Secrets of the Siberian Elm, Part 1 of 2

When you look at a wall spotted with stains . . . you may discover landscapes beautified with mountains, rivers and rocks, arrayed with trees, plains, hills and wide valleys; you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, human heads, animals, cliffs, the sea, cloud or forests. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.

Leonardo da Vinci

I stood precariously on a six-foot step-ladder, sawing the limb of a Siberian elm.  The handsaw bit through the textured bark in a few smooth strokes, then hit the heartwood and slowed.  I tried not to rush.  I thought I would actually go faster by keeping my strokes smooth and long, conserving the strength of my arm.  It was boring work.  My calves ached with the effort of standing tall enough on my inadequate ladder.  But the action of the saw was relaxing, even as it wore me out.

My eyes wandered.  The bark of the tree was thick, and thickened further at the collars where limb met trunk or thicker limb.  The bark of Siberian elms has always suggested faces to me, human faces shaping in that gator-hide texture--I mix my metaphors, but mixture is what the bark suggests to me, because where I imagine one face in the bark, it is always incomplete.  The curve that would complete it is absent, and instead some broad ridge sweeps in and draws my eye to a further face appended to the first face, and this second is incomplete and verges prematurely into two others.  If I let myself simply gaze at the bark, I wander from face to face until I catch myself losing everything, following lines without attaching meaning to them, only vague intimations, moods.  When I catch myself drifting away from all sane restraint, I try to find some particular face again.  Perhaps it’s a particularly ugly face; maybe it’s one whose eyes gazed back at mine with a particular intensity.  Usually I don’t find it.

As I sawed, I let my eyes wander along the bark in this manner.  I didn’t really take my attention away from what I was doing; Siberian elm bark is so deeply textured, so rich in convolutions, like a human brain, that I can wander for miles within a few inches.  But this time something stopped me and made my eyes shift their focus toward a shape that did not dissolve into the next one.          

It was a cockroach, a thin brunet one, and he was acting strangely.  He was close enough to feel my breath, but he didn’t run away.  I stared at him until I noticed a deficiency: His antennae, which should have been long and whip-thin, were only blunt stubs.  I flashed to something I had read, about the habits of a certain predatory wasp, Ampulex furruginea.  The wasp bites a roach’s antennae off; that action renders the roach literally senseless, unable to comprehend the world around him.  It makes the normally skittish creature docile.  The wasp can do with her victim what she will.

As I remembered this unusual set of facts, a wasp crawled into view, moving at a businesslike clip.  She was leaner than a honeybee, half black and half red.  She seized the roach by the stubs of his antennae and led him through the valleys of bark.  They traveled only about six inches, though I imagine the journey was much longer to them, going over ridges and through crevasses.  The wasp let go of the roach and left.  She’d be back.  I’d seen the same behavior in the midnight-blue hijacker wasps that dart about on my lawn hunting for spiders.  After bringing the prey under their power, they flit between the victim and the grave they mean to seal him in.

The wasp, of whatever species, is a female.  She’s about to lay an egg, and the final resting place of her victim--it can be a hole in the ground, or, as in this case, a natural crevice in stone or bark--becomes a nursery for her larva.  The larva eats the paralyzed prey from within--he becomes shelter and suckle at the same time.  The special delight of such arrangements is that the prey stays alive through most of it.  Otherwise, he would rot and be useless as wasp food.  The wasp clan has diversified enormously, so that it can supply parasites tailored for many sorts of living things--trees and tarantulas, caterpillars and beetles.  Some wasps parasitize other parasitic wasps, and these hyperparasites in turn are parasitized by other wasps, and these by others.  Perhaps this hyperparasitic regression goes further, but it’s hard to say: at this point, the wasps are too small to be seen without a microscope.

The wasp returned.  She was on foot the entire time, never flying.  Each time she came back, she would lead the roach a few more inches.  I couldn’t see the other end of her round trip, the place she had chosen for him.  She led the senseless roach around the trunk and out of my sight.  I climbed after them a little way, but some idiot had been sawing at the branches, leaving me little to climb on.  I strained my eyes gazing at that infinity of folded faces, which I now realized was also a vast graveyard and nursery.

Do not marvel at all these strange births and transformations, for we ourselves are nothing more than caterpillars and worms.

Francesco Redi


Portions of this story appear in
The Book of Deadly Animals (US)
Deadly Animals (UK)

Originally published in Discover.


  1. I like that quote at the end. I am always amazed when I hear that we replace our bodies several times during out lifetime- without even noticing.

  2. Francesco Redi fascinates me. He was the first scientist to debunk spontaneous generation through rigorous experiments. He also invented the idea of controls in experiments. And he was a prominent poet.

  3. Gotta read more about him. So he is the reason why we had to breed maggots in elementary school! XD

  4. Your elementary school sounds way cooler than mine.

  5. It was nowhere near as cool as middle school... it was located just besides a ravine and there were tons of animals, including nine banded armadillos. A student was once sprayed by a skunk :D As for my own memories, I remember saving a very large frog from being tortured to death by warning the other kids that it was a highly poisonous species (was lying of course) and that they would be wise to leave it alone. It worked :D The frog was seemingly just emerging from hibernation (as it came from a burrow). To date, I have no idea of what species of frog it was; it looked a lot like a red-eyed tree frog, but it was too big, and not as brightly colored.
    There were also plenty of insects, especially moths, and once I had a huge pink and green long-horned beetle crawl into my shirt. Don`t really want to talk about that :D

    My Geography teacher said there were "tigers" down there too but I think he just said it to keep children from leaping the fence and going to the ravine. Scorpions, black widows and rattlesnakes were probably the most dangerous critters in the area.

  6. Wow. The best my school could offer was a building that always got invaded by nesting birds, which would urinate on us during first aid class. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.


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