Illustrated color paperback edition & Kindle edition: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DW9QLKO

Jars

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If I had considered the question in advance, I would have known that cleaning out the barn would precipitate a crisis. Memories long stored away for some magical future moment when that child’s toy, that handsaw, would again be needed—did I keep them simply for the memory? Furniture—small tables, wooden chairs, an ottoman frame, an old piano bench well made of oak and in need of a few repairs—would I someday find time and reason to fix them and return them to my house?

Too good to throw away. Largely irrelevant to my current life.

Becoming relevant at some future point? Probably not.

Determination to survive in a world lost to chaos drove the accumulation of this minor hoard. It was 1975. We had small children who would need to eat and thrive even if the bomb fell. We labored to renew skills our grandparents knew by heart, certain that within our lifetimes we would have to hide in our house until the fallout settled then emerge to plow, plant, and harvest our food, breed our pigs, chickens, and goats for future generations of meat and milk. We gathered meat saws and grinders, steel axes and shovels, nails and wire.

Time marched on. The Cold War ended and fingers moved away from the annihilation button.  The children are no longer dependent babies who might benefit from a collection of books on history, science, math. The goats departed in the late 80s, the garden in the early 90s, and the last of the chickens about ten years ago. The children have gone off like grown children do to find their own visions of the future.

Why do I need eight hand saws, ten hammers (of various sizes), buckets of random nails, screws, washers, bolts, and nuts? Feed scoops and cheesecloth, empty egg cartons, milk pails. What possible purpose could be met by random pieces of plywood or sheetrock, insulation, screen, tile? Why do I think that at some point I’ll make use of a decrepit power saw, drill, or grinder when, for the last twenty-five years, I have not?

I have created two piles. One is for the junkman to haul away. The other is for craigslist ads and friends who operate flea market booths. I am mildly optimistic that someone might buy the old wooden toolbox, child’s desk, or the sturdy small tables, the ten gallon pickling crock or the T-post driver. Never mind that for what I’d receive in dollars, I could restore only a fraction of this hoard.

In truth, what our energy and money bought in those early days was peace of mind. With our collection of tools, books, supplies, and know-how, we’d have a chance. Our kids would have a chance.

It served its purpose. The purpose no longer exists.

Sounds good. But what I haven’t put in either pile is the pressure canner. And the jars. Dozens and dozens of canning jars—quarts, pints, jelly jars. It’s the jars that have brought me to crisis.

When my firstborn child was two, my grandmother died. My dad’s mom, Nora. Always a country girl, Nora knew how to make soap, kill a chicken with a swing and stiff pop of its neck, and would can just about anything edible. She had jars. When they started clearing her property for the auction, I went down to Cane Hill and helped clean out her cellar. I hauled back cases of canned goods.

She had declined for a decade until her death at age 86. I wouldn’t dare eat any of the food in those jars. We had hogs and chickens at the time which allowed me to make use of Grandma’s labors. Each day I’d go out to the barn and pens and open more jars. Applesauce, whole plums, peaches, pears. Grapes and elderberries. Green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, mixed vegetables. Tallow. Jelly, jam, preserves. Juice. The critters were well fed that year.

We grew a huge garden. Neighbors had pear trees. We visited orchards and vineyards. Even with all of Grandma Nora’s jars, I sometimes ran short. My mother gave me jars. I bought jars.

In those heady days, each fall I stood in the storage closet and stared at my larder. The sight of all those jars filled me with the greatest pleasure that once again, by the labor of my hands, I had set aside enough green beans, tomatoes and sauce, peas, corn, and kraut to last a year. The jars lined up in colorful rows, golden tomato seeds swimming in crimson broth, finely shredded green cabbage fermented into tangy white kraut, wild plum jelly glowing fuscia in the dark.

Producing and preserving food challenged me like nothing I’d ever done. Even with a tractor and rototiller, even with liberal applications of goat manure and mulch, plants struggled to survive against drought, bugs, and predation. How many hours did I spend hoeing weeds or picking off potato bugs? How many hours peeling and chopping, sterilizing and packing, standing over the pressure gauge to ensure the right amount of intense heat and adequate time to prevent spoilage.

There’s a sound as jars cool, the snap of the canning lid sucking down, sealing the contents safely into the future—I loved that sound. Then it was time to use the grease pencil to write on the lid—July 1981.

Now I have all these jars. The cardboard boxes have suffered over the years. Faded brown paper hangs in shreds, the sides bow and buckle. Even if I keep the jars, I have to plow through generations of dead spiders and a healthy population of live ones to retrieve the jars from box wreckage. Why would I go to the trouble to re-package all these jars knowing that twenty years from now, it would all be to do over again? Would I be any more willing to let go of them then?

My children have no interest and no place to store jars. I wouldn’t mind storing them if my kids wanted them. But there’s no longer a tractor or rototiller. The half-acre garden has grown up in saplings and pasture grass. There are no goats to produce manure. Everything is different.

But here’s the argument. Certain things haven’t changed. We have to eat. We have the ability to grow food. With jars and a pressure canner, we could store food. Isn’t that incentive enough to save the jars?

What is my responsibility? For countless generations, as far back at least as civilization, my ancestors have planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored food. These are skills we’ve learned—how to measure the right time to plant onions or corn, what seeds to soak before pressing them into the dark earth, how to dig potatoes without piercing them. We raised our kids to know these things.

Do I simply walk away?

Why not? There are books. There are others still farming, still canning—the knowledge won’t fade simply because I relinquish my jars.

Even with the best of hoards, with all the tools and seeds saved and an endless supply of jars, at the end of the day, survival in a world gone mad would be a tenuous venture. What about grain? No bread, no pasta, no crackers. What about oil, salt, soda, sugar? We’d be dependent on venison and that requires guns and ammunition. My .22 rifle won’t bring down a deer.

At some point, even the most vehement survivalist will face what I face. How many times in your life do you restock your rations and water? How much is enough ammunition? Who are you prepared to kill to protect your hard won ark?

I’m working on a compromise with myself. Today I think I will keep a few jars as mementos of my grandmother, the tall green half gallon jars and a few of the older square-shoulder quarts. I will wash them periodically and keep them up on a shelf, decoration that tugs my heartstrings when I look up from my daily tasks. I will acknowledge the hard work and dedication that touched these jars, my hands, my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s hands.

All the grandmothers. All the jars. All the tomatoes and fine plum jam will not save the world.

Cities

Gloucester Road at dusk, Wanchai district, Hong Kong 0001

The cities glitter like jewels in the night. Towers encrusted in light and streams of red and white define the expanse where only tamed hills and water courses interrupt the hand of man. An artificial world with token trees and ornamental gardens, no food grows here, no herds of deer or buffalo. No cliffs or caves for shelter, no flowing springs.

But most of us live here, packed into tiny rooms in concrete buildings or houses set side by side, our feet traveling over pavement as we hurry from place to place. Like metal filings magnetically drawn to a cluster, we gather under a force we can’t change, the force of commerce, trade, collaboration.

Only hermits, cowboys, farmers, and ramblers populate the open land, understand the smell of approaching rain and how it waters the crops, the cattle, upon which the cities wholly depend.

The Scent of Cotton Cloth

ID-10025847A thousand miles away, removed by harvest, processing, manufacture, and the long wait on some store’s shelf, the fabric retains the aroma of its origins. There is the faint trace of vegetation, chlorophyll of its rusty green leaves, and fibrous texture of its stem. There is sun beating down on the surface of the plant, the growing bolls, the dark earth enclosing its hungry roots. What hands, what machines, have planted the small black seed in fresh tilled ground?

Thick round bolls swell ever more white in the steamy rain, the rise and fall of the moon, the passing of weeks toward harvest. Its heart bursts open, waiting to serve its purpose, giving itself to whatever the world might make of it. Cotton is content in its life.

The sheet remembers its beginning. Languorous in summer heat, in the hot breeze, it undulates slowly on the clothesline before falling again to its resting profile. Blinding white, it welcomes the sun to bake it clean, to stiffen its threads, to remind it of its birth.

At the ironing board, pungent with starch, the cloth gives up its moisture in clouds of steam. Slowly, the heavy metal appliance presses the shirt stiff, its clever tailoring sharp at collar tips and cuff edges, its shiny buttons evenly placed down the front and held firmly in the grip of cotton thread. Ready now for hands, for the body that will wear it, even after hours of moving as its wearer moves, absorbing sweat and pain and fatigue, the shirt embodies its natural grace. The scent of cotton cloth rises from the heat of the body, reminding itself and the person whose body it covers that it is of the land, the sun, the wind.

Night settles gently through the countryside, bringing its tired wanderers to rest. Upon cotton sheets they lie, sheets embedded with afternoon breeze, warmth of sun, the comfort of soft dirt fields loose and gentle underneath them as they drift off to sleep. The cloth yields its memory as the fabric pulls close around the face, the shoulders, of its burden.

Months pass, years, night after night, day after day as the fabric is washed and dried, starched and ironed, stretched and pulled in daily lives, humanity’s ongoing race to gain, to finish, to understand. Cotton waits patiently in the towel, the robe, the socks and undergarments, as it gives itself to service. Its thick folds stand at the window, guarding against cold and sun, against storm. Its flexible material waits in the locker ready to run. Its woven pile lies on the couch, soft and nurturing.

Even when cotton’s long life begins to fray, wear thin, tatter, and the shirt can no longer be worn, the sheet no longer useable on the bed, cotton continues to clean windows, mop the floor, wipe up spills. Even there it finds long life, continues to yield its peculiar memory of its genesis as a young plant, its unique ability to absorb moisture, move pliantly, take up tiny particles and release them again, giving according to the need.

And when all has been given, when the life of the fabric ends, cotton moves on. Processed again, it becomes paper. Rich white sheets of paper wait for the word, the number, that serves the user, the future, with its memory. Cotton, still redolent of its birth, its perfume carrying forth in nuances of earth, sun, sky, waits for the hand. On paper, the writer gains insight and purpose, reflects on the meaning. What revelations of man, what declarations of intent, of civilization, take up life on cotton paper, become immortal and await the next incarnation?

Even then, the scent of cotton stirs faintly as the pen crosses its breast.