Hot Sun and Black-Winged Angels

Today I witnessed a miracle.

It all started about four days ago when Jennie, my girlfriend*, flew to Northern California to see family for a long weekend. She texted and called me probably 20 times since then, raving about how beautiful and green it is there right now… and about how beautiful and green Northern California always is. But especially this time of year. So verdant and lush, all the new flowers and bees and springtime sex in the air. This is something we don’t have so much of in Colorado, and I miss it.

To be fair, Colorado is a beautiful state in its own right, but it’s so dry and brown and barren here on the Front Range that sometimes I just can’t stand it. We’ve recently emerged from a fairly long winter here, and I’m yearning for a real spring, like the fantastical green, budding, squirming, buzzing spring days I remember from my childhood in rural Iowa. Today was finally t-shirt weather and I actually had some free time—a rare occurrence these days, it seems—so, in an attempt to cure my cabin fever, I went for this year’s long-awaited inaugural mountain bike ride, out on South Table Mountain in Golden.

As mild and breezy as it was today, the sun was still beating down pretty intensely from a stark, cloudless sky. The blazing sun already burned my left forearm in the fifteen minute drive to the trailhead. I pulled in to the little gravel parking lot, strapped on my helmet and gloves, and hit the trail.

It’s late April. Springtime. Everything should be green and full of life, like Jennie’s text messages about Berkeley, right? Hardly. South Table Mountain is a sun-drenched plateau without an inch of shade or reprieve anywhere. The poor plants were still all brown and dead-looking. I wondered if they always are. The ground—sandy and lifeless. No deer or elk in sight. No squirrels, no bees, no birds. Nothing. Not even lizards. After 20 minutes on the trail, I realized that this landscape reminds me more of scrubby Mohave canyonlands than the fields and pastures of the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountain alpine forests, either of which one would expect to find while literally riding around on the precise geographical boundary between the two. Then it hit me: I live in a desert! The Big Brown Denver Desert.

This thought did not encourage me. I want the real deal springtime. I want green. I want April rain showers and fragrant May flowers. I want an orgy of bees gorging themselves on pollen and brightly-colored songbirds tweeting their little heads off trying to get some action. But I apparently won’t find it here. Thinking like this, it got harder and harder to keep pedaling.

After several more minutes, I came to the edge of a cliff of sorts and got off my bike. Not exactly an inspiring overlook for the already uninspired, I gazed out across fifty miles of suburbs, freeways, and tall, grey office buildings. Ugh. From the looks of the scene before me, we’re going to doom our whole planet to extinction if we’re not more careful with our endless sprawl, pollution, and consumption. I sat in the dusty dirt near the edge and tried to enjoy the scene, all the while baking under that fiery yellow sun overhead. By this point, my lungs and nostrils burned with the hot, arid air. My front teeth were actually dry and covered with a gritty film. Gross.

Knowing the bad space I was in, I tried to change my thoughts and see something good around me. Something encouraging. Something to give me hope that mankind hasn’t already pushed earth’s fate past the point of no return. After all, we are a resourceful bunch. Maybe we can turn this thing around after all. I asked myself how we could transform the city sprawled out before me into an inspiring, healthy, sustainable place to live. It’s all of our responsibility to figure a way out this environmental quagmire, so, if not me, who? If not now, when?

I sat there in the dirt, squinting in the sun at the city below, waiting for my muse. But nothing came. I inspected quickly reddening skin on my forearms. I ate a sesame energy bar. I picked up some plastic silverware trash strewn about by some careless hiker. Still nothing. Screw it, this place sucks. I’m moving to California.

A young couple in shorts and t-shirts ambled up the trail and sat down on the rocks close enough that I could eavesdrop a little. “Look, honey. Over there is where you work!” “Good thing we brought plenty of water.” “I bet this picture won’t do it justice.”

Wait a minute. They’re taking pictures of…of… suburbs??? What on earth for? What’s there to see here? My personal black cloud of doom clearly hadn’t stained their afternoon too. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Eventually, they got up and moved on down the trail. I tried to see what they thought so beautiful. A large, square, blue-black city sewage lagoon glowered back at me as the most prominent landscape feature in the direction they faced. The poor critters that live around here…god help them if they ever get thirsty. I kept asking myself: How can we recreate our home and rewrite the ending to our story? How can I rewrite my own?

That was when I heard it. A strange repetitive buzzing sound immediately behind me, so close I absurdly thought for a moment maybe it was coming from inside my shorts. Faint, but distinct, and like nothing I’ve ever heard. Coming from the soil. I wouldn’t have heard it at all if I hadn’t been sitting on the ground right next to it, wrapped up in my own sulfurous thoughts, asking questions with no easy answers. After some patient inspection of the ground around me, a jet black, skinny, leggy, vaguely wasp-looking bug backed out of a pencil-sized hole in the shady dirt just beneath a tiny little plant, the only flora within arm’s reach. Since it was in the shadow of the plant, I wouldn’t have even seen the hole had I not first heard the buzzing and then seen an insect emerge from it. The bug backed out of the hole for just a brief moment, and then crawled back in. Then more buzzing. Then back up out of the hole again, crawl back in, and more buzzing from within. Again and again. What in the world is she doing?

I assumed it was a she, but who knows? This was like some kind of crazy nature documentary, but with no narrator and not professionally produced and not aired on TV. This was real. I felt like a voyeur as she repeated this process repeatedly and without interruption for the next ten or fifteen minutes. That is, except for when I tried to scoot forward to get a closer look and it freaked her out and she hid behind some grass for a minute or so until she calmed down and went back to her little process. I must have looked gargantuan to her. Heck, even that grass over there must look like sequoias when you’re only an inch long.

What is she doing? Maybe she’s making a den? Trying to attract a mate? What else do insects do when they’re not eating things or stinging us? I lost track of time, but eventually she must have finished doing whatever she was doing because she backed out one last time, did some push-ups (Push-ups?!? It seems I have a lot to learn about little black wasp-like bugs.), and then flew away. But not too far. She did a lap around the area, maybe a five meter radius, as if scoping out the scene, landed back at the hole site briefly, and then flew away far into the brush.

About five minutes later and my mood much improved, I was about to leave when a very strange-looking creature returned from the brush. It looked like a pale pink flying banana, about an inch long. It flew kind of slowly and clumsily. A mini, pink, flying banana? Now this was just getting weird.

The pink banana landed by the hole. It turned out to be my little friend carrying something. But what is that thing? It’s a wiggling little worm of some sort. Is that her dinner? That thing’s bigger than she is—equally as long, but fat and round and fleshy. It would take her days to eat that thing. No…wait. It’s a larva! It’s her baby! She’s making a home for her baby. Wow!

The larva wiggled a little, and a moment later, she backed her way into the hole this time, grabbed the larva with her two little front feet, and pulled it down into the darkness of the hole. Then, more buzzing. A softer, more pleasing tone this time. A minute later she emerged. Looked around. And then started kicking dirt down the hole. The hole filled up fast. She paused to look around a couple times and then started up again. She used her front legs to spray dirt under body and behind her like a dog burying a bone. She dragged little pebbles and sticks (boulders and logs relative to her size, some were almost as big as she was) and piled them on top. She then sprayed more dirt. You’d never know that hole was ever there. If she only knew I was watching…not that I’d even think of doing anything to disturb her or her larva, but still.

Five more minutes passed. She’s still kicking dirt back toward the hole. Total overkill. Still kicking. Geesh lady, that’s good enough already, but she didn’t stop. Kick kick kick. Look around. Kick kick kick. Another five or ten minutes, and she finally finished. Whew! Then a couple more push-ups for good measure and a quick flight around the site, finally landing precisely on top of the original hole. She pressed her body down close to the ground and lowered her head to touch the ground with her mouth and quietly buzzed what seemed a lower, slower tone for several long seconds. She then struggled to get back up on her feet and slowly crawl over toward the tuft of grass she hid behind earlier. Her final buzz over the hole sounded so lonely and mournful. Did she look sad? Is that even possible? She then flew away for good. Was I imagining this, or did she just kiss the ground over her baby and sing a lullaby? Was that one last message of love before leaving, possibly forever?

A sad buzzing tone? Kissing the ground? Singing a lullaby? I knew I was probably just anthropomorphizing an insect, but… maybe not. She obviously cared about this baby at least at an instinctual level, or else why go to all that effort? Who’s to say that our human version of love is any different? Who am I to say she’s not capable of love just because she’s an insect? Heck, her actions clearly demonstrated a lot more love on top of that cliff than I had, so why not?

I blinked. I’d been staring at a patch of barren dirt for a half hour. I vaguely remembered several groups of hikers coming through, snapping pictures, smoking cigarettes, laughing, and moving on. I even recalled one shapely young woman had her shirt off and was walking around in just a bra, but I hardly even noticed, which just shows how engrossed I was in my little entomological world. They must have thought I was a serious weirdo who stares at dirt. They’re probably right. I turned around and looked at the ground all around me. It all looked barren and dead, but now I wasn’t so sure. Life could be teeming here, just millimeters beneath the sand and rocks and dirt and dust. I hoped I wouldn’t hurt anyone on my way back to the car when my tires rolled down the path. Nah, they’ll be OK. Those cute little pink banana babies are probably just fine. They’re all tucked in with nice sturdy rock blankets to keep them safe. I scanned the ground all around me again. They could be anywhere. The barren rockscape around me was now bursting with invisible life, all just waiting to metamorphose into moths or butterflies or little black bugs, crawl out into the light, and fly away. Who knew?

I looked down over the city and saw trees all throughout the suburbs. I saw landscaped lawns and ponds and parks. Untold millions of critters and flowers and things could be out there, surviving and thriving, hidden in secret little corners, even within the city limits. My black sulfur cloud totally blew away with a gust of wind that whipped down over the cliff’s edge. I mean, I just witnessed a miracle, my own private little National Geographic documentary, right here in the hottest, driest, rockiest, most desolate-looking corner of Colorado. How could I not be totally inspired and awed by that?

Then something occurred to me: the miracle that happened out there was not my little friend tucking her baby into bed all full of love and the sorrow of separation. The real miracle was right in front of me the whole time. I was looking for a reason to have hope for our common future. Something to show me that there’s more than just a vain hope for the destiny of the world, that there’s a love strong enough to bind us all together, humans and critters alike, and keep us all moving forward, building a new and better home for our future generations. And as soon as I asked, that’s exactly what I found.


*Note: I wrote this essay on April 27, 2008. I posted it to Recompose, a different blog that I’ve kept since 2008. A few of my other essays found in the site you’re currently reading are from other blogs too, though I’ve only transferred the evergreen ones, essays I feel have stood the test of time.

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