Getting bugged by the writer's life

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Spider_on_my_wall.jpgIn the first chapter of Hugh Raffles' new book, Insectopedia, he recounts a 1926 experiment that measured the insect population of one square mile of air over Louisiana.  The census estimated a total of 25-36 million insects in the space, including a spider flying at 15,000 feet.  As Raffles explains, spiders

not only climb up to an exposed site (a twig or a flower, for instance), stand on tiptoe, raise their abdomen, test the atmosphere, throw out silk filaments, and launch themselves into the blue, all free legs spread eagled, but they also use their bodies and their silk to control their descent and the location of their landing.
Reading this passage in a review in the The New York Times Book Review, all I could think was: I wish someone would do a census of the insects in my cottage.  I am, for those of my readers unacquainted with my situation, currently isolated from the world.  I've engineered my own private Yaddo to allow me to finish my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, with all deliberate speed, as the Supreme Court once remarked.  This personalized writer's retreat is on the south bank of Lake Naivasha, in the Eastern Rift Valley, about an hour and a half from Nairobi, in Kenya.  My cottage is on a small dairy farm.  I live within a stone's throw from the dairy farmers, but most days I never speak with (and hardly see) another human being face-to-face.  Cows are another story.  As are insects, which is the point of this post.

Maya's_bug-filled_cottage.jpgIt's rainy season in Kenya - what counts for winter here - and bugs love the rain apparently.  The cottage (left) so overflows with them at night that the buzzing of the swarms of mosquitoes forms an audible backdrop to my bath before bed.  But mosquitoes, although the most annoying of the insects in my cottage, are merely a few of the stunning number of ants, moths, butterflies, spiders, ladybugs, crickets, praying mantises, walking stick bugs, flies, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, caterpillars, and a variety of other thingies I can't identify that crowd my cottage.

Typically, when I see an insect I can't identify, I ask it reflexively, "What are you?"  Thus far, my approach has proved unproductive.  The insects aren't talkative, but generally speaking - mosquitoes aside - I think insects are cool, so I can't seem to stop chatting with them (see "isolated" above).

Dalmation_Moth.jpgAmong the most superb of the insects I've glimpsed is a dalmation-attired moth - white with black spots (right).  Among the most sociable of the insects in my cottage is a cricket who spent the night circling the lampshade on the night table beside my bed.  When I awoke and turned on the lamp, the cricket vaulted into my room, sailing off like Pegasus springing into an unknown sky.

I think a praying mantis hatched her eggs in my cottage because after seeing an adult mantis around the house a few times, I found a couple of baby mantises.  One of them frequented the bathroom area, and I found it dead in the hall a few days later.  I felt bad.

Giant_moth.jpgA walking stick bug once occupied the exterior of a container I needed to open.  I did my best not to disturb it, but I inadvertently pinched one of its legs when I closed the container, and it hobbled away.  I felt bad.

And speaking of feeling bad, dung beetles have not had it easy in my cottage.  I admit it: I've developed a soft spot for dung beetles since I moved to Kenya.  They march around with an amusing stateliness, like a tank attempting to locomote on chopsticks.  They also fly, and when they do, they sound like someone running the vacuum cleaner in the next room.  Flying around, they tend to do two things: bump into walls and land in inopportune places.  The sink is a popular landing location from which they cannot seem to extricate themselves.  (I don't understand why they don't just fly out of the sink, but they don't.)  Once a flying dung beetle plunged into my bubble bath; it died.  Another time, one crawled into a roll of toilet paper and proceeded to deface it from the interior, leaving jagged scratch marks on the sheets I was incredulously unrolling, wondering what misfortune had befallen this roll.

Butterfly_on_a_shell_windcharm.jpgI like to think that my time with the insects is good experience for the novel I'm writing.  The Celebration Husband takes place in 1914, and my characters were plagued by bugs.  Tse-tse flies killed most pack animals in parts of Kenya, mosquitoes spread malaria, and ticks felled soldiers with tick-bite fever.

But the insects also strike me as yet another manifestation of the Writer's Trial, just another Herculean labor to endure - along with no-pay-for-work, constant rejection and languishing in unpublished-land - that make the writer's life so incredibly trying.

That said, I'm down with the bugs.  They're fascinating, gorgeous and resilient.  If I ever get a chance to give up those other examples of the Writer's Trial, I might keep the bugs.  Some of them anyway.

(All photos taken in and outside of Maya's bug-infested cottage)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 11, 2010 8:13 AM.

The Rime of the Ancient Environmentalist was the previous entry in this blog.

What not to say when breaking up: Islamobabble is the next entry in this blog.

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