The elementary school sent out an alert about Japanese beetles destroying the newly planted fruit orchard. Finding myself strangely transfixed by the whiteness of the ceiling overhead, my wife read me the dire news as I sipped my Folgers coffee. My son’s second-grade class had planted Zestars—an early-ripening variety of apple tree created by the horticulturists from the University of Minnesota who were forever improving upon Eve’s gift to Adam. Other classrooms had planted Honeycrisps, plum trees and cherry trees. The email went on to say that picking the bugs off and placing them in a dish of soapy water was the best method of removal.
Politically correct fools! I had tried that a year ago when the invasive beasts attacked my rose bush. They were beautiful to look at–like jade broaches with their black clawed legs, copper wing elytra, and lustrous green thoraxes and heads. They went after the pink petals first, then took to skeletonizing the leaves until they were transparent with only the veins behind like lace.
“They should just spray them,” I muttered. Chemical warfare, by God!
“Well, if you can just kill them by hand, why poison the world with insecticide?”
“There’s no point,” I sighed dejectedly and reminded her about the roses. I had picked them off individually by the dozens and crushed their little exoskeletons inside a plastic grocery bag before tossing them into the trash. I checked the bush the next day and there were as many writhing on the denuded plant as the day before. I repeated the procedure, yet this time took no satisfaction in the labor. The afternoon sun seemed hotter and I felt the outraged beetles biting me even through my gardening gloves. The day after that there were slightly fewer since there was so little rose left on which to feast. The bush was chewed down to nothing, raped of its blossoms, trammeled as if by a team of horses. I murdered a couple more of the marauders between my thumb and forefinger before performing an about face and retreating to the defeat of my air-conditioned house.
“The roses did grow back,” my wife said in apparent indifference to my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“If those are newly planted trees,” I warned, “they don’t stand a chance.”
“You’re such a cynic,” she countered deprecatingly. “Miles loves the orchard. Remember his donation? He gave away most of his piggy bank.”
My eight-year-old son attends an environmental magnet school—a single-story brick building built in 1924 overlooking the gorge of the Mississippi River. It sits on 18 acres of land referred to as “The Forest” with a sprawling community garden adjacent to it that was a Victory Garden from World War II when people were encouraged to grow their own food locally to support the war effort.
Insects mark the passage of summer—the first ants crawling across the hardwood floor in search of my four-year-old’s graham cracker crumbs, those blood-sucking mosquitoes no one likes except the bats and swallows, the bees rolling about in orgiastic bliss in the cone-flowers of my wife’s rain garden, the dragonflies performing aerial maneuvers over the lily pads, and the sinister wasps the children are so frightened of that nest under our dormer windows. Butterflies flit through the yard periodically—viceroys, the little white cabbage ones that love the broccoli so much, the hallowed monarchs making a laudable comeback, and the occasional tiger swallowtail. “The milkweed beetles are fighting,” my son informed me one morning as if I should give them a timeout. All I could do was laugh and tell him they were mating. The grasshoppers mark the arrival of the dog days of summer, followed by the nightly chirping of crickets and the maddening drone of the cicadas from the treetops. As the children head back to school the boxelders appear–dead sometimes in the windowsills or active on the hot walls of our stucco house. My wife hates them, but there’s something about them I’ve always found enduring.
The green-bottle flies were in abundance at the small artificial lake we camped beside in northwestern Iowa for Emily’s family reunion. You could see a hog farm on the horizon and there was an advisory posted not to go in the water because of the “swimmer’s itch.” My older son and I managed to catch a few bass though—slippery, emerald creatures that we returned mostly unharmed to the turbid lake. I had been dreading the reunion all summer but had a great time in spite of myself. My wife is descended from German farmers–loud, lumbering people with fingers the size of bratwurst. Miles befriended a fourteen-year-old cousin from Colorado, a beefy teenager who could pass for a senior in high school. They fished together quite a bit and Miles began to imitate his way of speaking by referring to the clumps of weeds he reeled in as “salad” and calling his younger brother “kid.”
Coincidentally, while we were there a train derailed into the nearby Rock River. It sounded to me like a job for Thomas. The black tankers appeared on television like the toys of a petulant child. 230,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the modest waterway where several of the reunion’s attendees regularly fished for walleyes. We postulated as to how they would ever clean up such a mess with one of Emily’s uncles proclaiming more than once, “Call Missouri! Let ‘em know it’s coming!”
After having more than our fill of sand volleyball and potato salad, we loaded up the Subaru and departed northward from the Hawkeye state as the bulk of the oil spill progressed southward toward the Big Sioux (a river I had spent an ample portion of my own childhood fishing) and from there the Missouri which winds its way ultimately to St. Louis where it flows into the Mississippi River—the large intestine of our great nation.
Back home at the dinner table my son grinned as if he had a secret. His mother prodded him with her elbow, but he just giggled demurely. I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat impatiently. I was still in my postal uniform and wanted desperately to take a shower.
“Miles ate a bug,” Emily blurted.
“A bug!” I yelled in mock fury. “Don’t we feed you enough? What kind of bug?”
“A Japanese beetle,” he sniggered.
“Miles!” I exclaimed. “You shouldn’t be eating bugs! What the heck were you thinking?”
“It’s your fault,” Emily informed me grinning. “You told him they were good protein, remember?”
I did indeed. He had been eating garden raspberries and bitten into some form of insect. “Don’t worry,” I had told him, “that’s good protein.” After having me rag on him incessantly for five years about drinking his milk and the almighty benefits of protein, how could I blame him for behaving like a contestant on Fear Factor?
He seemed quite proud of himself. “I can’t wait to eat a grasshopper,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Or a worm!”
I could hardly believe my ears. He had been picky as a trout most of his life, confining his meals to those four cornerstones of American kid food—macaroni and cheese, pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, and hotdogs. Beyond apple sauce and popcorn there wasn’t much else he would allow into his stomach.
Now he was eating Japanese beetles!
“Look!” I said seriously. “Don’t be eating bugs. Other kids are going to think you’re weird and they could have pesticides on them.” I was reminded for a moment of Papillon—the 1973 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen about French prisoners consuming bugs to survive. Toward the end of the film McQueen’s character, who has a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, reflexively snatches a katydid for a moment as if to eat it before letting it go. Such a moving scene and one I always invoked as a child when my mother’s cooking proved unpalatable.
My son nodded at my advice, a bit too begrudgingly to be trusted. Perhaps he was on to something, a solution to both our Japanese beetle problem and global hunger. Insects are indeed good protein and, as we strive for a world with the safe sterility of a shopping mall, it is worth remembering that even as apex predators we sit atop a food pyramid in which insects play a vital role.
Following the media hysteria provoked by the Zika crisis, I read many articles about the potential extinction of the mosquito though gene modification. The mosquito is the deadliest animal known to humanity and, if as many people were dying in America of malaria as do in Africa, no one would argue against utilizing this technology toward their destruction. That said though, it might be worth considering that we are meddling in processes and systems far beyond our understanding. List the animals that consume the mosquito and the animals that consume them and you might come up with a sky far emptier. How much is a dragonfly worth? Or a barn swallow? Do we really want to live in a world where the only animals left are those adapted to feed on our garbage? Or where drones pollinate our fruit trees because all the bees have been killed by the neonicotinoids we spray on our #2 field corn? It would be worth taking some time from our busy addled lives to look up at the clouds. . . .
And within a few minutes you might realize the movement of the clouds and then suddenly feel a bit off balance as you contemplate your position on, not a grid, but a sphere—“a pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan called it. And while there will always be some human debate about whether this world we inhabit was created by an old man with a flowing white beard named Jehovah or Allah, what is certain is that this is the only known planet in the vast universe that can support life. And then when you refocus your eyes to the terrestrial world, you might realize the insignificance of your roses, and your place alongside the Japanese beetle as an invasive species. And then you might take a bite and realize its beautiful crunchiness.