Monster Magnificent

Monday, January 14, 2013

I found on the sidewalk one day a catastrophe of insects. The legs of a walking stick braced under the cellophane wings of a cicada, but the body was closer to a beetle’s. Black eyes bulged on a bulldog head. Curved mandibles crossed at the tips in the fashion of mammoths and mastodons. When my dog nosed it, the whole mess, which was long as my hand, moved as one and raised its tusks. The dog, a hundred-pound chocolate Labrador who knew his size, barked a warning and stepped back. My arm hair stood as if pulling a primeval me out from under thin skin. The monster paused but kept its ground. We were all three paying attention to each other, right there on a side street of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near a dumpster overflowing with chicken bones and diapers and broken furniture.

It didn’t take me long on the Internet to discover that lots of people paid attention to this insect, which they then photographed and described with horror—pinchers, four wings, six legs, three inches long, four inches, five, the biggest goddamn insect I’ve ever seen. Entomologists quelled the panic: just a male eastern dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus, one of the largest North American insects, common around the Susquehanna River region that I called home. Aggressive, yes, but not a threat: the freakish mandibles are ungainly against curious girls and their dogs and useful only for battles and brides.

Female dobsonflies don’t live more than two weeks, and the males rarely make three days. Therefore, the largest insect on the continent was common but hard to spot. I liked it right away and went back with my camera, but the “king bug” was gone.

It was the first monster I’d ever seen, and I wanted to see it again.

Once while traveling, I almost missed a second monster because it was on top of a gilded clock in Cambridge, England. It was a huge metal grasshopper, glassy-brown and scaly like a wind-torn cockroach, with the gaping mouth of a carp and rebar for teeth. He had gold-lidded snake eyes bloodshot with lightning. The grasshopper hopped counterclockwise along the main cog of the huge gold clock, which was set into a wall facing the street. I wondered if his legs were winding the clock as they fell into the notches on the cog. Or was the clock moving him? Either way, perpetual motion married timepiece with pest.

He was an attraction, and he had a name, Chronophage, Latin for the eater of time. Technically speaking, he was just an old clock mechanism called a grasshopper escapement, a calibration device that lowered a back “leg” into a cog, causing the cog to turn and let “escape” a front leg which then fell into another notch, turning the cog again at a regulated distance that could be calibrated to a second or minute or hour. The eighteenth-century idea came from clockmaker John Harrison, and in the twenty-first century a hobbyist clockmaker, John Taylor, who’d made his fortune with thermostat patents, wanted to build for his alma mater an oversized escapement that was literally a grasshopper. So came Chronophage, set in the wall of the Taylor Library of Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University. For the unveiling Taylor even hired Cambridge’s most famous physicist, Stephen Hawking.

Called the Corpus Clock, it is accurate every five minutes and there are no hands, just blue dots—one for the hour, one for the minute, and one that orbits the perimeter each second, hooking under Chronophage’s front leg before jetting out for the next second. Taylor has built two other Chronophages, and each one is a progressively more horrific grasshopper, obese from eating all our spent time yet perpetually generating the next blue molecule that races around the gold clock, bringing him one more second to devour.

Time magazine named it one of the best inventions of 2008. It was ranked #48, behind Google’s floating data center and ahead of sound-enhanced food. Time didn’t explain why Chronophage was one of the best inventions (and technically it’s an innovation on an invention, since the grasshopper escapement has been running clocks for a long time). The writers said that it was designed “to express time’s irrevocability,” which isn’t quite right. Since it is accurate only twelve times an hour, Taylor intended to illustrate not that time is irrevocable but that it is unstable in our human experience (time speeds up, slows down, collapses, expands, depending on what is happening to us), yet the genius grasshopper escapement keeps time anyway, which is something that a magazine named after time should have figured out.

Because light travels faster than sound, you can estimate the distance of a thunderstorm with a simple equation: Count the seconds between the lightning bolt and the thunderclap. Divide by five. The answer is the miles between you and the storm. So ten seconds means it is two miles away. I remember my mom teaching this to my Girl Scout troop. Our motto was Always be prepared. Good girls always knew what was coming. But somewhere along the way into adulthood I forgot that five seconds equaled one mile, and I thought that the seconds directly equaled the miles. I expanded time and distance when I should have collapsed it. Storms caught up to me.

I didn’t figure out my mistake until I was reading everything I could about dobsonflies (because with monsters on the streets one has to know what’s coming), and I read that one stage of their metamorphosis—larva to pupa—is triggered by thunder.

The proper name for this third monster, the one that waits on thunder, is hellgrammite. This is a black-plated crawler with pinchers at both ends and so many legs that if you fashioned a clock mechanism for it, it could turn a cog at the speed of light, but instead of taking you into the future, it would ring you down (mean and dirty) through Dante’s hell.

After they’ve hatched in late summer, the tiny hellgrammites leave dry terra for creek beds because as perfect monsters they have breathing holes for land and gills for water. They anchor their tail pinchers to pebbles. And then they slay anything within reach. Those that eat well can in five years be thick as young snakes and plated with a leathery, river-soaked armor. A guy at a housewarming party once told me he’d seen a hellgrammite grab a crayfish and pull it under a rock. Another guy told me of a Pennsylvania party dare: hold a whole live hellgrammite in your mouth for as long as you can.

Here’s the amazing thing, the thunder thing: When in early summer they feel the slow sound waves of thunder rumble under water, the oldest hellgrammites ascend. On shore, they burrow under rocks, curl up, and then just pupate, right there inside themselves. No cocoon, no chrysalis—the trick of complete metamorphosis. They look like a cross between a scorched bird embryo and pale celery leaves because tiny wing pads emerge at what could be called a shoulder. If a skunk or mole or rat bothers them, they can still swing their pinchers and bite. About two weeks later, they break out of themselves as the huge dobsonfly. The little celery leaves unfurl into four amazing wings that in folklore once earned them the lineage of dragons. The adult form of any insect is also called the imago, like imago Dei or imagine, and it’s not hard to imagine dobsonflies as dragons.

When a storm thundered not long after I learned about the hellgrammites, I pulled on my boots and waited at the window for the rain to taper. Sun cut the clouds as the dog and I walked impatiently around the corner to the park, where two miles of old concrete steps ran parallel to the river. Sure enough, hellgrammites were gliding up the thirteen steps, their legs oscillating like ripples and energized, I imagined, by none other than Zeus. Not hundreds, not even half a hundred, but fifteen or twenty, black and thick and fast and none overly bothered by the dog, who trotted to each, curious with his whiskers, snorting, sometimes flipping one over or nosing it back down the step it had just summited. They writhed and righted themselves, an action that gave them the old name conniption bugs.

The biologist Loren Eisely once wrote, “There are things still coming ashore,” and as I watched the hellgrammites I understood his fascination, his ecstasy, over life in the water that becomes life on the land. When was the last time you saw a mass of critters come ashore, breathing under water one second and on land the next? As if that were natural. Monsters, all of them.

I watched the hellgrammites advance as the thunder receded. I could not imagine picking up a hellgrammite. I knew they were called toe-biters for a reason, and a toe was a finger was a hand was a heart. Yet I sort of wanted to pick one up, as if holding one was the last obstacle, as if I’d fully understand the creature and belong to it and it to me.

As the last of the hellgrammites crested the final steps and made a straight line for the grassy hill, I realized that many hellgrammites on the move looked like dashes. I thought of Emily Dickinson. I did not feel like Emily Dickinson, and the sidewalk was certainly no poem. But there were wordless dashes everywhere.

Academic speculation about Dickinson’s use of the dash abounds. Some scholars say that her dash might be a totally made-up punctuation that just looks like a dash. Some people who have studied her handwriting note that the dashes angle up or down with the musicality of the hymns on which Dickinson modeled her poems. Other times, the dash is an interruption. Still others say the dash is just an elongated period, as if she were writing with a speedy flourish, the action of dotting a period combined with whipping the pen to the right but not lifting it quite enough—a moment of sloppy handwriting.

The critiques of Dickinson’s dash surprised me. I had always thought her dash was just a dash, a perfectly useful punctuation mark. I’ve been told I use it too much and incorrectly. I keep using it anyway.

Some early editors replaced her dashes with periods and commas to make the poems “correct,” a decision that changed the visual appearance of the poems as well as the tone. Now most editors agree that those dashes need to be there, and I agree that hellgrammites look like dashes. I marked them as my third but best monsters.

Anna Botsworth Comstock was a nineteenth-century naturalist and wood engraver who was so interested in hellgrammites and dobsonflies that she wrote her Cornell dissertation on them and created two exquisite engravings for her husband’s tome An Introduction to Entomology.

It’s a massive book, over a thousand pages of insect life minutiae: for instance, chapter 2 explains external anatomy, and the pages about just the head of the usual insect are organized into twenty-four subheadings. But her husband, John Henry, got right to the point about Corydalus cornutus: “This is a magnificent insect.” It’s likely the only sentence of awe in the whole book, and then he’s back to his proper scientific descriptions— the fourth tarsel segment is not bilobed— and I’m lost in the mud of taxonomy. The epicranium . . . the cervical sclerites . . . the occiput. The language describing insects is an insect itself, with syllable segments and curls of dead Latin vowels under the hairy legs of ps and ls and ts, the many cs like arches of exoskeleton.

But Anna Botsworth Comstock’s wood engravings of insects are far from clinical. They are graceful. In “Part II: The Classification and Life-Histories of Insects,” under the order Neuroptera, she’s depicted the hellgrammite life-size, with careful attention to the tracheal gills behind fourteen of its twenty-four legs. Each segment of the larva has been detailed with at least twenty fine lines. On the plated head, the strange ovals of artistic shading speak of dark paua shells. I would wear that thing as jewelry. Next to the hellgrammite is the male dobsonfly, just like the one I saw on the sidewalk. Anna had such an eye for the veins of the wings that seeing them etched reminds me of a state map with counties and elevation. It’s as if all wayward dashes have latched into beautiful lines.

She chose engraving because it was a practical way to create illustrations that could be reproduced quickly. First she had to carve the image of the insect in relief, on a round of wood that had been cut against the grain. It allowed for greater detail, unlike the dramatic swaths of black and white in wood cutting (done with the grain). Then she could spread ink on the block, press it to paper again and again.

In her dobsonfly engravings I don’t see the hand of someone who is fearful, repulsed, or repelled. I don’t imagine the unpleasant collective nouns—a plague of locusts, a scourge of mosquitoes, an intrusion of cockroaches. Instead, I see the focus of a woman who sought to know each line of Corydalus cornutus the way her peers threaded silk for needlepoint.

And that means she had to stare at dobsonflies and hellgrammites for a long time and then etch them on a block of boxwood probably no bigger than a pocket Bible. I think it means she held monsters in her hand, brought them right up to eye level.

It means she was not afraid.

In that spirit, I start collecting. Photos won’t do. I need the bodies. But the season is short and predators have an edge; smart black starlings pluck hellgrammites like string beans, then perch on the steps by the river and swallow them whole. Other times I find entire sets of dobsonfly wings left to whisp in the wind after something ate the body. I find dead males squashed on Front Street, and after a downpour their bodies catch like mangled hangers on the storm drains. Luck and patience win, though, and I find what I need—dried and relatively intact examples of all-things-dobson: a perfectly preserved hellgrammite cast out from a Dickinson poem to curl like a comma from The Book of the Dead; the parchment shell of the exoskeleton, much like the cicada shells I used to collect as a kid; and then the head of a male dobsonfly and the body of what was probably a female. A friend finds an entire dead female with even the antennae intact. She dries it in the trunk of her car and brings it to me one afternoon. I line up my finds on my desk, under my monitor, in order of their metamorphosis. I rewrite their collective nouns: a dash of hellgrammites, an essay of dobsonflies, a victory of monsters.

Later, a friend staying the night sees the monsters and is horrified. I apologize but not sincerely, relocating my finds to an empty jewelry box lined with gold velvet, as if I were Anna Botsworth Comstock and this were my life’s work. I guess it has become that. So if I were going to teach you to illustrate a dobsonfly, this is how I would do it: You need only gray and black crayons, or better yet, a sharp quill and the thickest old ink. Save your paint for the butterflies. When the gloaming pulls the light from your drawing table, start the sketch with the whiplike tusks. Shade the flat wide head, tectonic in its plating, and dare to draw a glint of aggression in the big side-set eyes. Take care with the stiff, vein-filled wings, and then get the angles of the six legs just right because only the best insects murder the space over which they sit.

Chronophage sits over a golden clock, eating time that we’ve already killed for him. He’ll never stop. He is, I think, the grasshopper from Aesop’s fable: The ants, busy collecting crumbs for the winter, scolded the carefree grasshopper for not being prepared. When the snow came, the grasshopper starved and died—supposedly. Maybe he found his way to Cambridge instead. And now he’s the one who’s smarter, not the ants. When there’s a thunderstorm over the eight-hundred-year-old university, I’m certain that Chronophage counts the seconds and divides by five, then rubs that meal into his belly. He’s always prepared.

Each summer, the dobsonflies are done doing their thing by mid-July. I always have to wait until May and a storm to see the hellgrammites come ashore, and then it’s not until June and early July nights that I spot the big male dobsonflies, and I’ve seen only four. For brief sightings it’s a long wait I can’t do anything about.

But during that wait, and thanks to Chronophage, I’ve decided it is good to wait in a world with monsters. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “These insects teach a man to be anonymous,” and we can’t know what he saw but I’m certain it was magnificent. These insects do teach a man to be anonymous, and they teach a woman to look closely, to know the times around thunder and mark pauses any way she wishes, to know why we return, why we belong, and to not only have a room of her own but place on her desk the things that terrify others.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013