Swallowtail: the making of a haiku

spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

I found this photo in my camera when I went to download my Stockholm airport photos. I took it in late August, I think. There’s a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) next to my front door, and the fact that this spicebush swallowtail caterpillar was now climbing the storm door suggests it was in its last instar and looking for a place to pupate. The fake eye-spots on its butt are of course evolution’s way of protecting it from predators (mostly birds).

I got to thinking about the photo in the shower this morning. Perhaps I could post it to my sadly neglected Woodrat photohaiku blog? Then my mind wandered to certain people — you know the type I’m sure — and I came up with:

big fake eyes
your real gaze is in the glass
poor caterpillar

Not bad, but “glass” was too ambivalent (it could mean a drink), while “mirror” would be a little too much (especially given the final “r” sounds of “poor” and “caterpillar”). And what was supposed to be a sympathetic final line just sounded condescending, an insult compounding the injury of anthropomorphism.

where to pupate?
the caterpillar’s own green
repels her now

I wasn’t dissatisfied with this, either, but it seemed altogether too cerebral for a proper haiku. I just wasn’t ready to accept that I couldn’t pack a bit of nature education into (approximately) 17 syllables. This despite the obvious fact that the species name itself was much too long to fit.

big fake eyes
the poor caterpillar’s
only defense

The more I pondered it, the more laden with significance this caterpillar became — poor thing, indeed! I had strayed pretty far from the spirit of haiku, but who cares? I was having fun.

big fake eyes
searching for a quiet spot
to don black wings

This semi-surrealist take would be, if nothing else, a good fit for the Halloween season, I thought. Why not?

I was tired; I had gotten up after only four hours of sleep so I could make bread this morning. I caught myself staring.

big fake stare
the caterpillar is tired
of being a caterpillar

And that, for better or worse, is the one I went with. Spontaneous insights are damn hard work sometimes.

Link roundup: Reenacting apocalypse, answering Neruda, and listening to tinamous

NYTimes.com: “Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami”
It’s hard to imagine a better way to convey the devastation and horror of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami than this interactive feature. With a sweep of the cursor, we can reenact apocalyse.

Wikipedia: Sendai
I was moved to learn that Sendai is nicknamed City of the Trees, and has a couple annual festivals that highlight its magnificent zelkova trees.

t r u t h o u t : “Assault on Collective Bargaining Illegal, Says International Labor Rights Group”
I have a theory that the Wisconsin governor is actually a stealth socialist, doing everything he can to revive the union movement in America.

Poetry Daily: Three poems by Laura Kasischke

The day
en route to darkness. The guillotine
on the way to the neck. The train
to nudity. The bus
to being alone. The main-and-mast,
and the thousand oars, the
thousand hands.

New Internationalist: “Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution”
By Egyptian expat poet (and Facebook friend) Yahia Lababidi.

As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive — singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre — showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even.

The Task at Hand: “Porch Poetry”

While The Morning Porch is Dave’s, there are plenty of porches — or at least perches — in every neighborhood. With that in mind, I’m calling my little collection A View From Another Porch. While I’ll certainly be adding new posts on other subjects throughout the season of Lent, each day an additional observation will be tucked in here. After not quite a week of looking around, I’m enjoying the discipline far more than I expected to, and I’m looking forward to continuing the heart and eye-opening exercise until Easter.

Shearsman ebooks: Talking to Neruda’s Questions by M T C Cronin [PDF]
Anyone who’s read Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions should appreciate this. Cronin attempts to answer each of Neruda’s questions in the same spirit. Delightful.

Spring Beauty and the bees: Volunteer pollinator monitoring
Awesome pun, great-sounding citizen science project.

Drawing the Motmot: “Tropical Rainforest Sounds”
Some field recordings by artist-blogger Debby Kaspari. Biological diversity translates directly to sonic diversity, I imagine. Hands down the most interesting music I’ve heard all week.


Revamping Via Negativa’s About page this week, I came up with my best thumbnail description to date: “Via Negativa is a personal web log with delusions of grandeur.” I also included a new take on my old “Words on the Street” cartoon by Siona (the blogger, not the inchworm genus). Check it out.

Sacred Scarab

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Scarabaeus sacer

& round
& shiny as
a sex toy,
studded collar
biting into
the dirt,
the translucent
hum of
his wings
folded away,
the six-
legged god
plods backwards,
wheeling his
little world
of shit.

* * *

I first posted this one back in 2007, and am reposting it with a new title because it seems a natural addition to my Bestiary series (which I do plan to get back to once my current wildflower obsession wanes a little). I’ve spent all day going through the Via Negativa poetry archives, turning up a few forgotten gems but also becoming more than a bit nauseated at having to re-think so many of my own stale thoughts at one sitting.

Biotic hacks

tulip-tree cocoons

An otherwise leafless tulip-tree sapling in the yard still holds five or six leaves, curled and sewn into moth cocoons: a simple yet elegant biotic hack. (Update) This is most likely the work of the promethea silkmoth, Callosamia promethea.

goldenrod bunch gall 2

Many of the dried goldenrod stalks display a more destructive repurposing, the work of a midge known as Rhopalomyla solidaginis which lays its eggs in the terminal bud and restricts all further growth to that point, where its fat larva feeds and may be joined by midges of other species in search of shelter.

goldenrod bunch gall

A inflorescence may still emerge from the cluster, but much of the time there’s only the hack’s faux flower, a beautiful fuck you to the Canada goldenrod.

goldenrod ball gall

Less destructive is the goldenrod ball gall, winter home of a fly larva, Eurosta solidaginis. The adult which emerges in the spring is said to be a poor flyer, and only lives a couple of weeks — long enough to mate and inject its eggs into a young goldenrod stem. It is the larva that then produces the chemical instructions to grow a globular home in the plant’s core.

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

Sonorous beetles

Egyptian scarab

Apocryphal or not, the famous J. B. S. Haldane quote about the Creator’s inordinate fondness for beetles has thoroughly confused god and beetle in my mind. As with most matters theological, of course, the Egyptians got there first, and so sacred and scarab also seem to me to have a very close kinship. The Spanish word for beetle is a cognate of scarab, escarabajo, and I was pleased to run across it yesterday morning in Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo (“Poem of the Deep Song”), in a poem called “Castanet.”

Escarabajo sonoro.

En la araña
de la mano
rizas el aire
y te ahogas en tu trino
de palo.

Sonorous beetle.

In the spider
of the hand
you make the warm
air ripple
and you suffocate
in your wooden trill.

Last night toward dusk, as I sat working at my computer, I became aware of a ticking noise in the kitchen. Thinking I might be able to surprise a mouse in some act of destruction, I snuck in as quietly as I could. The noise was coming from right beside the sink. A large brown click beetle had become ensnared in a spiderweb next to the sponge (and yes, this is a good indication of the quality of my housekeeping), hanging upside-down about an inch above the counter, and it was trying to escape the only way it knew how: by snapping the hinge of its body every few seconds. After each attempt, the tiny spider — about a tenth the size of the beetle — rushed in with another sticky grappling thread. Lorca’s lines suddenly seemed strangely prophetic.

For once, I decided to intervene and not let nature take its course, in part because I like click beetles better than I like spiders, but also because I knew if I let the clicking continue, aware now of what it meant, I would probably end up dreaming of time-bombs or the clock ticking down to my own eventual death. And a hinge, after all, is a synecdoche for a door. You want it free to swing open when the time comes. I released the beetle back into the sink to resume whatever it had been doing before it blundered into the web.

Around midnight, another noise got me out of my chair. This time it came from the front doorsill. Rather than turn on the overhead light, I grabbed my flashlight from the end of the table. There, bumbling along the bottom edge of the door, was the largest beetle I had ever seen on the mountain — some kind of longhorn beetle, I thought, but that didn’t narrow it down much. It was about two inches long, all black, and sported a pair of mandibles that gaped open and snapped shut with a faintly audible click. I scooped it up in a drinking glass so I could give it to my brother Steve, a beetle collector, when he stopped by the next morning.

This beetle too had come a cropper of some spiderweb, which I removed from its mandibles as best I could with a pencil. It seemed unable or at least disinclined to fly, so I left the glass open, but it made me a little uneasy being the guardian of such an enormous beetle — as if I’d imprisoned a minor god. In the morning I took the glass outside for some pictures, but the beetle had lapsed into a slight curl to fit the bottom of the glass and I had to poke at it with a grass stem to get it to uncurl and open its mandibles.

Steve had been having some really bad car troubles, among other things, but perked up a bit when he saw the beetle. “That’s a female Prionus laticollis,” he said, and spelled it out for me so I could look it up online. “The females are a bit larger than the males but have shorter antennae. The common name is ‘broadnecked root-borer.’ They’re not too common up here because they feed on the roots of fruit trees — they’re considered a pest. Yeah, this one’s a female. See the distended abdomen? She’s full of eggs.”

So if not the mother of all beetles, this was certainly the mother of some. Given the species’ tree-destroying habits, I wasn’t too upset when Steve decided to keep her for his collection, which he shares with his best friend Sam Wells, a professional entomologist — the Bonta-Wells, or Bowells, collection. He rummaged around in the bulging daypack he carries everywhere, found a mostly empty vial of alcohol, and popped her in. “Bonta-Wells can definitely use another Prionus laticollis,” he chortled. God isn’t the one with an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Prionus laticollis, broadnecked root borer


By noon, the crickets are back to normal speed, but the honey in the jar retains its new-found stiffness. The cicada chorus swells & dwindles, a metallic surf, & the field hums with bees wallowing through goldenrod. On this coolest of summers, my house has been painted a blinding white, like the bed of a lake that vanished into the clouds, leaving only its salt. I look down: a carrion beetle scuttles over the portico bricks right up to my front door & goes all along the bottom looking for an entrance. Maybe it’s lost, I say to myself. You can’t put too much stock in insects.


green lacewing

This lacewing may be experiencing a teachable moment. I know I was: up late dreading poetry, I suddenly realized I was dreading over someone else’s shoulder. It must’ve come in through a hole in the screen door, and perhaps thought — erroneously, of course — that the computer screen was another way out.

Green lacewings are as sensitive as they look. Their hearing is so acute that some species can even pick up bats’ sonar, whereupon they fold their wings and plummet to the ground to avoid capture. They communicate through subtle vibrations of the body, especially during courtship — inaudible “songs” unique to each species.

This was not always such a sensitive being, though. In its wild youth as an aphid-lion it ate any soft-bodied invertebrate in its path, and was even capable of resorting to cannibalism if no other food was handy. It had large sucking jaws with which to grasp its prey and inject stomach acid, turning the other’s insides into a Slurpee.

If you too are up late tonight, you might still have time to confess your poetic sins before “100% Honest Day” is over at Read Write Poem. Here’s what I wrote:

I have a deep-seated fear of unconscious plagiarism, to the point where I even suspect all my best lines and images to be stolen from someone else. One of the main reasons for my lack of enthusism for publishing my work anywhere other than my own blog is the fear that someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern poetry will discover my unwitting thefts. And even if I could know for sure that all my works are original, I would probably continue to feel at some level that I am an utter fraud as a poet. (I wonder if this is why so many of my fellow poets get MFAs?)

If I want to overcome this fear, I think I simply need to retrain my ears. Surely it can’t be too difficult to learn to distinguish one’s own unique vibrations from anybody else’s. My aphid-lion days are, after all, well behind me now.


earth-boring beetle (Geotrupes sp.)

I was walking up the path under the black walnut trees in my parents’ yard this afternoon when I spotted a minor commotion at ankle level: a bald-faced hornet and a large, metallic-green beetle seemed to be arguing over something, though the hornet flew away when I bent down for a closer look. The beetle was right in the middle of the path, about a foot away from a file of fairly fresh cat shit, so I figured it was some sort of dung or scarab beetle. Anxious for a good photo, and mindful of my brother Steve’s interest in documenting all the beetles on the mountain, I set down the bag of vegetables I was carrying and scooped up the beetle.

earth-boring beetle on back

In contrast to yesterday’s frog, the beetle fought hard to escape, wedging its head and forelegs into a crack between my fingers and pushing with immense force. I barely managed to hold it in. I ducked inside just long enough to grab the camera, and set the beetle down on the concrete walk, where I’m sorry to say it rolled onto its back and I shot a few photos of it in that compromising position before helping it right itself. The feather-like protrusions on the ends of its antennae — evidently called antennomeres — glowed orange in the late afternoon sun as it turned and began marching purposefully toward the tall grass. I stuck out a hand and herded it back into the sunlight, whereupon it stubbonly began heading back in the same direction. The second time I stopped it, it emitted a loud chirping sound — if I’d ever wondered what a pissed-off dung beetle sounded like, this was my answer. Then it lifted its elytra, unfolded the sails of its underwings, and took off, buzzing at least as loudly as a June beetle.

earth-boring beetle taking flight

I emailed Steve for an I.D., and he responded quickly.

I don’t suppose you thought to collect it?! That’s a pretty rare beetle, Geotrupes balyi (species 90% certain, genus certain). It used to be considered a scarab, subfamilae geotrupinae, but now it’s in a separate family, Geotrupidae, the “earth-boring dung beetles.” The geotrupids look a lot like tumblebugs and other scarabaeid dung beetles; they roll balls of dung, etc. However, they generally live underground and are seldom collected in the USA. They are much more common in Europe; Fabre has a segment on dung beetles which are geotrupids. The well-known “spring dor beetle” of Europe (also just called a “dor,” a good scrabble word) is a bluish geotrupid quite common in much of the European continent. I’ve never collected or seen a geotrupid on the mountain before, so this is a new species and family for bioplum [our family’s biological inventory of the property].

The invaluable BugGuide.net includes some photos of this species, and I can see why Steve considers it the most likely candidate. The contributor, a fellow named Jim McClarin who is obviously at least as big a beetle fanatic as Steve, says, “I found this fellow in/on a mushy, slimy, rotting mushroom near a small pond or seasonal pool in mixed woods” in Rockingham County, New Hampshire. He offers “Mushroom geotrupid” for a common name.

So is this beetle coprophagous (dung eating) or mycetophagous (mushroom eating)? The authoritative Generic Guide to New World Scarab Beetles (which defines “scarab” broadly) says that Geotrupidae may be either.

Life histories of the geotrupids are diverse, and food habits vary from saprophagous to coprophagous and mycetophagous, and some adults apparently do not feed. Adults of most species are secretive, living most of their life in burrows. Although adults do not tend larvae, adults provision food for larvae in brood burrows. There is overlapping of generations in some species. For example, in the genus Bolboceras, eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults have been observed together in a single branching burrow. Adults dig vertical burrows (15-200 cm in depth) and provision larval cells with dead leaves, cow dung, horse dung, or humus. Burrows of some species extend to a depth of 3.0 meters. In restricted habitats, some species are semi-colonial. Geotrupids are not of economic importance, although their burrowing has occasionally caused damage in lawns. Adults of many geotrupids are nocturnal and are frequently attracted to lights at night. Some species are attracted to fermenting malt and molasses baits. Most adults and larvae stridulate. The biology and behavior of many species, especially the Bolboceratinae, are poorly known.

I can vouch for the stridulation. And it sounds like if I want to attract more of them, I need to get my ass in gear and ferment some malt. After all, who needs dung or rotting mushrooms when there’s beer?