Underground with the Beetles

To cope with the grind, I reward myself with nature walks. Five minutes will do. By parking in a certain lot on my way to teach a class, I can take in a creek-bank where gray squirrels go skittering. They are audible in the fallen leaves of autumn, and sometimes I can even hear their claws as they race up the trunks of oaks. Once I saw a squirrel miss its leap and go tumbling down the steep bank. (It did better the second time.) Another parking lot allows me to pass by oaks with interesting gnarls in their trunks. One of them has an old and long-overgrown wound wide as a fireplace. It looks like a face. The snarling lips are thick crenellations of bark; The bared teeth are a weather-white slab of wood. I even perceive, among the rough bark above, demented eyes.

But I found myself at a disadvantage the other day. Construction and busloads of visitors barred me from the parking lots amid the green. I corkscrewed into a parking garage where machine sounds, boxed and amplified, replaced the sounds of birds and leaves. Worse: I had to go underground. A cold bluish buzz replaced the sun. My boots bounced flat echoes from the cement.

Suddenly I saw that my path would, within fifteen or 20 feet, cross that of another creature.

It was tiny, but for an insect, large; I could identify it from a distance as a beetle. I was incredulous, though, because familiar traits I never expected to see again clarified themselves as I approached. The size, first of all. Since moving to the north, I’ve seen plenty of beetles, but nothing thumb-sized like I used to see in Oklahoma. Second, its massive mandibles seemed to travel in a private cloud. It reminded me of the ones I used to see lassoed shut by black widow spiders.

So we met. The beetle stopped, aware of my shadow or, more likely, my tread. It glistened as brightly, even in the dim fluorescence, as my old Oklahoma friends; but in place of their black, this one was reddish brown. The cloud around its head was indeed spider web, though of a flimsier make than the widow’s.  Possibly the beetle had run through a disused web; if the spider had been home, it certainly hadn’t been sturdy enough to stop this guest. The beetle looked as if it might resume its advance. I breathed on it. It reared and spread its mandibles to threaten me.

I have rarely felt so welcome. The beetle didn’t want me, but somehow I’d come home.

A car approached. The beetle was in the way of traffic, but I stood over it protectively. It remained in its threat posture even as I protected it, its mandibles raised like the tusks of a sniffing pig.

I needed something to put it in. In Oklahoma, I was rarely at a loss for a vessel, because paper cups and plastic bottles were always lying around. Saint Paul, Minnesota, does not reliably offer such amenities. It must be cultural. I would have to improvise. In my book bag I found a tiny bottle of ibuprofen. I emptied it, the pink pills trickling out to mingle with the dimes and nickels in the bottom of my bag. The vial’s mouth was just large enough to accommodate the beetle’s body, but the beetle objected. It grasped the mouth with its hooked feet and refused to enter. Next I found an envelope in which I carried papers that must have once seemed important. I prodded; the beetle opened its mandibles wider; I paused while another car drove around me. It parked nearby. I wondered how I would explain myself, but the driver strode by me at a businesslike clip, her ringed thumb punching text keys.

When I’d finally succeeded with my prodding, the beetle seemed content in the envelope.

Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley



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