One advantage of being able to read fast with good read fast with good recall is that I can reread random passages of old books in spare fifteen minute increments and actually get some thing out of it. Lately I've been reading bits of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I've known and loved for years and years, and I'm struck again by how rooted in the living world the author becomes. She knows where the muskrats have their dens, she knows not only how to see small fish in the water but also what sort of fish they are. She spots a horsehair worm, a giant water bug (its actual name as a species), the Andromeda Galaxy. She gets emotionally freaked out by a yellow, fleshy plant with no leaves. She is mystified and enthralled by a glimpse of a dragonfly laying eggs and a water-strider stalking and eating a struggling fly. She describes herself as a kind of anchorite, a spiritual seeker anchored not to a church, as of old, but to a wooded creek valley in Virginia. I would love to be such an anchorite, to look at look at life until finally I became transparent to my own looking. I'd love to see muskrat dens and mother dragonflies.
But me? All I get is a glimpse of mosquito sex.
There were a ridiculous number of mosquitoes in the trailer last night. I'm not sure how they got in, probably they followed me in, since I entered the trailer in order to escape the mosquitoes, their small wings turning the lovely night air predatory. I've spent enough nights lying in the dark swatting at my own head in a futile attempt to stop that horrible, high-pitched whining. I didn't want to do it again, and the trailer is small enough that it can't contain that many individual mosquitoes. I went on the offensive, I prowled the trailer, I slapped at small black specks on the walls, ceiling, window blinds, my husband, and myself until my hands were smeared by mosquito guts and the beige surfaces of the trailer were all marred by tiny spots of secondhand blood.
I hate killing mosquitoes that have already eaten. They won't bother us again, and it seems such a waste, that little pinprick of itch and pain and now for nothing! No little mosquito babies to make the best of our small suffering! But it's hard to tell sometimes who is full and who is not, and anyway I got into kind of a rhythm.
And then I saw the couple on the window blind, their abdomens linked, though they faced entirely away from each other. What else could they have been doing? Their wings were carefully folded to stay out of each others' way, one insect clinging from one of the plastic blinds, the other handing head downwards. How do they decide who gets to be right side up? Who is who? I had thought mosquitoes would be obviously dimorphic, since males and females live such different lives, she dodging and whining towards blood, he quietly supping on plants that cannot run away. But I don't see any clear difference between them. They both just look like mosquitoes. Why was a male in the trailer, anyway? There's nothing for him to eat, here. I suppose he came in for the company, though any female who has a prayer of laying her eggs will be outside, not in here. I can't tell one mosquito from another, so I may have squished one or both of them later, but while they were linked I let that couple go.
I used to be a sort of anchorite, much like Annie Dillard. As a back-country site caretaker I lived in the woods and spent my days fixing trails, talking to hikers, and noticing things. I saw the nuptial flight of ants, and I saw the spent bodies of the little insect lovers settle out upon the surface of a pond so thickly that the surface of the pond grew golden. I paddled out among them and found some of them still alive, struggling. I scooped some out onto the bow of my canoe, but none dried themselves and walked off. They all died. Days later, the slow current had swept the surface clear, all the little bodies piling up in a crescent of debris against the beaver dam at the outflow creek.
Another time I found a large dragonfly stranded in the water, struggling in the surface tension of the pond. I scooped that one up, too, and set it on the bow of my canoe. That one did dry itself, and when its wings looked strong again I paddled over and left it on a leaf on the bank, I think the plant was some kind of Spirea, if memory serves.
The hardest was when I came across a dragonfly hatch, dozens and dozens of them crawling out to molt at once, a dozen or so on one rock near the edge of the pond alone. I settled myself down to watch, the mysteries of dragonfly life the most important thing I had to attend to at that moment, and I waited. I've heard that dragonflies molt to adulthood in the safety of the dark, and that it takes them all night to do it, but if these were any indication, I heard wrong. They did it in broad daylight, and it took each one maybe twenty minutes from swimming to flying.
A nymph would swim up with little jerky strokes, coming along near the bottom of the pond. It would swim along the bottom until the bottom came up and became the shore, became the edge of the rock. The nymph would crawl out, crawl out of the water that had been its entire world up until that moment, and then find a spot a few inches up out of the water and there it would wait, motionless for a few minutes. Presently, a small black triangle would appear on the top of the animal's thorax, and begin to grow, to bulge. It was the skin of the adult, visible through a tear in the nymphal skeleton.
The tear would grow and the dragonfly inside would bulge up and bulge up until the head and thorax of the dragonfly would bloom up out of the gap, the legs curled basketlike beneath, the wings like gobs of wet tissue on the back, the whole balanced precisely on the long abdomen still anchored at its far end to the nymphal skin but elongating, elongating, the insect standing on its own tail like a flower on its lengthening stem. Finally, the dragonfly would step to earth and pull the end of its abdomen and rest, and then the wings would begin to grow. So slowly I couldn't be sure if I was actually seeing it or not, the wings expanded, unfurled, inflated, it can't have taken more than five or ten minutes, they stretched out backwards, streaming, the four wings from the animal's back, loosing their opacity, becoming straight. There was a moment when they looked adult in shape and size, but their color was the sheen of soap bubbles. Then they hardened and dried. Then the dragonfly moved them for the first time, flapped slowly, and locked the wings into the flat at-rest position that all adult dragonflies use. Then the newly reshaped animal flew away.
The hard thing was that I wanted to see the transformation better, so I moved one of the waiting nymphs and watched to see the black triangle appear. It did, but not much more ever happened. It died, right there, halfway between nymph and adulthood. I disrupted something in my idle curiosity, and it died. I'm sorry.
I wish I still made my living by learning these things and telling other people about them. I want to lurk in the woods like an elf and compliment intelligent children and listen to curious adults. I miss being a caretaker. Before I became a caretaker, I used to berate myself for my unquenchable desire to show off, to tell other people all about the things I knew. Becoming a caretaker showed me I'd been wrong; I am not, at bottom, a show-off. I actually don't like showing off, because the people most inclined to respond to that sort of thing usually aren't actually interested in being my friends. My kind of people are the ones who hear me talking about bugs and get excited about the bugs, not about how smart I supposedly am. What I learned, being a caretaker, is that there are such people,people who really want to hear what I have to say, people who have questions to which my answers actually match. I can be useful to such people. My fault had not been trying to talk about what I knew, but trying to talk to people who weren't interested in what I knew. What I wanted to do, all along, was to share, to teach.
So I wasn't selfish, I was generous, right? It was a great relief to me at the time to revise my opinion of myself this way. And I am generous. But my desire to share knowledge, to be the expert, the guide, is no less a form of personal wanting for all that I want other people to benefit from it. It's not an altruistic impulse.
I've been thinking lately of the reciprocal nature of giving and receiving, how wanting to give and wanting to receive are opposites only in theory. In practice, I've accepted gifts I didn't need or want so that the giver could experience the pleasure of giving. I've offered my time and energy, generously, to people who did not seem to care, and felt thwarted, abandoned as a result. Both desires are desires to connect. Both can be selfish or loving, depending on sensitivity to context, the soul raised taut and listening, the way a mosquito raises her hindmost legs to test the air when she bites.