Notes from the W. Forest
On a lead from colleague F. Kerman, I have built a concealed camp in the dense northwestern corner of the W. Forest to observe two individuals living in close commune with deciduous forest insect populations. The subjects reside in a brown tent with a zippered flap under two pecan trees on the edge of a natural pond.
SUBJECT A: Adult female. Taller and apparent leader. Left arm immobilized by a green cast with ink markings. Cropped hair, navy shorts, white blouse, green neckerchief. Prominent badge reads Ms. Angie Troop 638.
SUBJECT C: Adult female. Made to appear wider than is anatomically natural by large hair, glittering adornments, pleated skirt. Navy vest almost entirely covered with adornments. Prominent badge reads Mrs. Catie Troop 638 above the marking We Pledge to Live by the Girl Scout Law.
Above their camp hang the fall webworm, eastern tent caterpillar, ailanthus webworm moth, and web-spinning sawfly, four insect subjects whose homes resemble auspiciously the dwelling of their human neighbors. It is possible to read this as a signal of coherence between human and insect populations and conjecture that this study is full of potential.
SUBJECT C spends the first morning of observation gathering a collection of caterpillars in a cooking pot. They move stickily through the leftovers from the subjects’ breakfast meal, oatmeal and sugar dinosaur eggs that C prepared from two brown pouches. Whenever a caterpillar nears the rim of the pot, C flicks it back to the bottom and points at it in a gesture of dominance. From her gestures it is possible to surmise that C wants the caterpillars to get inside the eggs, reversing the typical lepidopteron life cycle.
Symbologies that ask living insects to bend to the will of human subjects require great patience and are rarely noted and even more rarely achieved by the cultures who attempt it. Even under threat of harvest, honeybees and silkworms tend to work as they are instinctively inclined. C devotes the full morning to prodding the caterpillars around the pot with, it appears, great trust that one will bow at the thorax and break into a sugar egg eventually. Her confidence suggests belief in a cultural myth I have not come across before, which will perhaps be a novel and publishable find.
C chooses a variable oak leaf caterpillar from the pot and stands it upright on its tail as if it is a biped. C walks the caterpillar back and forth on the rim of the pot. She collects a pile of leaves and wraps them around the caterpillar in layers, commending it for being ‘very fashionable, very pretty.’ The caterpillar wriggles away from each leaf in equal distress, even the leaves of the southern red and post oaks to which it should naturally be most attracted. The personification we see here (bipedal movement) and gendering of the insect (‘pretty’ rather than ‘handsome’ or a more neutral ‘attractive’) illustrate typical and unremarkable conventions. However, C soon begins more interestingly to stack the false unicorn caterpillars and loudly proclaim that they ‘are earning their horsemanship badges,’ the decoration to which she refers appearing to be wholly metaphorical.
At noon SUBJECT C engages with SUBJECT A over Agraulis vanillae, the Gulf Fritillary. ‘It is spotty,’ notes SUBJECT A, chewing the stem of a leaf in alignment with Agraulis in its larval form. She waits for the transformative effects of her mastication, the growth of some means of rising into the sky.
In response, SUBJECT C monologues vaguely about the differences between ‘here’ and ‘junior camp’ where ‘everything was about the damn rainbow bridge.’ C claims to be glad she is ‘finally through with that constant irritation.’
The subjects spend the hottest hours of the day napping, C curled in the shade of the pecan trees and A extended in the sun. Bronzed tiger beetles skitter regularly over C, who never fails to wake and squeeze each unsuspecting hunter between her finger and thumb, rub it into a thin protein paste, and put it into her mouth.
As the forest darkens, the subjects begin to sing rousing songs. They start with a call and response about ‘peeling,’ ‘smushing,’ and ‘goingbananas’ and move on to an onomatopoetic piece about the death of a frog. C suggests ‘the junior bear song.’
C retrieves a box of chewy peanut butter granola bars from the tent, and both subjects sing their bear song four times more, using the granola bars as puppets for the brownies and acting as the bears themselves. The joyfully animalistic performance seems disappointingly uninterested in creatures of Insecta at first, but by the third iteration it becomes obvious that the subjects have slowed their tempo to match the swelling undertone of the forest’s field crickets.
The clearly ceremonial final song is slowest, centering on the chorus, ‘Glory glory, I’m a leader. How’d I get to be a leader? All I did was have a daughter. Is this the price I pay?’ The mood of this song is difficult to place. Male field crickets found in the W. Forest perform at least three types of songs: one to summon females, one to honor the individual female when she appears, and one to ward off other males. Female crickets have never been documented as makers of practical music, though one variety of female parasitic fly has been known to take advantage of the exposed male wooers by bombarding him with her own unsolicited eggs.
Water striders skitter over the pond. SUBJECT C positions her body with care as she floats, keeping her fleshy frontal protrusions even with the filmy surface. Water striders skitter over her skin, and tiny fish swim into the channel of her chest to snap at them. She is making of herself an ecosystem.
Here is the subject in opposition to herself, who only recently stacked caterpillars as rider and unicorn in an uncontestable image of human domination. Now C strokes and does not eat the water striders or involve them in symbology. Those that light on the floating rounds of her flesh are protected even from their natural hunters, who nip at the nipples of that great human mass that cannot in the wild be harmed, due to scale. We must consider the ways that protection may also be read as exploitation. We fill butterfly houses with split fruit and wet nooks, anticipating only the day we can enter the living kaleidoscope and feel the small panic that suggests to us joy is attainable.
The water striders hunch over her nipples for deliberate lengths of time, as they hunch to guard females they have chosen as mates. Female water striders too hunch over her nipples. The cluster of meanings and feelings shared between SUBJECT C and Insecta explode rapidly, and any sufficient understanding will require me to observe for hours longer, maybe years.
SUBJECT A is a dearth of worthwhile information. She splashes the water striders away and does not even seem to mean anything by the splashing. A spins in the water, smacking her cast against the surface and shouting, ‘No more terrible juniors acting like mothers. I can’t put my cast in the water? Look at this! You’ve got sticks up your little girl butts!’ Bits of plaster float in a widening circle around the dervish, worrying the water striders.
A deerfly hovers. She is a beautiful specimen with rainbow-spotted eyes. Her mouthparts are capable of cutting multiple gashes with only one bite. SUBJECT A should be struck by wonder, but she drops below the surface of the water and kicks a spray that clings to the wings of the deerfly, dragging her down. Repeated bites have resulted in blood loss cited as causing livestock to die. Only the female deerfly bites. I would willingly breach my concealment only for A to meet the deerfly with a look like any kind of recognition.
SUBJECT A cooks the breakfast, a mash of mixed beans, while SUBJECT C reads a worksheet titled The Jeweler Badge. Stapled to the worksheet is a clear bag of threads in black, yellow, and pink, the stunning contrasts of the western sheepmoth. C removes them, lines them up, and ties one end with an overhand knot.
SUBJECT A cuts three onions and tosses the papers, which flutter a short way off like a rabble of cabbage whites. She uses the knife to saw small sections of her hair shorter and tosses them away too. She begins to peel the layer of green with its smeared, splotchy signatures from the outside of her cast. A appears to be dispersing.
C catches a piece of the onion paper and puts it in her hair. She catches some of A’s hair and weaves it into the cord she is making from rows of knots. She adds a stretch of stiff green gauze to her work and then, carefully, the strips of sunburn A peels from her shoulders and back.
Ethnoentomologists have observed female subjects in southeast India who make belts to exhibit the most beautiful weevils they can find. They tie thread around the living weevils and hang them from the belts so the insects swing and scrabble at their hips. The history and reasoning behind the fashion are not known, only that the subjects are careful not to kill the weevils before they die of starvation, because to do so would lesson the shine of its shell.
Perhaps the weevils accentuate the female gait or catch light to make the width of her hips appear greater. Evolution grants similar visual trickeries to insects without competent methods of self-preservation. Perhaps C builds a similar type of bright charm to keep the females who comprise her community safe.
A removes her neckerchief and tosses it up, a massive and oversaturated Luna Moth. C rises to retrieve it. A late six-spotted tiger beetle falls from the pleats of her skirt. C wraps the tiger beetle in the neckerchief and settles herself back at her work, taking breaks every so often to check on the tiger beetle and wrap the neckerchief tighter
This evening offers the first true thrill of my observation of A and C. The subjects have been undressing over the hours since their afternoon meal. C now wears only the pleated skirt, to which she has attached her badge, Mrs. Catie Troop 638, and a variety of other adornments inc
luding brown triangular patches held by safety pins and various leaves from the forest. My inability to deduce, from this distance, what aphids or midge larvae might nest in those leaves is a scientific frustration, but one that is very soon allayed. A removes all of her clothing, complaining about the ‘hell heat.’ She holds up one finger. She adds another finger, and a third, until her fingers number fifteen. ‘Ninety-two at night is unbelievable,’ she says.
Unbelievable it is! After showing the least attention to the profusion of insects that comprise her surroundings, SUBJECT A fully understands the sensitivities of the snowy tree cricket and, moreover, shows absolute faith in its meteorological call. This ethnoentomologist must sometimes admit that his thoughts are faulty, but never has a misunderstanding been so breathtaking as this. The subject’s comprehension of Oecanthus fultoni was not symbolic but scientific, my seminal paper will begin.
‘You have to count the number of chirps in fifteen seconds, and add thirty-nine,’ SUBJECTA explains—a golden quote! C says, ‘You just learn something every day. It seems I’ve earned my weather badge!’ She crawls into the tent, her loose buttocks shining white in the glow of the flashlight. Moths flit toward her. An assortment of moths has begun to gather all around. Lepidoptera, most loved of the insects.
Come, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow me.
Wither shall I follow, follow, follow, wither shall I follow, follow thee?
To the forest, to the forest, away from the rest with me.
The subjects settle together on a beach towel at the base of the closest pecan tree. While they sing, SUBJECTA plucks individual hairs from her head and tosses them up to flutter. C collects them and wraps them around her fingers. It is impossible to record all that they sing, and the setting does not feel right for scientific inquiry. Even the ethnoentomologist must sometimes lay down his head and let those more natural voices of the world fill his mind, must still his writing hand long enough to let the lovely one-eyed sphinx light on it, and rest.
A and C have removed, hand in hand, to the tent. The flashlight beam roves around inside, drawing lines of light across the tent material to which the moths flock. Nothing so beautiful has ever been recorded. Hundreds of moths, too many genera to name, and all move together as one pink-white cape over the women’s tent. Noises come from inside like the rustling of wings, and outside, so many wings moving silently, propelling their shadows back and forth after that which illuminates them.
At dawn the subjects come out to bathe. SUBJECT C scrubs her hair with a bar of soap and begins to braid it with pondweeds. SUBJECT A, with little hair left,removes to the bank to shave her pubis with a pink plastic razor. She holds out each of her labia majora to shave individually and folds them back to shave the thin hairs that sprout beneath. The inner layers of the subject’s vagina appear brighter than the outer, reminiscent of the saturated underwings of owlet moths, flashed in flights of distress to startle prey. I recognize my temptation to read lepidopteran interests onto the subjects, prompted by the spectacle they orchestrated last night which left me with such a feeling of close communion with the moths that it is hard to imagine A and C, lying directly below the tumble of the insects in their most rapturous moments, feel any less harrowed and blessed than me.
A folds back her labia minora to sweep at small hairs that have caught beneath them. She rinses the hairs into the pond water, where any number of aquatic insects may mistake them for food. I feel under my observational focus a distinct stirring of unease. Some species of the aquatic scavengers colloquially named water boatmen produce ultrasonic mating calls using their genitals. A scientist can listen and watch and never hear the call. I have always worked hard to challenge the limits of my understanding, and I strain my ears until they ring.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve had a peeper,’ A says. C hums a song that I recognize, ‘He ate up all the brownies, he ate up all the brownies.’ ‘We’re out of granola bars and ought to learn to hung,’ says A, knocking her razor against a large, flat stone.
The forest holds out riches to guide their education. Do they see the giant water bug collecting tadpoles and tiny fish from their pond? Do they know of the yellow-bellied bee assassin, the masked hunter, or his cousin Apiomerus crassipes who lies awaiting his victims in a confusion of flowers? There is also the kissing bug. A and C could hunt them with flower chains around their necks.The forest holds the richest meats they could ever taste. I know how to roast them. Proper blackening takes precision, and for beginners like my subjects it is best to begin with a studied practitioner placing their hands around his stick at the proper distance from the fire.
It is common after days of solitary observation for the ethnoentomologist to find he has lost himself for a moment. It is a devastating slip. When SUBJECT A meets my eyes, I am slammed with the memory of touching my first great black witch, large as my hand and so sure, as I could not keep my fingers off her wings, to die. It is true that my left hand has stretched through the foliage that has been my shelter, that my head has risen into a sliver of sun and glitters at her.
Mm-at! went the little green frog one day.
Mm-at! went the little green frog.
Mm-at! went the little green frog one day
and his eyes went mm-mm-at.
The subjects sing this tune repeatedly while they busy themselves around their camp. They crawl in and out of the tent, bringing their belongings out. They bring out books, clothes, packaged foods, sleeping bags, and hand mirrors. SUBJECT C goes through the clothes, putting on under her skirt tiny pairs of green leggings, pants, other skirts, and many socks. She pins countless round and colorful badges to the flannel shirts she has put over her blouse. She is finally forming a chrysalis. My records will have to come to a close when C flies away. SUBJECT A tosses badges into the pond and I strain with the impossibility of classifying her.
Perhaps she has always worn a kind of cocoon in the materials of her body and, now mature, the specimen that will emerge from its dispersal will be too small to see from a distance, and will fly away and one day be extinct, like every vibrant promise into which the ethnoentomologist sticks or tries to stick his pin.
It is difficult in the midst of such upheaval to find the insects, who would never desecrate the forest in such a loud and enthusiastic manner. The insects have backed into their nests and homes to prepare. They will crawl into the shampoo bottles and the duffel bags and make new nests and homes when the subjects are gone. Insects are intelligent and complex creatures, capable of prediction, but they do not feel love.
Katy Gunn is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama with writing forthcoming from Birkensnake, trnsfr, NAP, and more.
All rights reserved to Katy Gunn.