The red menace

Overcast at dawn. The backing-up beeping of distant quarry trucks mingles with the cheeps and chirps of finches in the yard. A Carolina wren’s inquisitive trill. Qui vive? Not who lives but who goes. Who goes there?

Last night listening to Henry Thomas, strange East Texas bluesman with a penny whistle: “I’m going where I never get hoodooed.” Is there really such a place? If someone walks on the site of your future grave, they say, you’ll feel the chill regardless of the miles in between.

The aspen leaves have reached their peak of color, that incandescent red-tinged gold. Yesterday afternoon I sat on my porch watching them make conversation with the wind and realized I didn’t have any better words for it than that. The aspens shimmered – or shimmied – and dive-bombing ladybugs filled the air.

It was the first day of the annual Asian ladybug invasion. This forced to me to become unusually attentive to my person, brushing the beetles from beard, hair or rim of glasses several times a minute. I was agog – as I always am at first – by the tremendous variation in size, color and number of spots exhibited by this one species. They run the gamut from light orange to deep red, and from no spots to more than twenty. Here’s one on my leg that’s twice the diameter of a pencil eraser; that one on the porch railing is barely as big as a drop of blood.

But it seems that the price for such variability – surely an index of the species’ tremendous adaptability – has been a precipitous drop in native ladybug diversity here in the east. Out-competed by the hordes of aliens, which have been temporarily freed from the checks of their native parasites and diseases, our own ladybug species are disappearing. There are (or were) something like 450 species of ladybug beetles native to the U.S. east of the Mississippi. How many will survive?

I try to recall the last time I saw one of those classic, two-spot ladybugs that used to be so common when I was a kid. Those were the ones we most often sang the morbid little nursery rhyme to: Your house is on fire, your children are gone! They flew away, all right, and they might never come back.

The red maple trees next to the driveway colored up and dropped their leaves in the space of only a few days, all of which were foggy and rainy. This is turning into one of those autumns where the best foliage displays are under one’s feet. I find myself craving the glossy sound of a banjo.

Yesterday I was listening to Public Enemy’s 1991 album Fear of a Black Planet. Like the Bible, their lyrics admit of multiple readings, and seem eerily prophetic. Brain game, intellectual Vietnam . . . Welcome to the terrordome.

When the temperature drops below 57 degrees F., the ladybugs stop flying. Late in the afternoon, a couple field crickets start up – I had just been wondering if I’d hear any more from their tribe this year. The air is heavy: good for carrying odors, bad for sounds. The train whistle blowing the Plummer’s Hollow crossing sounds as if it could be five miles away. The knocking of the rails as the freight cars pass over could be anything, I think – even the mountain’s own, faint pulse.

A pileated woodpecker calls from one of the trees in the yard, that mechanical laughter, a prehistoric sound. I catch a glimpse of his flaming crest as he circles a tall locust, probing for ants.

Gray November looms. This could be one of the last warm afternoons of the year. Feeling at peace with myself and the world, whence this sudden urge to get out the rifle and look for something, anything to shoot?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.