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.