Snow Flea

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Hypogastrura nivicola

The snow flea is rarely found alone.
Though if it were, who but another snow flea
would notice it against the snow,
a single speck of pepper, a mote of ash?
Come March & they move en masse,
transhumant across their blue-shadowed host.
Approach too close & they start to rocket about
like acrobats in a mad flea circus.
There’s safety in numbers, & in
the unpredictability of a random launch —
the wingless springtail’s main defense.
True, one sometimes goes straight up
& returns to the same, dangerous spot,
but what bird wants to mess with such
unquiet seeds?

The snow flea is as self-reliant
as its cousin the true flea is dependent.
It absorbs moisture through
a feeding tube in its abdomen
& breathes directly through its thick skin.
Its blood contains a protein
that prevents it from ever freezing
& hardening into knives.

The snow flea never stops molting, even
after becoming an adult.
Life alternates between two phases,
mating & eating, with a complete
change of skin after each.
Nor does the fastidiousness end there:
all reproduction is by post.
The male deposits a tidy packet of sperm
at some convenient location
& the female stops by later & picks it up.
To everything its season.
And when the snow melts?
The snow flea walks on water if it must,
& returns at last — recalcitrant seasoning —
to the soil’s dark goulash.

This is a complete re-working of a poem that first appeared here back in December 2008, “Like a Snow Flea.” For more on snow fleas and springtails generally, see Bug Girl’s Blog and especially the Marvelous in nature.

Glass Frog

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Bestiary



The glass frog
is a master magician:
he bares not only his heart
but his digestive tract, too,
puts his guts on display
without spilling them,
as luminous & orderly
as a Joseph Cornell box.
His call is pure crystal,
& he can produce
a full chorus
from his single throat.
Day & night he squats
by his clutch of eggs,
darting the parasitic flies
before they can inject
their own dangerous eggs,
as the tadpoles grow visible
through the clearing albumen.
One night they wriggle free,
slide off their natal leaf
& drop into the jungle stream
far below, there to burrow
into the sandy bed.
Living in a cloud forest,
is it ever possible
to stop dreaming?
Trees bloom in lurid colors
that are not their own
& anything that wants to hide
can simply sit still
& learn how to be transparent
from gas & fog.

Purple Sea Urchin

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

The urchin uses its spines as feet; for it rests its weight on these, and then moving shifts from place to place.
Aristotle, The History of Animals

Spines have more uses
than one would think.
Sure, they defend against sea otters
and the voracious stars.
Ball-jointed, they swivel to catch
pieces of floating algae
for the shorter, two-
fingered pedicellines to convey
to the bottom-scraping mouth
& its five sharp pyramids.

They are digging bars.
A purple urchin can excavate
a hollow into solid rock.
If it starts too young, it may become stuck,
entombed. Some never dig at all,
& wander slow as time
through the kelp forest.

The spines sharpen a kind of vision, too,
like squinting eyelids
bringing into focus
the images collected by the pedicellines
& the tube feet, which are furred
with light-sensitive molecules.
The more numerous a sea urchin’s spines,
the sharper its vision — & yet
it has no brain.
It is all brain.
And it lacks eyes because it is all eye,
revolving in its self-made socket
for as long as a century,
risking death from the removal
of a single spine,
unable ever to shut.

Acorn Barnacle

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Semibalanus balanoides

Imagine being plankton:
small & adrift, little more
than head & rudder & a single eye,
food for whales.
Then one day the barnacle larva
grows a two-piece carapace
& is consumed by a sudden
sense of purpose.
Now it has working legs
& the power to swim wherever
it wants, but what it wants
is to find a spot where
it will never have to swim again.
Acutely sensitive feelers sample
every hard surface for evidence
of others of its kind, & in so doing,
deposit the same sign.
It tries out each potential anchorage
by standing on its head,
& if satisfied, secretes
from the base of its antennae
one of the hardest cements
known to science. Imagine
making that kind of commitment.
But only now,
attatched by the forehead
to rock or reef or oil tanker hull,
can it embark upon the final stage
of metamorphosis, become an adult
& build its ridged turret.

Two years later, packed among
its companions-for-life,
it reaches sexual maturity.
Though lacking a heart, it wields
in proportion to body size
the world’s largest penis,
which is also disposable
& re-grows every winter for
a new orgy. They enter each other
with the sureness of blind fingers
reading Braille, opercula open,
able to accommodate
as many as six at a time.
The mating season over,
each broods a clutch of fertilized eggs
within its shell until they hatch
& for a little while thereafter,
giving what we can only call live birth.
And all the while, the feathery appendages
that sprouted where legs used to be
keep up a delicate stroking
of the ocean current —
the barnacle’s first & probably
greatest love, inescapable,
full of the taste of distance
& the savory plankton.

(Thanks to Creature Cast for the inspiration)

Skunk Cabbage

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Direct link to photoset. If watching the slideshow, be sure to expand to full screen.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Here’s to the skunk cabbage,
first plant to raise a toast to spring,

even if it sometimes has to melt a hole
right through the ice,

a plant that grows
its own hothouse

& keeps it at 22 degrees Celsius
for weeks on end.

Half monk, half cobra,
it shares its solitude

with the earliest flies & beetles,
whose springtime fancy

turns to putrefaction: gut piles,
winter-killed deer, & in the swamp

a leathery curl of old meat.
It gives off a heat & fragrance

the real thing can rarely match—
pornography for insects.

Only after pollination is consummated
does the skunk cabbage unfurl

its eponymous leaves—
huge sails with yellow stitching

& a green that stays fresh
long into the summer,

while dark berries
swell on the spadix

& the roots tighten their grip
on the pungent mud,

the whole plant inching
into the earth.

More on sea urchin vision

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Bestiary


If you were intrigued by the description of sea urchin vision in my poem about the purple sea urchin, check out “Tube vision” at the indispensible Creaturecast blog.

Are sea urchins reacting to the presence or absence of light, or do they actually have spatial perception? Recent work by Blevins and Johnsen (2004) and Yerramilli and Johnsen (2009) suggests the latter. In these experiments, urchins would react to the presence of dark targets that looked like nice holes to crawl into in their tank. But they only recognized them if they were above a certain size, implying that their visual perception has a resolution of that certain size, and that they’re not just recognizing simple light or dark cues.

I still can’t get over the weirdness of seeing with one’s arms and legs.


This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Caretta caretta

Loggerhead: originally an insult applied to people,
later a kind of cannon shot, the post on a whaleboat
anchoring the harpoon line, a bulbous-headed iron tool
used to heat tar

& the largest sea turtle in the world. Its jaws
can crunch through the thickest armor: queen conch,
giant clam. Like all sea turtles, it can’t retreat
into its shell,

but once grown too big for a grouper’s gullet,
aside from fishing nets & oil spills, it’s nearly
indestructable. When sharks attack, it shows them
the flat side

of its plastron or carapace & their teeth
snap on nothing. It’s built for combat:
even the females spar over feeding grounds,
& during coitus,

which can go on for hours, other males
will batter & bite, sometimes dislodging their rival
and taking his place, or slicing his forelegs
to the bone.

Lexicographers insist that this is not the origin
of the expression at loggerheads, though they
propose no other. Mating takes place in spring
& early summer,

from Greece to the Gulf of Mexico. Males remain
offshore while the females venture in to lay eggs
high on the beach, where most clutches
will be found

by raccoons or gulls, dogs or storms. The hatchlings,
too, run a gauntlet when they cross the night beach,
guided by the glint of lights on the water that are not
the moon or stars.

Then they swim straight out, find the floating
mats called sargasso, circle the ocean.
They may swim for 8000 miles, navigating
by magnetic fields.

Biologists refer to this period in a loggerhead’s life,
before it returns to coastal waters three to seven
years later, as the lost years. Its heart-
shaped carapace

acquires a miniature reef, including algae
& barnacles — up to 100 species from 13 phyla.
The ancients weren’t so crazy when they imagined
the world riding

on its back. It can sleep underwater for hours
without breathing, its heart almost stopped.
It drinks seawater & excretes the salt
from special glands

next to its eyes. Biologists caution us not
to anthropomorphise, this is not what it seems,
this copious weeping has nothing to do
with grief.

Kissing Bug

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Rhodnius prolixus

The dry season ends
with an abrupt deluge.
We run for a three-
walled hut at the edge
of a pasture, crowd in
under the tiled roof
until someone spots
the kissing bugs, vectors
of Chagas disease,
crouched in a crack
in the adobe, distinctive
patterning like a miniature
African mask with abstract
features & a net for teeth,
the real face little more
than a syringe. I come
close for a better look
& they back up slowly,
legs bent, poised
as prizefighters. And
knowing their fondness
for human blood
sucked from the thin skin
of lips & eyelids,
unwilling to find out
if they only prey
on sleepers, we decide
instead to brave the rain
& pitch camp a hundred
yards off. That night,
sleep is elusive:
a plague of frogs has just
emerged from estivation,
their temporary coffins
dissolved into mud
& primordial lust. I stand
in the darkness listening
to that thunder of need,
pulling my unfiltered
cigarette’s cherry
almost to my lips.

Boqueron, Honduras, 1995


This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Bestiary


part of a letter from Mr Antony van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society of London

On the 30th day of August, 1700,
I ordered water to be drawn from the ditches
where the wormy sheep drank

& when I came home, & was busy viewing
the multiplicity of very small animals
drifting through the water, I saw

very many great round particles
of the bigness of a corn of sand
moving & revolving in the water.

Their outward skin was quite set over
with protruberant parts, which seemed
triangular & pointed towards the end,

all orderly & equally distant,
so that on one small body did stand
about two thousand. This was to me

a very pleasant sight, because as often
as I looked they never lay still
& in all their motion never ceased to turn.

I fancied at first that they were small
green animals. The smaller they were,
the deeper green their colour,

but the largest, those as big as
a great corn of sand, had turned clear,
though each enclosed 5, 6

or 7 — nay, some to 12
small globules, of the same shape
as the body that held them.

I thought it strange that in all the turning
of the first globe, the globules within
did not change their places in the least

& never came to touch.
Then the largest & clearest of all
began to open before my eyes,

& one of the round particles within, of
a delicate green, slipped out & began
to move in the water on its own,

as had the one it issued from —
which now ceased all motion.
Within a small time after,

a second & third also
slipped out, one after the other,
& so by degrees they all emerged.

After some time, the original particle
united again with the water,
for I could perceive no sign of it.

Most who would see these particles
move in the water would swear
they were live creatures, especially

the way they tumbled about
from one side to another.
But in three days time,

that great crowd of round particles
& all the living creatures
in the glass were gone.


This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Three thousand feet down where
an unmanned vehicle probes
the ocean like an endoscope,
a sudden carnival float ripples
into view: Siphonophore!
The scientists all rotate toward
the monitor, open-mouthed
as shepherds at the hush of wings
not grown for any air we know.
Siphonophore. Free of all
hard parts, including that nugget
the self. Corporate being
whose members are truly members—
co-dependent, specialized
as organs in a body, most
made of clear gelatinous tissue
through which, lurid as a sunrise,
the digestive apparatus winds.
Some species can reach
130 feet in length. They glow
blue or green when disturbed—
or fly to pieces, some so delicate
a cone of light alone can shatter them.
They’re almost impossible to collect.
What do they tell us, these prodigies
whose motion is a music,
weightless & translucent as
the dreams of birds?
That life is a conversation
matter is having with itself?
That cooperation at the highest level
is indistinguishable from genius?
All are predators.
Their apparitional tentilla wave
or glow to lure prey—those
so foolish as to possess central
nervous systems—into the range
of poisonous harpoons.