Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

“IT WAS THE BUTTERFLIES, my people say, who brought the first human babies to their feet,” writes Canadian Richard Wagamese in “Butterflies Teachings,” an essay touching on “what’s called Enendamowin, or Ojibway worldview” in his brilliant collection, One Native Life. “Before that, the New Ones sat in innocence beneath a tree, watching the world around them with wonder. But Creator had planned more for them. Their destiny called for them to move throughout the world. These human babies were meant to walk upon their two legs, and as long as they sat under that tree their destiny could not be fulfilled…The air seemed to tremble with butterflies. The human babies were entranced. Each time they tried to snare a handful of colour, the cloud drifted away. They stretched their arms higher. They thrust out their hands. But it was to no avail. When the butterflies danced just out of reach a final time, the New Ones lurched to their feet and raced after them across the meadow. The Animal People celebrated quietly, then returned to their dens and burrows and nests. The human babies never caught those butterflies, but they kept on running, right into the face of their destiny…”

Quite a different worldview from Prague and Eastern Europe, where Franz Kafka’s famous novel Metamorphosis begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” According to the “wall notes” in the exhibit “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Kafka’s words inspired South Africa artist Walter Oltmann. Among neon masks, dancing mask videos and sculptured African animals wearing masks are Oltmann’s large anodized aluminum and brass wire caterpillars in the midst of “transformation and change” (metamorphosis) and fashion sketches titled “Beetles & Suits.” The suit coats are gracefully curving, shell-like beetle elytra (outer wing covers) fashionably topped off with the latest antennae, and looking both business-like and sci-fi out of Star Wars or Star Trek at the same time. I can easily imagine a cell phone age makeover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia and long hair with “beetle suits” and high-fashion antennae. Perhaps too much entomology affects the psyche. Oltmann writes that “spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant like an insect, does make us look differently at them.” He says it “speaks of neither this nor that,” but I’m not so sure.

Insect observations appear in haiku by Japanese master Matsuo Basho, whom I think of as the late 1600s slightly more refined counterpart of 20th century Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who was too busy with “other interests” to notice beetles, flies, mosquitoes and roadside weeds. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho, translator David Young writes: “Odd numbers predominate; a dance is occurring, and each third of the poem is a turn, a gesture, a refining or revelation… The poem seems to end almost as soon as it has begun, a small flash of lightning…A more literal version of the haiku cited (below) would be something like: What can save your life? / one leaf, with an insect / sleeping on its journey… the journey, which refers to a Chinese story that Basho’s readers would know but that is largely meaningless to English readers…‘Basho mash-ups,’ I have sometimes called my versions”:

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

Perhaps Basho was thinking of medicinal silkworms slumbering on mulberry leaves, or perhaps his mind was journeying among high mountains where ghost moths metamorphose with fungi into plant-animal hybrids that have been used in Asian medicine for centuries. David Young says about haiku: “They love to startle, first the writer and then the reader. As though a hummingbird were to land suddenly on your resting arm. It is the way the world so often surprises us.”

A haiku by Los Angeleno Mark Jun Poulos, whose observation of the seemingly mundane urban habitat nagged at me long after I thought I had dismissed its ordinary elements from consciousness:

restroom sink-—
ladybug cooling off
in a drop of water

What nagged at me was water, a vital ingredient of life, which as hard sprays of rain washes away pesky mites and aphids that are ladybug prey. Water (H2O) is also a missing ingredient in most ecological studies of interplanting, a habitat diversity strategy designed to boost populations of lady beetles and other beneficial insects providing natural pest control. Australian grape vineyards and California lettuce fields have had some success interplanting blooming rows of sweet alyssum to provide pollen, nectar and alternative prey for ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and other beneficial species consuming aphids and other pests. Sweet alyssum is also host to micro-wasps helping Michigan asparagus growers by parasitizing leafmining pest insects, Amanda Buchanan of Michigan State University reported at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis. But if habitats are missing water, then perhaps lady beetles, which do not puncture plants to drink fluid, will leave to find restroom sinks, puddles or other water sources. Perhaps, like providing water bowls for pets, something similar needs to be researched as part of biological control habitat alternatives. Though I would draw the line at alcoholic drinks, except perhaps beer in snail and slug traps. Another urban haiku observation by Mark Jun Poulos:

sultry afternoon—
wasp hovers over a whiskey bottle
held by a drunk bum

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, by percentage the main chemical component of distilled whiskey, should not be abused, nor perhaps should it be so heavily subsidized as a biofuel, as that incentive exacerbates huge landscape changes measurable as reduced biodiversity. At Synergies in Science, a rare Minneapolis gathering of the ESA, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, the diminishing biodiversity of a Midwest USA with 21% less wheat, 16% less hay and much more GMO corn to distill into ethanol motor fuels was as hard to ignore as a drunk with a whiskey bottle on an urban bench. Jonathan Lundgren of the USDA-ARS in Brookings, South Dakota said we need to get away from our “very pest-centric approach” and adopt a more holistic biological network approach. Instead of a Midwest saturated with pesticides to grow GMO corn to distill into fuel tank ethanol, something as seemingly simple as adding biodiversity via cover crops amongst the corn rows could produce enough soil biocontrol of corn rootworm to eliminate wasteful neonicotinoid seed treatments whose honey bee and beneficial insect friendliness is being hotly debated. Karen Friley of Kentucky State University reported at the ESA that something as seemingly simple as native plant border rows around sweet corn fields “provide microclimates in the form of moderated temperatures, which offer shelter” for numerous natural enemies controlling corn pests.

Curiously enough, ethanol (alcohol) like that in whiskey bottles and vehicle fuels also attracts pine beetles and ambrosia beetles considered destructive forest, landscape, street tree and nursery pests. Perhaps more curiously, the very trees being attacked are producing the ethanol and releasing it into the atmosphere when stressed (e.g. by drought or flood), decaying or dying. Trees may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but inside the tree is another story, because ethanol emissions are signs of sickliness and ill health. Chemical ecologist Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio said it is a real problem, for example, when nursery seedlings are used to replant spruce forests or with dogwoods, magnolias, pines, etc. in nurseries, backyards, along streets, etc. It is definitely ecology, as the ethanol is luring in the beetles to help “recycle” the trees back into the soil as nutrients.

I liked Ranger’s reasoning: Find the tree equivalent of driver breathalyzer tests as a beetle-attack early warning system. SCRAM wrist bracelets worn by offenders for transdermal drug and alcohol detection were tested, but were not sensitive enough; taking a week to detect low tree ethanol exhalations, whereas beetles detect a few parts per million of alcohol and get to trees almost on day one. The solution was a portable ethanol monitoring device with a detector tube and a plunger to pull in air samples; developed using Japan’s Gas Tech industrial gas leak detection technology for quick detection of “inebriated” trees.

So, which is more startling and surprising: art, haiku or entomology?

Strange brew: September 17, 2015 daylight turning to dark, caught in one of those infamous, almost proverbial L.A. traffic jams at a freeway underpass on Church Lane transitioning from Sunset Blvd to Sepulveda Pass on my way past the Getty Museum to Mulholland Drive, listening to the Moody Blues Live at Red Rocks, going nowhere. Haiku and fireflies flashing internally, and externally the blinking side turn lites and red back brake lights suddenly and surprisingly metmorphosed into synchronous fireflies, albeit of a mechanical or robotic nature:

Tail and Turn Lights
Flashing like Synchronous Fireflies
In the Los Angeles Traffic Jam


18 Responses to Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

  1. joelg5 says:

    new LA haiku by Mark Jun Poulos

    late night drive—
    ladybug hitches a ride
    on the windshield

  2. joelg5 says:

    Arachnid haiku from Los Angeles by Mark Poulos:

    exoskeleton haiku

    on a trash can lid
    a spider’s cast-off skin
    soaked with morning dew

  3. joelg5 says:

    A butterfly haiku from Los Angeles by Mark Poulos:

    butterfly haiku

    busy intersection—
    dancing above the speeding cars
    black butterfly

  4. joelg5 says:

    Sidewalk stroll in Los Angeles with Mark Poulos;

    “Tanka” with myrtles and bees:

    under the midday sun
    I walk down a sidewalk
    lined with myrtles—
    scent so rich that the bees ignore me
    as I sniff the blooms

  5. joelg5 says:

    Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

    Was looking at an old Penguin paperback with a big black raven on the cover of a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories at the bookstore with Mark Poulos, and now Paulos mixes it with freeways and dandelions:

    raven haiku

    freeway embankment—
    raven swoops down into
    some dandelions


    raven tanka

    straight as an arrow
    a raven swoops down
    toward a freeway embankment—
    where dandelions wave
    in the spring wind

  6. joelg5 says:

    2 tanka (slightly revised) by mark poulos

    not one petal askew
    they withstand day by day
    the blasting autumn winds—-
    magnolia blossoms
    on their rocking branches

    along a mountain path
    bordered with manzanitas
    two white butterflies
    flutter from branch to branch
    one hitched on the other’s back

  7. joelg5 says:

    New from mark poulos:

    trumpet flower tanka

    big trumpet flowers
    droop over a chain-link fence—
    light from the mid-afternoon sun
    filtering through
    their white petals

    Little Tokyo tanka (slightly revised)

    what I saw in Little Tokyo
    on a mild spring night:

    head bowed in sleep
    old man sits on a crate
    outside a boutique—
    in a pool of cold fluorescent light
    pouring through the window glass

  8. joelg5 says:

    poem by Po Chu-i (772-846)
    (via Mark Poulos)

    On the Lake (2)

    Two monks sit face-to-face, playing chess on the mountain,
    The bamboo shadow on the board is dark and clear.
    Not a person sees the bamboo’s shadow,
    One sometimes hears the pieces being moved.

    poem by Mei Yaochen (1002-1060)
    (via Mark Poulos)

    The cock crows three times; the sky is almost light.
    Someone’s lined up bowls of rice, along with flasks of tea.
    Anxiously, the peasants rush to start the ploughing early,
    I pull aside the willow shutter and gaze at the morning stars

    Chinese T’ang Poem by Li Po
    (translated via mark poulos)

    Marble Steps Complaint

    Literary translation:

    White dew grows on the marble steps,
    And in the long night, soaks into my stockings.
    But now I let the crystal curtain down,
    And gaze through it at the autumn moon

    Literal translation:

    Jade steps grow white dew
    Night long encroach gauze stocking
    But fall crystal curtain
    Exquisite view autumn moon

  9. joelg5 says:

    street-smells tanka (mark poulos)

    scented steam, roasting beef,
    smell of fresh rubber—
    strolling past storefronts
    I breathe in every odor
    wafted by the spring wind

  10. joelg5 says:

    Mark Poulos

    what I saw just behind a gate
    to an autobody shop’s parking lot.

    downtown-tree tanka

    poking through the bars
    of a cast-iron gate
    a tree’s lithe, upcurving branches—
    each one decked
    with purple blooms

    downtown-tree tanka (version 2)

    lithe, upcurving branches
    with a thousand purple blooms—
    just behind the cast-iron gate
    to a parking lot
    a tree in flower

  11. joelg5 says:

    5 new tanka

    Mark Poulos

    what I saw in Little Tokyo toward sundown
    as my car neared a street gutter
    where a finch was drinking water

    scared off by a car
    finch flies up
    out of a gutter—
    beak still dripping
    with water

    as I fill her bowl
    the cat slinks silently
    between my bare legs—
    her soft flanks
    brushing against them

    hot winds blowing
    I stand alone in a date palm grove
    bathed in moonlight—
    while a low-circling owl
    eyes me from above

    gazing on these branches
    adorned with purple blooms
    I forget a moment where I am—
    in the heart of a city
    stricken with drought

    amid leaves and trash
    strewn on the sidewalk
    a little girl finds
    a long pigeon feather
    and tucks it behind her ear

  12. joelg5 says:

    iron-cross tanka (by mark poulos)

    seeing a young transient playing a videogame on his IPhone at Starbucks
    with a large tattoo on the back of his right hand, I wrote:

    somehow I sense it’s
    his talisman against despair—
    tattooed on a drifter’s
    lean, grimy hand
    an iron cross

  13. joelg5 says:

    some tanka (new and revised)

    by mark poulos

    seated across from me at a table at Starbuck’s was a pale young man
    ecstatically recounting over the phone to someone back home in Ireland
    how he had swum with dolphins off Malibu. For some time
    I tried to visualize this scene to myself.

    in blue-green water
    shot through with sunlight
    a young man swims with dolphins
    weaving their way
    through a forest of kelp

    mother now away
    for two months—
    arm-in-arm with her sister
    does she wheeze as she walks
    through Osaka’s winding streets

    on a slow spring afternoon
    when few are around
    I gaze at a butterfly’s
    night-black shadow
    fluttering on a wall

    gazing at it
    I feel a sense of peace–
    tinted red with sunrise
    the breast of a pigeon
    perched alone on a wire

    park in summer—
    while reading Basho
    to myself
    junkies snort lines off
    a nearby picnic table

    seeming to be
    at peace with herself
    my brother’s cat
    quietly licks dew off
    some young leaves

  14. joelg5 says:

    4 tanka (new and revised) by mark poulos

    dog days of summer—
    when everything alive
    lies hidden in shade
    I find on the restroom sink
    a ladybug cooling off in a drop of water

    on the right hand
    of a drifter across the table
    iron cross tattoo—
    sensing he wants to chat
    I stare harder into my laptop

    finch on a fountain rim…
    when her dark eyes meet mine
    this sadness
    weighing me down
    suddenly lifts

    opening a cabinet
    I find a long strand of white hair
    stuck to my hand—
    the old woman who died here
    has left her traces

  15. joelg5 says:

    echoes-flat tanka (by mark poulos)

    well past midnight
    I lie awake in my fifth-story flat—
    while voices of drunk men
    in the alley below
    echo loudly off concrete and steel

    yucca tanka (by mark poulos)

    this tanka was inspired by a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains

    white-blossomed yuccas—
    swaying in sea wind
    they lure me
    up this mountain path
    with their silent music

  16. joelg5 says:

    Albany, New York Tanka (by mark poulos)

    These tanka were written in the late autumn of 2015 while I was in Albany, New York. I was there one week and was invigorated by my novel surroundings.

    as I walk along a garden path
    drawn on by the moon
    in the midnight sky,
    a bird bursts from a hedge,
    startled by my footsteps.
    from a bonfire
    crackling in a neighbor’s yard
    red-hot embers float up—
    then die in the cold dark
    like scattered fireflies

    in the shade of a great oak
    a lone horse grazes—
    left free to wander
    in an oat field
    where poppies now bloom

    this fall morning
    alone on a park bench
    a pale young woman watches a pond
    where ducks float
    still and quiet

    homesick and alone
    I look out the window—
    across the road
    leafless maples
    black against the dawn sky

    or alternate version

    outside the window
    leafless maples
    etched black against the dawn sky—
    clouds drift fast
    dropping sheets of rain

    on this farm
    no one in sight—
    just a faded red barn
    alongside a grass mound
    studded with headstones

  17. joelg5 says:

    more L.A. tanka
    (by mark poulos)

    dripping wet
    a finch flies past
    my bedroom window—
    looking for shelter
    from the winter rain

    alone on a beach
    a sick bird gazes
    toward the sea—
    eyes glowing crimson
    as the sun sets

    alone at midday
    I read a book—
    suddenly the window shakes
    from the wing-beats
    of a pigeon in terror

    on this sun-parched meadow
    in the mountains
    lies a dead oak
    stretching crooked branches
    towards a leaky water pump

    under a leafy tree
    an old man naps
    in a wheelchair
    his upturned face
    dappled with morning sun

    feet rippling
    clear water
    finch dances alone
    in a puddle
    after rain

  18. joelg5 says:

    Little Tokyo Tanka (Los Angeles, Mark Poulos)

    what I saw in Little Tokyo toward sundown
    as my car neared a street gutter
    where a finch was drinking water

    scared off by a car
    finch flies up
    out of a gutter—
    beak still dripping
    with water

    as I fill her bowl
    the cat slinks silently
    between my bare legs—
    her soft flanks
    brushing against them

    hot winds blowing
    I stand alone in a date palm grove
    bathed in moonlight—
    while a low-circling owl
    eyes me from above

    gazing on these branches
    adorned with purple blooms
    I forget a moment where I am—
    in the heart of a city
    stricken with drought

    amid leaves and trash
    strewn on the sidewalk
    a little girl finds
    a long pigeon feather
    and tucks it behind her ear

    finch-thermal tanka

    stuck in traffic
    I gaze up into blue sky—
    riding on a thermal
    three finches wheel round and round
    beaks wide open in joy

    finch-fountain tanka

    water still in her beak
    a finch gazes at me
    from a fountain rim—
    moist, dark eyes
    locked with mine for a moment

    Cast-Iron Gate Tanka

    poking through the bars
    of a cast-iron gate
    a tree’s lithe, curving branches—
    each one decked
    with purple blooms

    Spring Wind Scents Tanka

    scented steam, roasting beef,
    smell of new tires—
    strolling past storefronts
    I breathe in every odor
    wafted by the spring wind

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