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

Study of a Dead Bird

Photography by Parker Grice

No animals were harmed in the making of this post. We just found it that way.

Wildlife Classics: Rhinoceros

by JH Patterson

Rhinos are extraordinary animals, and not in any way to be depended upon. One day they will sheer off on meeting a human being and make no attempt to attack; the next day, for no apparent reason, they may execute a most determined charge. I was told for a fact by an official who had been long in the country that on one occasion while a gang of twenty-one slaves, chained neck to neck as was the custom, was being smuggled down to the coast and was proceeding in Indian file along a narrow path, a rhinoceros suddenly charged out at right angles to them, impaled the centre man on its horns and broke the necks of the remainder of the party by the suddenness of his rush. These huge beasts have a very keen sense of smell, but equally indifferent eyesight, and it is said that if a hunter will only stand perfectly still on meeting a rhino, it will pass him by without attempting to molest him. I feel bound to add, however, that I have so far failed to come across anybody who has actually tried the experiment. On the other hand, I have met one or two men who have been tossed on the horns of these animals, and they described it as a very painful proceeding. It generally means being a cripple for life, if one even succeeds in escaping death. Mr. B. Eastwood, the chief accountant of the Uganda Railway, once gave me a graphic description of his marvellous escape from an infuriated rhino. He was on leave at the time on a hunting expedition in the neighbourhood of Lake Baringo, about eighty miles north of the railway from Nakuru, and had shot and apparently killed a rhino. On walking up to it, however, the brute rose to its feet and literally fell on him, breaking four ribs and his right arm. Not content with this, it then stuck its horn through his thigh and tossed him over its back, repeating this operation once or twice. Finally, it lumbered off, leaving poor Eastwood helpless and fainting in the long grass where he had fallen. He was alone at the time, and it was not for some hours that he was found by his porters, who were only attracted to the spot by the numbers of vultures hovering about, waiting in their ghoulish manner for life to be extinct before beginning their meal. How he managed to live for the eight days after this which elapsed before a doctor could be got to him I cannot imagine; but in the end he fortunately made a good recovery, the only sign of his terrible experience being the absence of his right arm, which had to be amputated.

Video: Hornets vs. Bees

An awesome predatory raid. If you can look past the melodramatic filmmaking, the photography is really impressive.

Wildlife Classics: Murdering Some Rodents

Reinhard Kraasch/Creative Commons


A Wildlife Classic by Maxine Kumin

Gassing the woodchucks didn't turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets' neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck's face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Ten minutes later I dropped the mother.  She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next.  O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There's one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form.  I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they'd all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

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