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Summer's First Visitors




It's summer and the gods are playing tug of war with the wind and the sun. Some days are dead-weighted with humid air that clings to our our faces like stagnant water; other days, the cold traces of late winter blow down from Canada and chill the skin. The mosquitoes are just as confused as I am, and don't know whether to curl up under a leaf or hunt for human blood. We walk around here in the bleached sunlight admiring the ferocity of some wild things growing in the garden that look like crazed palm trees and deranged baobabs. They too have grown out of the bewildered tropical confusion, and are growing a jungle until the mower comes.

My wife has been mesmerized by the labors of a paper wasp building a nest in a corner of our bedroom window, between the window sash and the storm window, just hidden enough no predator could find it. Or so we thought. She attends to the little hexagonal cells with infinite care, bringing fresh wood pulp and spit to her handiwork, sealing in new larva to assure another generation of delicate, thin-waisted bomber pilots who will have a go at the perils of the lawless world. The males, I'm told, are second-rate citizens of these tiny cultures, and the females crowd them out, shove their heads down empty cells while the rest of them feast on the food the mother wasp brings. The males go off and hunt their own food and then mate, after which they die an unceremonious death in a notch of milkweed or curl of poison ivy. The females fly off as soon as they're fledged and will either be drab sisters or rise to the nobility of queens, if they're lucky.

But one sultry day last week, my wife reported that other wasps, three in number, showed up at the nest from nowhere and began plundering the cells, killing off the little ones and ripping up the delicate gossamer walls of the nest with murderous deliberation. It was like some documentary on Tigray and the rapacious militias that prey on its villages. There is no morality in our window hideout, just anarchy and savage appetites. The destruction was partial and the nest retained its general outlines, but the dead lay at the bottom of the sill, and other females, I am guessing the sex, showed up to help the mother wasp clean up and repair some of the cells that still held larva. The complexity of this scene left me baffled. The mother wasp just went back to work without any apparent emotion and carried on as before, determined to preserve what little order remained of her labor.

I shiver to observe this miniature world and its baroque intricacy. I am afraid of wasp stings, and would not want to interfere in wasp mayhem for fear I would be viewed as a worse threat than the gang of rapists that had showed up. But I have had a long career encountering wasps and hornets. In my studio in Texas, huge hornets had built a kingdom in the attic of the building, and some young Turks of the clan would drift down to gaze at me with their long reddish legs hanging down like aging ballerinas. I gave no sign of enmity as they dangled inches from my eyes, and would finally take their humming engines back to the nest to report that I was not dangerous. So we cohabited the space that was essentially a wooden shell slowly baking into fossilized pine slabs. I was never stung, even when I had to slink away when one of these Turks got a little too curious and nearly grazed my forehead.

My present study, at the east end of the Vermont house, has also been home to a nest of hornets for the past eight years. I'm sure the queen has been replaced many times, but everyone in the hornet world knows about this window nest and is eager to homestead it. Whoever wins the election to the window, just left of my writing desk, gets to deliver a new generation of these striped, full-bellied creatures, who then stumble around in the dead space between the windowpanes and the storm window. A few find their way out and are gone off to the crusades or to vie for the queen's favors. But some are just curious enough to wedge their enormous bodies through a crack in the window frame and find their way into my workspace. I don't trust them when they buzz over my head, and I can't translate their maneuvers into anything useful -- like showing them the door. They just drift in the air, joyriding on their newly expanded wings, happy to be out of the hot sunlight and set free in the dimly lit interiors of my study.

Once in a great while one of these creatures will venture out of the room and into the rest of the house. They're hard to miss. They make a terrible grinding noise and bump up against the bay window in the living room, and stare out at the densely entangled limbs of maple trees across the road. I assume most of them die in a corner and slowly disappear. But one night as I was watching TV with my wife, one of these creatures, the size of a Hudson Hornet, landed on my forearm for a moment, and its legs dragged along my skin. I flicked it off and it rose slowly to the window. I had been touched so lightly that it felt like a word, a signal I could read. I forgot my fear and got out a plastic tub and a piece of stiff paper and caught it. It made no resistance. It just sat there in the cup with his fierce tiger stripes and its huge thorax bulging down below his legs. He had touched me! He had walked on my skin, with his stinger poised at any moment to deliver his deadly stab. But he didn't. So I became his confidant, his ally in the struggle to survive. I took the cup to the front door and shook it hard. I saw the hornet rise with lazy indifference into the night air. It was gone, and I was initiated into a mystery of hornet lore. I'll never forget it.

Nature is not explained by our moral imaginations. It doesn't follow our limited logic or obey any boundaries of the possible. It lives in a sixth dimension of miracles and paradoxes. Like the weather, it doesn't follow a calendar, but swings on a pendulum attached to the beard of some Sumerian god. The wind blows out of nothing and sails headlong into some imponderable vector lying beyond words. The birds ride on its back, the dust writes its epics on the eddies, and tomorrow keeps unfolding itself like some mysterious present no one expected to arrive. Our certainty about nature is founded wholly on the little we can predict, the flimsy categories we have constructed to keep from howling in dismay at our ignorance. The wasps that raided the nest in my bedroom window were only savage if I demanded they make sense to me. Otherwise, they were slaughtering larva to get at whatever traces of nectar they could find. Hunger was the only verb in their action. The hornet knew how to talk to me, or rather, to let me know that I could be stung if I did not let it free. I understood. I survived its power and possible vengeance.

So much for the fickleness of summer, even in its first week. Overhead is the strawberry moon with its pouty expression; the trees reach up with their pleading fingers to pray to it. The owls and loons are all tucked in for the night, focused on a world that cannot be translated by grammar or our flimsy conceptions. A car drags its rattling axles down the road spreading a faint yellow light that evaporates as it passes. All that's left are the dim brake lights as the road devours it. Our souls are dressed in the glittering raiment of poetry, but that's as close we can come to the freedom of a coyote's howls.

The night enfolds me in its dim fires, the inexpressible beauty of its silence. There is a throb at the heart of it all, a beating pulse that comforts me. I am not alone no matter how removed I might feel at this moment. A great soul hovers close to me, but I don't matter to it. I am not to be confided in. I am just a little star stuff wrapped in a thin envelope of skin. My radium couldn't illuminate the outline of a pebble, but it offers me a childlike voice at the back of my awareness. I hear its cry, and its plea to be lifted out of its inconsolable loneliness. But I don't know where it is hiding. Under what leaf, behind what ancient limb, or tucked away in the burrow of a mole. But it lies there, desperate to be reunited with the pulse that moves the universe toward its joyful climax of divine light.

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