The other day I went out for my morning walk as usual, and at the end of the driveway I passed a giant swarm of black flying insects. It must have been ten feet high. "Whoa," I said out loud.

The swarm frightened me, is the truth. I was grateful Henrietta had made it clear she needed additional sleep more than she needed to join me on my walk and was back at home with her comfort-lamb, doing her baby snore.

I walked a little further and passed another swarm, and another, and another. They were as tall as houses, as tall as the giant Saguaro Cactuses that lined the road. There were half a dozen of them before I'd even left the cul-de-sac. There had been a big storm the night before, a monsoon, and I wondered if that had somehow signaled all of these colonies to hatch. It was if they had alarms that rang promptly at six a.m., and now they were getting on with it, with the next stage of their life cycles.

But what were they? I pretty much assume everything that flies is a killer bee, but these definitely didn't look like killer bees. They weren't at all yellow, for one thing. They looked like giant ants with wings, is what they looked like. And while most of them were swirling around in their concentrated swarms, I noticed they had begun breaking off, too. Some of them dropped to the ground, where I got a better look at them, and some of them wandered off flying, and as I walked I had to dodge them, jerking my head around, trying to avoid having one slam into my sunglasses.

About halfway through my usual route, I turned around and headed home. I had passed another half dozen giant swarms, and I started to feel frightened with no hope of talking myself down. If this was some invasion, some pestilence, I wanted to be inside before it got worse.

I asked my mother-in-law what she thought they might be, and she said she thought they were termite swarms. She looked it up in her desert wildlife book, and I looked it up on the Internet, and between the two we confirmed it: termites, newly hatched, doing their mating flight. Good for them, I suppose.

Maybe it's just that I lived for so long in the city, or maybe I'm just still acclimating, but I feel pretty overwhelmed by all of the wildlife here. An encounter with an animal is often either the highlight or low point of my day.

Sometimes it's a lovely, inspiring encounter, like the bobcats. A black butterfly laced in fluorescent yellow kept me company one morning during my swim. A coyote crossed the road very slowly and elegantly on my way to the grocery store. I've seen all sorts of birds: roadrunners, cardinals, soaring hawks, doves who try to drink from the fountain in the backyard, hummingbirds, clusters of quails who rush off together like they're late for family therapy appointments. A bunny with the loveliest tuft of a white tail. A shiny red beetle. A one-winged owl I met at a nature event we attended a few weekends ago: he had a name like Sparky or Bingo but he looked like a Sebastian to me, his feathers as lovely as an evening gown, and he caused Henrietta to kick her legs and laugh and make the sounds that most resemble a desire to communicate--"Eeh!' "Eeeh!" she said, and waited for the gorgeous owl's reply.

And sometimes the encounter is harrowing. It shakes me to my center, like the morning walk with flying termites. While our movers moved our belongings into Sam's mother's garage, they reportedly saw a huge rattlesnake cross the driveway, and a tarantula the size of a dinner plate scurried in among our boxes and did not emerge. One morning when I went out for a swim, a small mouse was drowned at the bottom of the deep end and I was convinced I'd die of the plague. Another morning, a small tarantula was on the pool's steps--drowned, though I didn't believe it was actually dead, and I cut my swim short. On a walk, I saw a coyote cross the road quickly in front of me and I felt hunted. I looked out on the patio while I was feeding Henrietta breakfast one morning, and there was a tarantula underneath the outdoor dining set and I had to hand the baby off to Sam and go back to bed.

I don't recover from these harrowing experiences quickly. I don't have a casual dislike for tarantulas. The thought of them, literally, makes me wish I didn't live on this planet. I dare not let the thought of scorpions enter my brain; I don't know what I'll do when I see one. But while I'm sure I hate spiders with a wild and--let's face it--immature loathing, I can't always make sense of my other reactions. You'll notice coyotes show up in both the lovely and terrifying encounters, and while I've seen some gorgeous butterflies, I've been known to say they're nothing more than tiny hairy lobsters with wings. They give me the willies sometimes. And what makes the difference? Did I love one coyote because I observed it safely from my car? Is that why I loved the bobcats, because I was snapping pictures through a window? Or do I love them because they're mammals, because some part of me knows they nurse their babies, like I do?

What I mean is, I've been looking for a hard and fast rule to what I loathe and love, and I can't seem to find it. I've thought I was most frightened by the creatures I don't know enough about, that's not really it either. I've loved seeing some creatures that I know are dangerous, that I know would haul off my baby and eat her if they were hungry and she was available. And I've been frightened badly by animals that I know won't do me harm, for whom human harm-doing is simply not in the repertoire.

The truth is, I suspect, that this has little to do with the animals at all. They are beautiful or terrible depending mostly on how I'm feeling. I'm still adjusting, still rocketing back and forth between thrilled hopefulness that we're here and everything will be great, and doom-and-gloom fretful feelings. Those termites on the walk could have been lovely, perhaps, their swarming silhouetted against the big blue sky. But instead they embodied how I felt that morning: unmoored, spinning frantically in a devastatingly foreign place, unsure of what was coming at me and what was under my feet.


I envy your proximity to nature. People in my neighborhood think we live on the edge of the "wilderness" (which is why everybody thinks I'm crazy I walk my kids to school, because you know, the *wildlife*), which I find humorous.

Having grown up in rural WA state, I had my fair share of run-ins with creatures. I miss it, being here in suburbia.

And as always, beautiful thoughts. Love your connection between your emotions/experiences & relationship with the natural world.
Amara said…
I think my reactions to things are irrational a lot of the time. Jeff and I went to lunch and he wanted sushi, and I'm not crazy about it anymore after having gotten sick from it once, but I agreed to try this special platter thing. It was a big heap of rice with small slabs of various raw fish. That's it. I could eat it, and know I liked the flavor and texture, but if I thought about what I was eating I would start to gag. Made no sense. Why does putting my face in a cold lake make me think of zombie corpses? I swear our brains sometimes.....
ginger said…
Hairy lobsters with wings?
Everything that flies is a killer bee?
I love you. And now I know that we're even more alike than I knew before.
eden said…
i was guessing it was termites as you were describing them. my only experience with termites was on my mission. people sold dried termites, and other people bought them. to eat them.

i'm sorry if that made you gag. i kind of gagged while writing it.

i did see a lot of termite mounds while driving to lake malawi. they were really cool, and sometimes even beautiful.
Emily said…
Another wonderful post. I really like your insight and can see truth in it. Except for the spiders. Spiders are horrifying no matter how happy/sad one is. Tarantulas? I think I'd die. Seriously, though, I'm having a hard time picturing you in the south west. You are so Boston in my mind. Is that strange? I can't remember where you are even from originally. Maybe some pics of you and Henrietta and a saguaro?
When I lived in Guatemala (when I was 7 and 8) we got termite swarms in our house. Very disconcerting.

I love the way you write out your thoughts. I all too often rely on photos and hoping others see them as I do. I am so very grateful for my camera!
belann said…
Definitely can be a scary place. Keep thinking of the javelina in Mary Frances' flower beds in front of the house.
Giuli said…
When I first moved to the desert, the suburban Atlantan in me was unmoved by the mention of wildlife. Pah, the desert, there are nice safe rows of houses and concrete here just like in the city. But I was wrong. After the first night there, when I thought it was okay to leave some windows open to let the crisp night air in (they didn't have screens) and I almost stepped on a scorpion in my bare feet IN MY LIVING ROOM, I changed my mind. It was so unbelievable delightful though, after our first winter there, when the hibernating bunnies in our backyard woke up and a hole that just looked unassuming became a place where dozens of bunnies crawled out and ran away. My dog tried to chase every one, and Peter, flopsy, mopsy, and cottontail emerged as the victors. Then we REALLY moved to the sticks, and I couldn't let Max play outside by himself unattended because there were mountain lions roaming the neighborhood, and at night you could hear elk mooing (is it mooing?) right behind our bedroom window. One day, when I was about six months preggo with Kizzie, I went outside to put the laundry on the line and saw a dead Javalina right behind our bedroom window. He had a huge gash on his side--what on earth got a hold of him? and I ran inside, shaking and almost vomiting with fear. Not only do I have an irrational fear of Javalinas (they are soooooooo creepy looking) but this was a dead one, attacked by something else, in my backyard. I called the county animal control to come get the body, emphanizing that it was a rotting corpse in a yard where a young child and pregnant mother frolic, and two days later it was gone. I was actually lucky. We had a friend in Pine who had an elk die in their yard and it stayed there for months, because the county wouldn't take care of a 500 pound elk, until a nice townsperson let them borrow their backhoe and they finally laid the elderly elk to rest. I was a pioneer woman in Pine, with no cable tv, internet, or land line, warming my house with wood that I hand split in the yard for the stove, listening to various wildlife outside my doors, and soaking in the peace and calm. I have never in my life felt so peaceful in a place, and although we know that it was the right thing to do, moving to big city Texas, I'm going out of my mind with all of the shops, concrete, fast food places, and falsified things to do. Sure, we could pay fifty bucks for the kids to jump in an indoor jumpy castle, but where are the trails in your backyard with springs, beautiful mountains, and escape from streetlights. Argh!
See Mack Snow said…
Your blog is my most favorite of them all. I rocket back and forth between my feelings as well, and you make me feel that it's a-okay because at least there are two of us.

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