Sunsets and Mosquito Hawks: A Confession of Ignorance

Of a late afternoon long ago I sat in the clearing above the swamp, headwaters of Machodoc Creek, where my parents lived in Virginia’s Tidewater. I was reading. The air was thick with summer almost silent, except for the occasional bird and bug going about their affairs and the distant cough and roar of big trucks gearing their way up the hills on Route 301. Dragonflies flittered about in light that began to slant through the trees. Odd. Usually they kept to the wetlands below the hill.

Something fell on my pages and thrashed awkwardly about. A bug of some sort, but not one that I had seen, and it seemed to have trouble walking. Above, the dragonflies flashed and hovered. I dumped the stranger on the grass and kept reading. Shortly another of the curious creatures fell on my leg. It couldn’t walk either.

At last I understood. The ants were queening. Hopeful chitinous maidens were taking wing to mate, and the dragonflies were eating them, nipping off the juicy abdomens and dropping the rest on me. That was why they had left the swamp.

I knew dragonflies well. As a boy in Alabama with a BB gun, I had hunted them, and moccasins, in the wet region near the Valley Gin Company, which didn’t make gin but took the seeds out of cotton. The town was Athens, then small and almost rural. The air there was alive with snake doctors, as dragonflies were locally known, though elsewhere they are called mosquito hawks or the devil’s darning needles—fast, muscular insects, with huge compound eyes like radomes. They are fearsome to look in the face and, for small prey that fly, agile death. They glittered iridescent blue and green in the sunlight. I could never hit them.

In Virginia, ant parts rained down. The world, I reflected, seemed friendly only because people were too large for most things to eat. The world we live in bears little relation to the smaller world roundabout. In our pretty clearing with the smell of warm vegetation and the babble of birds was a realm of nightmare mechanical monsters, unnoticed because small. I have seen ants tear apart a wounded hornet, a mantis eating a struggling bug held in brawny green forearms. It is well for us that mantises don’t weigh three hundred pounds.

I sometimes think I am the only man who doesn’t understand wherever it is that we are.

As the light failed and I could no long see my page, I wandered across the bean field to where the old road, once a wagon track, ran between high banks into the woods. A flaming sunset had come over the sky, rolling off forever in what looked like ocean waves or burning dunes. The air smelled of damp earth and leaf mold. Night came early in the road cut. The first bats began to flicker through branches dark against the flames.

The droning announcers of the endless nature shows on television, full of the confidence born of limited understanding, tell us that bats and cockatoos and locusts are the necessary consequent of blind chance, speaking in the next breath of Mother Nature’s intentions. For them everything is simple. Starlings are drab so that nothing hungry can see them, and cockatoos are gaudy so they can find each other to mate. Yet I note that starlings seem to mate prolifically if drably and, given what cockatoos sound like, it is hard to see how anything could fail to find one that wanted to be found.

I think those big birds are too pretty to be accidents. Those of religious nature have attributed such things to any of several thousand gods, some more attractive than others. They, like the acolytes of evolution, are perfectly sure of the rightness of their views. I am not sure of anything. Alone in a darkling wood, with things all about flying and hunting and growing in a vast ungraspable dance, I suspected that I was in the presence of something above my pay grade. Just what, I couldn’t say, nor of what intentions or provenance. I didn’t think it was much concerned with me. It wasn’t physics.

Recently I found the noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking quoted, perhaps correctly, as saying that humanity may be on the verge of understanding everything whatever. Physicists often say such things, speaking of string theory, singularities, and the 3K background radiation-words redolent of insulation and sixty-cycle hum. If one may differ with a cosmogonist, I suggest that we understand almost nothing. And without the slightest disrespect, I note that the brightest of a large population of hamsters is, after all, a hamster.

I suppose that people believe that they understand this mysterious universe because it is more comforting to think that one understands than to worry uneasily that one mightn’t. The faithful, Darwinian and otherwise, persuade themselves that they have The Answer. The fury of their defense of their creeds suggests a nagging doubt. Others focus on the here and now and deny the question. Few say, “I don’t know.”

The sky glowed in gorgeous oranges and reds like a Chinese lamp lit from within and slowly burned out to blues and ashen black. Yes, I have heard of water vapor and indices of refraction, but I don’t think that was what was happening, or not all that was happening. In the marsh below things would be coming out to eat.

I wish explanations explained better. There is a peculiar wasp that kills tarantulas, buries them, and lays eggs on them. I have tried to imagine how an infant wasp, crawling unschooled from where its mother left it as an egg, knows how to find a tarantula, where to sting it, and how to bury it. One would think the world would be a confusing place to such a newborn with no experience of it and only the outline of a nervous system. Yet they do it unerringly. More is going on here than I think we know.

My idiot dog Deacon showed up and set about whuffling in the black undergrowth. He was an agreeable if foolish brute, and appeared to be the product of illicit coupling between a German shepherd and a boxcar. Why he whuffled, I don’t know. I didn’t need to know. He did what is proper to his place in things and I, what is proper to mine. He sniffed, and I supervised sunsets. It suited us.

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