Summer is settling down on Louisiana like a well-meaning but misinformed elderly great aunt wrapping a warm, wet wool blanket around the state. It's the time of year in which most natives hie themselves to the dark insides of their homes and huddle underneath air conditioner vents and around the cool exhalations of open refrigerator doors, and only venture out very early or very late in the day.
That's why I was out and about just after sunup this weekend: I knew that if I didn't get all my outside work done before the sun got too high I'd end up looking like a raisin on a concrete frying pan. The sun was barely peering over the tree line when I spotted a thing that always makes me pause--Nature being clever.
My property, you see, has long been overrun with anole lizards; the common green chameleon. It's nothing to see one on every plant and two on every window ledge carefully stalking a meal but this was a new take on the concealed hunter. I have a length of hosepipe rolled up hanging on one post of my fence, and walking by it I couldn't help but notice that something was sticking out of one brass-capped end. I guess my eyes are trained by years of avoidance to spot things like that since it's usually a wasp of some very angry variety guarding a nest, but this time I was wrong. A very enterprising anole had decided that this nylon and polystyrene tube would make a perfect hidng place from which to leap out onto unsuspecting insects.
All I could see of him was his tiny wedge-shaped head, a fingernail-sized reminder of his dinosaur ancestors. His skin was tuned to a dark brown to simulate the dark brass of the connector, and his bright golden eyes stood out against his deep brown head, which he kept turning toward me with fast little bird-like tilts and twists. I had to fight a serious internal war to keep from blowing in the other end of the hose as hard as I could, to see how far I could shoot him, cannon-like, across the yard.
(Mrs. Irrelephant came outside a few minutes later, saw said lizard and performed the very experiment I didn't--he flew about ten feet, in quite a surprised state.)
The other thing that gave made me pause happened later that same morning. I was headed back through the gate when along flew a beetle of truly shocking size. It came angling in on overly-careful wings to land with a metallic clunk on the gate, and I had to sashay over to see what exactly it was. I thought at first it was a pine beetle, these long, grey bugs that play utter havoc on pine trees (of which I have 60+ around my property) so I was, unBuddha-like, about to crush it into oblivion when I realised that I really DIDN'T recognise it.
What caught my eye at first was it's size, at least as long as two of my fingerjoints, but what held my eye was it's eyes. Two eyespots, that is, grey and oval and obvious on the curved top of it's rather small abdomen. Big enough that it's abdomen seemed put there entirely for the purpose of having two huge fake eyes painted on. It's real head was as black as it's belly and so small I don't know how it could see to fly. And being a bug person from way back, I plucked it off the fence and stuck it in my palm to see what would happen.
(And yes, thank you, I know this is a rather pointedly stupid way to go about scientific investigations but I feel I'm more of the Victorian gentleman scholar than the rigorous "poke it with a probe and see what it does" sort of white labcoat and black tie scientist.)
What happened, in fact, is that it started to walk around on six of the blackest legs I had ever seen on a bug. The whole bottom of this huge critter was as black as inked silk, and as shiny. His top was the real treat, though. The motif noir was continued there, but around all the edges of a lovely oval shell was a faint sprinkling of dots of tan, the colour of old dust. They were heaviest toward the ends of the shell, making it look like an art student had been practicing their shading with a stippling pencil, and combined with the absolute inky black of it's legs and antennae it was quite a handsome bug. I decided I had to show it to the family.
When I returned the bug and myself to the outside, me to finish my chores and it to return to doing whatever it was doing, it surprised me yet again. I held my hand close to one of the thin limbs of my fig tree, and it paused it's heavy scurrying around my finger. It seemed to start a staring match with the leaf in front of it, and without warning it emitted a very loud and perfectly clear "click." I fully expected to see a cocked pistol, a gleaming black tannhauser clutched in one ebony foreleg, or to find that I was standing on an unexploded landmine whose trigger I had just trodden on, but no, that was not the case. It was flying time.
The critter opened it's wing case as though it had unlatched the doors on a Mercedes Benz; they unfolded from an invisible seam with uncanny grace until each half stood at a 90 degree angle to it's body, making of him a perfect cruciform. Underneath was more of that incredible black, and the most elegant set of wings I have ever seen on a bug. He unfurled them carefully, like an old woman smoothing out crinkled black crinoline on a table; moving them until they were angled back and up from his body he held them there as if to let me admire the incredibly sophisticated, very alien assembly of his flight mechanisms.
When he started flapping the noise was surprisingly loud--a dull whirring and a sort of drone that I felt through his legs clutching my finger, and he held on grimly to my thumb for just a moment as if he were a pilot readying for takeoff who had forgotten to fasten his seatbelt. When he was satisfied that the airspeed was right, the rpms were up in the green zone and that his coffee was good and hot he lifted off, again with an offhanded lack of speed and concern that made me think of an old man driving down to the VFW hall for a game of chess, knowing full well that the board and his cronies would be there whether he got there early or late. He piloted an unhurried, meandering flight path over the fence and into the yard where I lost him around the corner of my shed.
I found out later that I had played with that very same bug when I was a child--an eyed click beetle, only the click beetles I used to see and play with were more along the size of fingernail clippings, and their dust-coloured spots were so small as to be invisible. A little fast research online told me that this was a mature adult who had, it seemed, reached most of it's almost two inch adult length, but no amount of dry scientific meanderings could take the smile off my face, the smile that was plastered there when I watched that little biological machine open it's wings and fly.