Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter Eight: Hurricanes and Walkingsticks





Hurricanes and Walkingsticks 

And moreover, what is catastrophe?
Is it the sharp sword of God
Or just some other wild body loving its life?
--Mary Oliver


A pair of muskmares (Anisomorpha buprestoides)

      It is, as they say, calm. A meteorological inhale. The entire sky waits. But it isn’t just the weather causing the silence, it is the lack of human activity. Even this far out into the woods, it is times like this that make you realize the auditory effect people have on normal summer evenings. Gone is the overhead buzz of single-engine airplanes. Gone are the semi-trucks hitting a higher gear on distant highways. Gone are the lawnmowers, the ATVs, the screams of children floating in on the breeze. Everyone is inside their homes or sitting anxiously in shelters.

      Silence.

      The hurricane has already killed people. It has destroyed families, shredded forests, and disabled entire cities. It is a strange storm. It spins counterclockwise like all hurricanes in the northern hemisphere, but it is very tightly wound. A few storm bands passed earlier this afternoon but the storm core itself is small and a very powerful Category 4. It is plowing its way through orange groves south of here like a fist. Its enormous black head rises above the treelike down the road. The cloud deck is so tight the sun is still shining even as I watch its approach.

      In this kind of silence I can hear my muscles moving. I can hear the blood rushing through the capillaries in my ear. Then, even that quiets.  My senses are cleansed like an almond sliver or ginger on the palate. I are wholly receptive.

      True silence is very rare and haunting. I found it once deep inside a milky cave in a West Virginia mountain. The cave room was entirely white, instead of the normal grayish tan of most caves. I sat on a fallen stalactite and extinguished the carbide. Without any visual, auditory, or tactile clues, my body lost its sense of place. Only gravity dictated its rules. Silence devoured me. Nerves tingled then fell asleep. My retinas powered down, lingering on some ghostly red images until even those burned away. Silence isolated me from the world and dissolved me in the universe. Is that transcendence or subscendence? The mind forgets it has the option of talking or whistling. There is no telling how much time passed, sitting in that earthly envelope. When I emerged, sliding from the crevasse of clay, an acorn hitting the ground was a gunshot.

      This pre-storm hush is as close to true silence I’ve ever felt standing in the middle of a forest.

      I walk to the fence and look into the scrub. I’m standing on the ship’s upper deck and leaning out over the balcony railing. Swells of green. Tiny birds silently leap in the froth. Fog rises up from the previous rain bands. The light. The light is pelagic. A Golden Silk Orbweaver (Nephila clavipes) methodically repairs her web. Bright yellow, black, and white. Unlike most spiders, Nephila spins fine golden silk into large webs that can span incredible distances because of its unusual strength. There might be 60 meters of silk in one of her webs. Most spiders spin white silk, but if you look at Nephila’s web at the right angle, you can see the precious golden color. Spider silk is the result of a chemical reaction in the spider’s abdomen as several glands mix fibroin amino acids. As the amino acids exit the spinneret duct, they are stretched and aligned. Liquid turns into solid. She is capable of netting small birds in her beautiful web. She catches the last ray of light in her golden geometry as the sun is consumed by the hurricane.

      It has been a successful summer for the two-lined walkingsticks (Anisomorpha buprestoides), muskmares as we call them around here. The right combination of heat and humidity has created a booming population. Thousands of large, plump females gather in the pleats of palmetto leaves. Every single one of them has a smaller male riding on her back. Each male clings desperately to his prize. He holds her close. His head rests on her back. Does he whisper to her? Does he nuzzle?

      A torn fritillary wobbles into the tall Fakahatchee grass. A puny oak toad hops with purpose into the leaf litter. I look up at the tall slash pine in my front yard. It has grown oddly, split into two trunks about six feet off the ground. Perhaps negligent, I have decided not to cut it down despite the threat to my house if it should fall this direction. The first breeze reaches its upper branches and it launches hundreds of orange needles into the air. They drop like Mughal swords into the lawn. The hurricane rises up like a cliff-face overhead.

      Silence.

      The storm is imminent. Suddenly, the male walkingsticks begin to vibrate their thin, wire-like legs against the taut palmetto leaves.  Although each individual insect isn’t particularly loud, thousands of males are drumming. It is an ominous sound like countless whisks on a snare. Their drumming overwhelms the silence. Shocked, I forget the storm. I’ve spent hours watching muskmares and have seen individual males drum their legs in agitation toward other males.  But now the entire population is drumming simultaneously. I know this is a new, unknown behavior. What is causing thousands of individual insects to behave the same way? What sparks them, what inspires them to drum? I have walked into the middle of an ancient tribe drumming at the hurricane’s arrival.  It is a prayer, a plea for mercy.

      As the first few raindrops begin to fall, I can still hear the muskmares all over the woods and yard, vibrating themselves into the vegetation with all of their strength. The wind hits. Sound is rushing in from every direction.  I don’t want to leave this strange music, this percussive ritual. As I run back to the house and safety, I listen until the drumming is drowned out by the rain blasting into the trees. I shut the door behind me, sit down with my wife and dogs, and pray.

      The enormous fist moves across Florida. Ahead of it beats a puny drumming in the trees.

      Later, I foolishly step outside to get a better look at the storm. The entire world is gray. I am reminded of Ahab and his first awe-inspiring encounter with Moby Dick. “He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a cannon, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.” This is the atmosphere shooting its heart upon us. The sky moves like an enormous greased sheet. Are the clouds moving overhead or is the earth sliding beneath the sky like a great whale? And what to make of the 60 foot pine trees bowing their heads until they touch the ground? Tornados shriek down the road. A fierce wind rushes down. The hibiscus bush nearby trembles and explodes into a multitude of sulphur butterflies bursting out from their violated shelter. I can see every fragile individual, every delicately curved wing, every powdery soft body whisked helplessly up into the violent sky. They take my breath with them. If my chest were a cannon I’d have shot my heart upon it.

      The storm passes quickly. Within a couple of hours, the sun is shining again.  The electricity, the TV, the phone, the air conditioning all left with the hurricane. We are now inexcusably animal. Is this transcendence or subscendence? I walk my familiar trail. Squirrels are running everywhere, probably knocked from the trees. Otherwise, the forest is just like it always is.  A baby turtle here. A very old black racer there. A towhee. Thousands of muskmares. The harvester ants are rebuilding the low cone of their mound. And those same sulphur butterflies happily follow their erratic flights from flower to flower. What a delight the scrub buttercups are!

      To the forest and every single animal within it, each day brings another new hurricane, a new chance for disaster. Every day they hoard water, they stand in line for plywood. The animals face catastrophes in the form or a dragonfly, a broken wing, or a distracted driver on the highway. The hurricane is just another lucky predator. The scrub forest itself even depends upon hurricanes to help clear out overgrown trees and soak the dry sands. The seasonal ponds fill up providing water to support willow trees that, in turn, will provide critical early nectar in the spring. Perhaps the muskmares are a welcoming committee, not a warning siren.

      A feral dog follows me home from my walk. Infested and scarred, he is a warrior honed by years of life in the wild. Through no encouragement of my own, he is immediately devoted to me. I have the ability to instantly come up with the perfect name for every animal I meet, but I can’t think of a name for this dog. He stares at me with his worn eyes. The storm has washed away his wildness. Something in this dog has changed and now he wants to lie at the feet of a man. We walk out of the forest and straight up the neighborhood.  Sirens, chainsaws, generators, the weary neighbors. He sleeps on my front porch now. I think he will live here forever.

      Later, I would learn that the hurricane tidal surge washed away the beaches, exposing World War II mines that were buried beneath the sand. Rusted and patient, they incubated like terrible eggs beneath generations of oblivious beachgoers. I think of all those couples walking hand-in-hand watching pelicans and picking up smooth moonshells. I think of the father burying himself in the sand. I think of kite flying, gentle sea turtles lugging themselves up the shore, Frisbees, and surfers navigating their way through sharks only to think themselves safe on the beach. The whole time, for over fifty years, these old mines slept beneath us, waiting to rise up irrationally in a stunning bloom of sand and fire.

      To the jellyfish, the gentle sea turtle is an unstoppable catastrophe. To the cockle and surf clam, those smooth moonshells are voracious and relentless predators.

      Time and again, we are surprised, shocked even, that this beautiful world conspires so cruelly against us. Fires, tornados, hurricanes, lost WWII mines.

      I want to believe the muskmare behavior was caused only by instinct, that I ‘saw’ a ritualistic sense of urgency because I myself felt a sense of urgency. I wanted it to be dumbly about barometric pressure or simply coincidental. That is how I wrote it up. But now I am not so sure that I can turn so casually away from it. All the other creatures were silent. They responded to the incoming hurricane by hunkering down, by running. The birds. The frogs. The crickets. The humans. All silent. All numbed by fear. Only the humble muskmares chose to the meet the storm with noisy celebration, with drumming.




An aggregation of muskmares in their daytime home, a birdhouse




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