Archive for February, 2013

Of ants and palmetto bugs

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

The other morning here in Key West I saw a dead palmetto bug on our deck. You might think that palmetto bugs are just cockroaches and that ‘palmetto bug’ is simply a nicer name for them, but it ain’t that simple. Some say that’s the case; others argue they are not true members of the cockroach family at all. Some say that palmetto bugs are actually American cockroaches (rather than one of the many other varieties throughout the world); others dismiss that idea with disdain. What I know for sure (at least I think I do) is that the proper name for palmetto bugs is Eurycotis floridana and if that doesn’t make them cockroaches, I don’t know what would.

The real problem, as I see it, is not what their true name is or is not. The real problem is twofold: (a) palmetto bugs are rather large, and (b) – oh horrors – they can fly. The first time I ever came to Key West (which must be more than 30 years ago) two palmetto bugs buzz-bombed my head when we were sitting outside on this very same deck, eating dinner. One of them got entangled in my hair for a few nightmare minutes. I’m still having therapy.

In the intervening years between then and now, palmetto bugs have become a lot less numerous here. You seldom see them indoors any more (except maybe one or two lying dead behind the fridge if you happen to clean there) and you never see scorpions, or snakes, or raccoons, all of which were interestingly numerous in the old days. I suspect they’ve all retreated up the Florida Keys to less human-populated areas. So I was slightly surprised to see one on the deck, and glad – glad, I tell you! – that it was thoroughly dead.

I had it in mind to get a dustpan and sweep it into the trash, but in the tropics you tend to delay any brisk activity for another hour, another day or indeed even for an entirely different year, so I didn’t hurry. And the next time I looked, the palmetto bug’s body was surrounded by about 60 ants, grouping themselves busily for action.
The ants in question are tiny ones (there are many different kinds here) so moving a large object like a palmetto bug is a major enterprise for them, and I was fascinated to watch them. And once they got started they moved the body with surprising speed and ease: it looked as if they’d got it on rollers. (It actually reminded me of that ship scene at the beginning of Les Mis The Movie: the scale was about the same.)

But the thing I didn’t understand was why the ants kept circling, instead of marching steadily forwards. Could it have been miscommunication amongst the team? It reminded me of a poem that my father used to recite, about a Roman called Horatius holding a bridge against the enemy.

Was none who would be foremost

To lead such dire attack:

But those behind cried ‘Forward!’

And those before cried ‘Back!’

And backward now and forward

Wavers the deep array;

And on the tossing sea of steel,

To and fro the standards reel;

And the victorious trumpet-peal

Dies fitfully away.

Were the ants undecided, or maybe un-agreed, about where to go? Was it the fault of the leaders with the feelers? Or were they trying to position the body so as to insert it down between the slats of wood?

“You’ll never manage to do that,” I called to them. “There’s not enough space.” But on and on they went, twirling the body this way and that. I was, as you might imagine, tempted to intervene but I managed to stop myself from “helping”. I told myself they knew what they were doing and I did not. I thought they must have a master plan of their own, and I left them to it.

When I came back they’d apparently altered their ideas as well as their direction, and were heading for the garden at the side of the desk. Then they dragged the body under the side fence and – I suppose – into a nest.

Game over.

But if there are any naturalists reading this, could you tell me what was with the twirling?

I took some video of the activities on my iPhone but WordPress tells me the file is too big to upload. If I find out how to make it smaller, I’ll add it later. But meantime here is a photo of a palmetto bug: avert your eyes now if you’re feeling squeamish. It’s dead. You don’t have to worry.

Tuesday poem: A Riddle of the Soul

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

A Riddle of the Soul
M. K. Joseph

I cannot give

Unless I have

I cannot have

Unless I save

Unless I have

I cannot save

Unless I give

I cannot have.

Unless I live

I cannot be

Unless I am

I cannot seem

I cannot be

Unless I seem

I cannot live

Unless I am.

I cannot be

Unless I give

I cannot have

Unless I die

Unless I grieve

I cannot love

Unless I die

I cannot live.

This week the main poem on the Tuesday Poem blog is by C.K. Stead, and last week Mary McCullum also posted a poem by Allan Curnow. I’m delighted to add to the generational coincidence of poets with this one by M. K. Joseph, who taught in the English Department at Auckland University (with Carl Stead) when I was a student there. (Ken Smithyman, another significant poet of those times, was my Standard Four teacher at Takapuna Primary. Hopeless at teaching maths, but terrific at introducing us to a wide range of poetry that’s stayed with me ever since.)

I’ve posted poems by other important New Zealand poets of that generation in recent years – Rex Fairburn’s To An Expatriate and R.A.K. Mason’s Song of Allegiance still resonate in my life.

‘A Riddle of the Soul’, though, is new to me, and the structure seems intriguingly reminiscent of the modern ferlew (see the one I posted here). M. K. Joseph was an acclaimed novelist as well as a poet, and an academic with, as I recall, a special interest in Byron. And also a fine teacher.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where there is a poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.