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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Aphids (p. 173)

From chapter "Metamorphosis"

This summer I was fortunate enough to witness an outbreak of aphids on a maple tree outside my door.

Because summers in Spokane are hot, then dry, then even hotter, several years ago I planted a half-dozen deciduous trees on the south side of the house. They’ve grown and spread to the point now that they make passable shade for the dogs and birds. Maybe in another few years they’ll cool the house as well.

About six weeks ago, I noticed some aphids on the leaves of the maple tree’s lower limbs. I watched them shake their tiny bodies as they seemed to settle into more comfortable positions from which to suck the tree’s juices. A few days later I noticed more aphids, and then more, until nearly every leaf revealed a score or more of the little buggers. The leaves were covered with honeydew-a sweet substance exuded by aphids-which dropped to splatter where the tree overhung the porch.

Were I an employee of the Forest Service, I probably would have declared a forest health crisis, and used the opportunity to cut down not only that tree, but all trees of merchantable value within a couple miles. Were I otherwise a typical resident and consequently more interested in chemical control than observing processes, I would have sprayed the tree with an insecticide. As it was, I asked my mom what I should do. She said I should spray the tree with water to wash off the aphids. I thanked her, then did nothing at all. How much richness, I wondered, do we deprive ourselves of by accepting the default decisions handed to us by our elders? It should be said that my mom’s plants are healthier than mine.

Each day I watched closely, rooting unsuccessfully for the arrival of ladybugs to trim the aphid population. The tree started dropping leaves. My mom again suggested the cold water wash. I again demurred.

A week passed and no ladybugs arrived, but the tree began to buzz with wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and flies, all coming to lap up the honeydew. The tree dropped more leaves. About a week later I saw first one ladybug, and then another. Other bugs arrived, too, at first singly, and then whole hordes of quarter-inch-long orange-and-black torpedo-shaped insects that sent me scurrying to the library to see what they were. I found out that they, too, were ladybugs in the larval stage.

Many times I witnessed what may have been the conversation of death as larvae passed their mandibles over first one and then another aphid before grasping a third or fourth to pull from the leaf. Or maybe what I witnessed was no conversation at all, especially one of mutual choice, because I also saw the front legs of aphids moving frantically as the bodies disappeared into the mouths of their captors.

Watching, it was hard for me to maintain the level of abstraction that had allowed me to root for the arrival of ladybugs. I am also aware that non-arrival would have meant the eventual death of the tree: just because a herbivore does the chomping doesn’t make it any less a killing.

A friend asked if after watching the doomed aphids struggle, I still thought the world was cooperative, and I said that I didn’t know. But watching the profusion of bugs-wasps and flies who continued to arrive to eat the honeydew, caterpillars who arrived to carve flesh off leaves, a dozen species of spiders who came to eat anything they could get their palps on- I told her what I did know. The tree had made it clear to me that the price of diversity is death: without the death of the leaves there are no aphids, without aphids there are neither wasps nor ants nor spiders nor ladybugs nor their voracious larvae.

There is something else I wanted to understand. What does the ladybug larvae think as it passes over one aphid for another, and what thoughts race through the aphid as it races across the leaf? What does the maple tree think and feel as the first leaves begin to drop? Does it feel pain and resentment, or anticipation at the new community being built up? Does it feel as though it is giving an offering? Maybe it doesn’t feel any of these things. Perhaps all. Or maybe it feels something entirely different and unfathomable to anyone not a maple tree.

As the larvae fatten and get ready to pupate, they search for the undersides of leaves or boxes or pieces of wood from which they can hang and metamorphose: become tubby and hard and sexually mature. They don’t form cocoons, but hang exposed, and I have seen a larva bite into a pupa. I have seen them also now change slowly into adults.

Looking more closely around this land, I can find the chrysali of moths and butterflies. They hang from eaves, limbs, overhangs where I’ve sloppily stacked boxes of beekeeping equipment. I wonder what their metamorphosis feels like to them: what it feels like to go to sleep an infant and wake up an adult, with new wings, a different body, and an entirely different set of motivations.

I remember my own growing pains as a teenager, the ache of bones stretching me eight inches in one year, and I wonder if these insects, too, feel deep pains from their process of maturation. There is no faster nor more radical transformation I know in nature than the process of pupating, and I wonder if the level of pain corresponds.

Transitions by definition involve pain, loss, sorrow, and even death. But I wonder-staring at a stumpy black-and-orange blob, legless, headless, eyeless, that will soon be a ladybug-if perhaps during the transmogrification these creatures are aware. Perhaps they sleep, and dream. I wonder if they dream of flying. I remember my dream of cranes, and wonder if someone will appear to them, too, to say, “We may not yet fly very well, but at least we aren’t walking.”

Again I look over the tree-the aphids are gone, but the spiders and ladybugs remain, cleaning up after the party, as it were-and again I wonder if these dormant pupae feel, and if they dream, or if perhaps they sleep dreamlessly as one way of life passes and another takes its place.