By Leath Tonino
First things first: I am not cool with insects. I want to be cool with them, but I am not cool with them. Regularly, they rile me. Frequently, they freak me. More often than less, instead of being cool with them, I am hot with them, as in fiery hot, as in blood boiling, as in angry and swinging punches, trying my damndest to knock them into oblivion, out of existence—or, at the very least, shoo them from my lips and nostrils, my tender wonderful beautiful vulnerable face.
Sure, I find the orders Hymenoptera, Zygentoma, and the like fascinating—the wings and external skeletons, the many hairy legs, the weird evolution, the biological mystery-miracle—but my face, the probing of it with a proboscis, the stinging of it with a stinger, that’s a (pun alert) sensitive subject. And the inching over my ankles, en route to my undies, that too tends to make me jump, i.e. do a crazy two-step, slap and shout, curse all insects and all their kin, a plague o’ both your houses, and your neighbor’s house, and his neighbor’s house, ya little sonofa…
The issue is that I camp a lot in the Green Mountains, never bring bug dope, and rarely bring a tent (a tarp to prevent the rain from splattering my tender, wonderful, beautiful, vulnerable face is enough). Depending on the season and the weather, this means that, in the evenings, especially, I find myself sitting at the center of the wild world, the center of some wilderness valley, exposed to the merciless wrath of—ouch, grrrr, sonofa!
And why, exactly, do I eschew the use of bug dope or a tent? Simple. Because as a guy who is not cool with insects, but badly wants to be cool with insects, I feel obliged to confront them, to engage them, to be challenged by them, to learn from them.
Learn from them?
Here, in a mere 10 letters, is the thing I’m hoping to learn, the essence of what I call Cool With Insects: acceptance.
Though it might sound nonviolent, this actually has little to do with the first Buddhist precept—refrain from killing—because, well, just ask a moose up in a Barton marsh or a Huntington swamp. Ungulates are known to literally lose their minds at the relentless behest of swarming mosquitoes, and if a sweet gentle deer thinks it’s OK to terminate a dozen with a spastic kick, heck, who am I to judge?
Eventually, we all feed the same soil, enrich this one shared world. We’re in it together, that’s what I’m saying, and death is the togetherness we’re in.
Yes, in it together—there’s the acceptance I’m driving at, the acceptance that is, for me, the essence of “Cool With Insects.” I do not vow to save all skeeters, not during the frenzied agony of an attacked earlobe or eyelid, but I do vow, and vow vociferously, to appreciate the mutuality of all earthly life.
It’s an ongoing endeavor, of course. I must persist in my project. I must continue to camp without protection, without mediation from the nature that is home to an estimated 10 quintillion (not a make-believe number) individual creepy-crawlies.
Which returns us to the center of the wild Green Mountain wilderness and to my tender, wonderful, beautiful, vulnerable face.
At dusk, alone, sitting on a much-used and much-abused foam Therm-a-Rest pad, I have beheld the golden sun sinking low in the west, illuminating every single insect floating between me and the horizon. Thousands upon thousands of bright shining delicate creatures! Millions of backlit bodies hovering, helicoptering, zooming and zipping, scribbling the emptiness of air with their drunken cursive dynamic presence!
Gazing across a pond or a meadow, mesmerized, hypnotized, I understand that the atmosphere is itself a kind of broth, that we of the kingdom Animalia swirl in a kind of soup, that what’s on the menu is everyone and everything at once.
Writes Robert Aitken, the late roshi of Honolulu’s Diamond Sangha: “My life and yours are the unfolding realization of total aloneness and total intimacy. The self is completely autonomous, yet exists only in resonance with all other selves.”
So as to avoid reducing Aitken’s elegant and expansive lines with a static arthropod interpretation, let me change the subject and recount a dream that I dreamed a decade ago. I was outdoors, exploring a jumble of big blocky rocks beneath a hazy sky. A monster-bug—black and yellow, large as a walnut, buzzing like a chainsaw—rose up, rose up again, rose up three times, each time attempting to gain access to my right ear. I ducked, swerved, evaded. And three times—I knew.
Simple. That this odd dude, this emissary from the 10 quintillion, wanted to tell me something of the greatest importance, something about all of us being together, not only in the dying, but in the living as well. I woke with a start, instantly aware that an opportunity had been squandered, that a desire for comfort, safety, and specifically a secure-from-intruders airspace around my tender wonderful beautiful vulnerable face had denied me a priceless gift.
I woke, in other words, instantly aware that I was not yet ready for the fundamental truth, not yet Cool With Insects, and, furthermore, that I needed to keep trying, trying, trying, day after day, year after year, wilderness after wilderness, gnat after gnat, wasp after wasp, earwig after earwig, breath (inhale) after breath (exhale).
As T.S. Eliot avers: “For us, there is only the trying.”
As the hip-hop group De La Soul echoes, with a slight tweak: “But are you willing to try?”
Vermont writer Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press, 2019). A version of this essay originally appeared on tricycle.org.