Essays


 

Effigies and Insects


“I wished the damn thing had room for three…”

 

            Michael Collins

            (watching the Apollo 11 lunar lander

            descending toward the moon’s surface.)

 

 

“I taught those young persons what air and water are; whence the lightning comes and the thunder; by what device our thoughts are transmitted across the seas and continents by means of a metal wire; why fire burns and why we breath; how a seed puts forth shoots and how a flower blossoms: all eminently hateful things in the eyes of some people, whose feeble eyes are dazzled by the light of day.”

 

                                                            Henri Fabre

                                                            From “The Mason Bees”

 

 

On September 21st of this year of two-oh-oh-three the manmade creation known as the Galileo probe will crash into the atmosphere of Jupiter at an astounding speed and burn and burn until it is nothing but aluminum vapor and long memory. As it burns out it will still be sending data back about all the final insidious details of its personal conflagration—an informative scream. At NASA they will be listening attentively and clutching the bottles of celebratory champagne with either regret or elation—the champagne that I am happy to say that some small portion of my tax dollars went toward. If there were a check-off area on my tax form that would allow specification for more of my money to go for NASA champagne supplies for said Galileo-celebratory-death-party I would check it and circle it and scrawl it black until the paper was nearly torn with my sincere enthusiasm. The dark ink on my government form would gleam with my confluent effort.

 

Who doesn’t want to go to Jupiter? All moony and gassy and stormed up into wild furies of acid and ammonia and whatever else the big ball has going on out there, lightning and blue-green fog, temperatures to make you, well, shrivel and die probably. It is not exactly what we would call paradise but still I want a ticket. And I’m not alone. Galileo, the machine, was born in the seventies. The computer chips it carried are so much weaker than the computer chips that are processing these letters I type that I am not sure of what analogy of whimpiness to use in the comparative description. I personally shudder to think of having to use Windows 95 again and yet Galileo carried a computational device the equivalent of the game of pong, the game that hypnotized the world with its magical green bouncing bars. We strapped a lawn mower engine to a pong machine and sent it to Jupiter to take pictures. And it worked. I mean, it worked? (I’ll be damned.) That is what we should have said every day since it left. With every picture it sent back—“I’ll be damned.”

 

I’ve been reading about wasps lately. In between sneaking out in the night to peek at Mars and Jupiter. This is odd behavior, I know. But this is the world as I know it; it is how my mind works, for better or worse. And the wasps I mean are specific wasps. They are hunting wasps, solitary wasps. (Some of them may be shaped like space probes. Or, okay, maybe not.) They are not the red paper makers that haunted my grandmother’s eaves in the homes of my childhood. I am talking about individualist wasps that have some astounding behavioral quirks. Possibly they are the most written about insects in the insect world—I will contribute forthwith to that abundance.

 

To begin with, these are wasps that eat meat. Those paper wasps with their potent protective stings, they eat whatever they want. Hunting wasps eat fresh meat. Or they do in their grubby childhoods. They like flowers when they grow up. But the fragile grubs, the waspian maggots, they need fresh meat. And they are too weenie to get it for themselves. It must be given to them. They have to be provided for. Mama has to bring it. For it is mama that hunts it and secures it for the baby wasp. Papa is all about breeding and then he is off to daydream and admire flowers and wile away his month or two of bonus life (it’s all bonus isn’t it?) free of any further pressures. Some would say this is a deserved ending after attempting sex with something that bears a paralyzing sting. I leave this to you. Anyway, the male is free afterward if he is not thrown into a terminal funk by this life that he leads of sex and sudden death, of one season or half a season. In the Solitary Wasps, it is clear, women do all the work. (Woe is me for writing that down.)

 

Perhaps you have some time ago forgotten that soon after the launch of our lawnmower engine and its baby computer there was a huge failure in the Galileo program. The high beam antennae failed. Or the crank that cranked it around to its working position failed. Or the screw on the rod of the crank that cranked it around into its working position failed. Or the thread on the screw of the crank—oh hell you get the idea. Anyway without that antenna the computer brain and its communications systems were extremely castrated in their abilities to send us all the lovely information we craved about the neighborhood of Jupiter. Damn the luck. We had six years to go before we even got to Jupiter and we were suddenly reduced to getting about one nice picture a month or something like that. Like surfing the web with an etch-a-sketch and a telegraph wire. NASA was abuzz with disgust. Energized with disgust, they got on the stick. And came up with a movie script of an idea for fixing the problem. They would reprogram the entire computer using the low gain antenna and would transmit one or two lines of code at a time across space until they turned our pong machine into an honest to God Pacman. It would take three years. Any failures would send the whole machine spinning on out into blank space with nothing further to say about the matter. Oh the despair of such an ending.

 

In summer, meat rots quickly. This is a fact of life. A fact that even cavemen ran up against. So wasps can’t just pop an egg and a dead insect snack cracker into the ground and let things go. The food has to be fresh and it has to be immobile. For a long time the hows and hoodoos of this were unknown. Henri Fabre was really the man who worked it out. Science guys had been mystified by the sustained preserved condition of wasp food when they bothered to dig it up out of the wasp underground storehouses. The main thought had been that the wasps injected some sort of combination killer and preservative juice into the bodies of the victims. Fabre didn’t buy this. Fabre, by the way, was the man.

 

Henri Fabre lived and taught in the late 1800s in France. He was a maverick. And a loner except for his teaching. Apparently he was a highly popular teacher among the students at his beloved institution. And this is a good thing. Though it tends to fire up some jealousy, if you are one of the less gifted professors in the same institution with this rock star of a lecturer. So after a fairly distinguished career as a teacher the institution that he had served so well threw him out on his butt. Fired him. For teaching too well. Or, well, actually they caught him red handed at something worse. I can barely stand to speak its horrendous name—this heinous act. (What was he thinking?) Henri taught girls. Taught them just like the boys. Taught anyone who would listen the truths in nature he found, without editorial revision. He acted like boys and men and the daughter’s of men should understand all the makings of the world. Spoke to them, perhaps, even about wasp sex. My God, why didn’t we just shoot him?

 

You’d think if all it took was a lawn mower engine and a pong machine we could be sending all kinds of probes out there into the mysterious vapors wherever we want. Who the hell needs to worry about space budgets if that’s all it takes? You’d think there would be garages out there with tinkering men making their own probes right now—little pop-up space programs. The problem, I suppose, if we must face reality, is not the wrapper. It is the ride, that initial shuttle ride—that rocket ride out to the thin high places. Not to mention the extraordinary math required for looping the thing around the crowded Jovian spacescape without your prize going all spackle and tinsel with just sudden white noise beaming back at you. (“Soup Can Three this is Rubber Band Base, come in please.”) Especially after the hellish six year wait. No easy flight path. Took NASA quite a while to come up with the whole beautiful outline of the path and one man’s sudden inspiration to figure out how to get the underpowered Galileo all the way out to Jupiter at all. Had to send it to Venus and then whip it back by Earth for some slingshot speedy-damn-Gonzalez ramp-up. It whizzed back by at high speed during the gulf war. NASA had to send some pointy messages over to the war staff to make sure some zealous, nervous American General didn’t shoot Galileo down.

 

Fabre, the teacher, took his pension and his disgrace (I don’t think he mulled on it much) and found a nice home in the countryside of France where he proceeded to impress the whole world with his careful studies and writings about the bugs he found in his back yard. He was never happier. He started his bug writing career in earnest at the age of 74. And he seemed to truly love those hunting wasps. He was, as I said, the one who determined that they were not killing and preserving their victims with some magical formula but carefully paralyzing them with their sting venom. This sounds easy enough but actually each group of wasps uses different insects for food. Most are fairly particular. And each food insect has its own nerve wiring diagram. The wasps seemed to know this however. And Fabre watched as the caterpillar hunters zapped their caterpillars at eight or nine different nerve centers serially and he watched the grasshopper hunters inject their victims at the precise three points needed to induce paralytic perfection in the long-legged hoppers. He was appropriately amazed. It is not a thing easily observed.

 

Galileo discovered a moon revolving around an asteroid. I mean the robotic Galileo discovered it. The man Galileo, of course, discovered the four big Jovian moons originally with his telescope. And then the probe named Galileo photographed the many other moons of Jupiter. And remember this is a planetary system that is positively infected with moons. There are the four Galilean monster moon objects and fifty or sixty more stormtrooper stones, asteroids, irregular boulders, not to mention exploded worlds of pebbles and dust. It is a fly-by-your-teeth zone. And that is not to mention the two Trojan clusters (really, I have no idea) of an immense number of objects tracking behind and ahead of Jupiter on the same orbital ellipse. The massive Jupiter balances the tug of the sun and keeps these clusters in place. There appear to be over sixty thousand of these. And they (not sure who) are trying to name many of them. Names like Gorgythion and Simoeisios. “What?” Being what I said when I learned this.

 

Fabre does not ever mention the sky as far as I remember in his book “The Hunting Wasps.” Except for the earthly sky at dawn and then he only notices this on a trek up a mountain with some friends. I don’t think he mentioned the night sky, the stars and planets at all. He spent all his time with his nose to the dirt, watching insects. And we need his kind as much as we need Newtons and Armstrongs. My favorite moment in his book being a time when he was trying to observe one of the caterpillar hunting wasps doing its venomous trick on a caterpillar. Not easy to see this happening; no one in fact at that time had ever seen it.

 

Fabre himself never saw the spontaneous event, though he tried. He was an alert and watchful man. He kept his eyes peeled for over twenty years. But his son was the one who finally spotted an Ammophila wasp dragging a fresh caterpillar through Dad’s garden one day. He ran to get the senior Fabre who went into a sudden frenzy to find a gray caterpillar of his own. He sent the whole family and the gardener looking for them. For this is how the paralytic event is observed. One steals the already stunned caterpillar from the wasp when it sets it down outside its homemade pit (it always does this to check over the orderliness of its pit one more time). And when it comes back out to grab the limp caterpillar it discovers that its prize has now been replaced by a lively one, as though its victim had awakened from the previously applied stings. The wasp then performs the surgical stinging maneuver again with this flim-flam switcheroo accomplished.

 

Fabre had worked this game with some wasps who hunted grasshoppers before. He knew it was effective. But unfortunately despite the gray caterpillars being common garden pests on the cabbages and carrots, one could not be located as Fabre chased along after the wasp. They failed utterly. But soon afterward Fabre noted another wasp digging in the dirt. It would dig and then stop, go back again, dig some more and then appear to give up. Fabre (in a moment, truly, of insect watching genius) decided to get out his pocket knife and dig further in the same spot. The wasp came right over when it saw this. (As though to say, “at last, a giant with a brain.”) Fabre would stop his digging and the little insect wasp-dog would come over and encourage him again with some vigorous foreleg scrabbling. (“Don’t stop Gulliver, go go.”) Fabre of course soon popped up a fine caterpillar right at that very spot. It had just been too deep for the wasp’s patience or her dirt moving capabilities. Fabre handed the caterpillar over and the wasp magically went right into the scripted stinging performance. The man was positively transported on the spot. And after this, he said, “it was like hunting truffles with a pig.” The two together nabbed many caterpillars. It is indeed impossible for me not to love a guy like that. Almost ninety years gone and I laughed out loud at this man and his wasp.

 

Incidentally, the reason we are purposely destroying our explorer, the reason we are burning our fine and tireless Galilean probe out in the atmosphere of Jupiter is so we don’t contaminate any Jovian moons with our nasty earth germs. Seriously. We had our grubby mitts all over that box before it rattled out into space. And the persistent little buggers may still be hanging on there these fourteen years later. No telling what that soupy moon Europa could do with a packet of evolving and adaptive bacteria from the nose of some NASA sneeze event in 1989. Life works in mysterious ways. An entire world ecosystem could evolve from one man’s pinky impression. Complexities might spring up way beyond wasps that know the structures of caterpillar nervous systems, beyond wasps that can find a cricket by listening to his call in the leaf litter. Beyond the golden bees that make us dizzy in the sun on the mighty intricate earth.

 

There were some at NASA who wanted to purposefully glide Galileo with its germs and all right into the wet world of Europa hoping for just such a thing (not that anything would happen in their lifetimes of course, but later on with some patience). This smelled like playing God though. “Let there be DNA.” Or something like that. It was cheating in some way. Though the actual reason why the gentler abandonment plan was forsaken was not because we couldn’t face creating something where there had been nothing, but that we were fearful that there may already be some life in the oceans of Europa. And then, of course, our DNA sneeze could possibly outstrip an already established lifeform or an entire life system. Perhaps we are overconfident in our world DNA. Maybe the soupy Europeaens (spelled anew for the new world) would kick our double-helical butts. It is a chicken fight we won’t subsidize or see.

 

In the appendix of Fabre’s lovely book he throws out, like an afterthought, the descriptions of four new species of wasp. Many men these days would truly give a great many years of life to get to name some new hunting wasps. He names one from three different genera: each julii—Jules’ Cerceris, Jules’ Ammophila and Jules’ Bembex. “I wish these three Wasps to bear the name of my son Jules, to whom I dedicate them…snatched at such an early age from your passionate love of flowers and insects, you were my fellow worker…I was to write this book for you…May your name at least figure in it, borne by some of these industrious and beautiful wasps.” I know nothing of his son otherwise. I wish I did.

 

And I still regret that Galileo did not name one of the greater Jovian moons after his daughter Celeste, the nun who loved her father so. Surely it is a finer name than Io (no slur intended to the many readers out there named Io.) That volcanic moon with its ghostly colors would have served his daughter well.

 

The beauty of our own world system is sometimes best appreciated when staring at its minutest parts. Not just at the whole thing floating in space all at once as in the rare view given to the departing Galileo or to the men who went to the moon. The close view is all we earthbound creatures have. Fabre lived out his life happily in the smallest of gardens. Earth, I’m sure, is striking from space. Its small blue form surely worked its voodoo on all the Apollo men. (I’ll let you know how or why when I see it first hand.) This same churning Earth made the wasp what it is. Men who fling Galilean probes at Jupiter and the wasps who dig in the dirt are the product of the same womb. Watching one wasp this past week drag a cricket over some tall grass, I was amazed anew at its steel blue colors and its late summer work. Down in the dirt, it was as though I were the man first seeing the golden slippings and turnings inside a new watch. It is the reason to look: the shock again of the intricacies that are so easy to take for granted, to ignore altogether.

 

If the moon Europa has already started something in its beautiful latticework of oceanic cracks and pocks, inside its gravitonic heavings and its glassine disorder, well, we salute your fragile chemistries on September 21st 2003 with an effigy. We’ll burn a tiny candle in your name. From a planet that knows intricacy from boorish necessity (sometimes), we strike out our wandering eye like a sacrificial flint to preserve the mere possibility of such a thing, a memorial to sanctity.

 

And to this, I say, “sweet dreams Galileo.”

 

 

        HR