‘. . . bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte’ — St Francis of Assisi
One of the brightest spots in all of last year, for me, was getting to take a small bug-loving adopted cousin out to the wilderness area behind my place and geek out about creepy-crawlies together. During the winter, Olivia and I tossed around ideas for getting Abby and me to a butterfly house and aquarium a couple of hours from where we live; Olivia’s presence as the responsible adult in this endeavour would be essential. Beginning in May we began to hatch plans in earnest.
For three months we tried without success. The endless disappointment got to me, and I finally declared that if one more try failed too, I would maybe try again next year, but not before.
This weekend the usual obstacles did not arise. The now standard tentative rising of hope inside us was not crushed at the last minute as usual. “I won’t believe it’s actually happening until we’ve been and gone and come back,” I said stubbornly, wary again of my bubble being blown up only to be popped.
We collected Abby and her younger sister Hannah (a recent addition to the plans — she’s not particularly fond of bugs, but she did greatly enjoy the bug-themed snacks from last year, and I still think that was her main reason for wanting to come along) early in the morning, and Abby presented us with two clay spiders, which Olivia set on the dashboard to keep her rubber turtle company.
I was squished between the girls in the back seat, charged with keeping the two of them entertained for the two-hour drive. We began with the Bug Book. I have an Audubon Guide To North American Insects and Spiders, with a colour plate and short section of information about every separate kind of creature in it, which I thought we might want to bring along for reference. Abby and I enjoyed going through most of the sections and looking up particularly intriguing ones in the back of the book. Hannah declared strongly that the spiders grossed her out.
“What!” I said, and turned to the Jumping Spider page. “How is this one not cute?” Jumpies are so indisputably charming that she had to agree.
She admitted that the Bola Spider (who lassoes its prey) was kind of cute too. Later, when we were looking for another section, the book opened to the page with the Lynx Spider on it, and she pointed it out as a little bit cute.
(I pulled the book out again on our drive home, and she exclaimed, “Sophia! You are always looking at that book!”)
We got to the butterfly house and aquarium a little after noon. Olivia drove to a nearby park where she thought we could have lunch (and the first of our long-awaited bug snacks), but it was definitely a park for grown-ups whose idea of fun is soccer or some such: nothing but uniform lawns with sprinklers all over them, and a couple of parking lots for variety. The girls hooted with mingled disappointment and derision.
In the end there turned out to be a park right next to our destination, with not one but four playgrounds in it. Hannah immediately made a friend. Abby inadvertently wandered into the middle of a pirate fight. It rained a bit and cooled us down. We ate lunch under a big hexagonal wooden pavilion inhabited by swallows and sparrows: sandwiches and chips for the girls, tomato salad and fried sausage and zucchini for us, and grape caterpillars and teddy graham butterflies for all of us. (The sausage and zucchini was remarkably tasty for being what you get when we remember the night before that we need lunch too, after more than a week of me being just about equal to working and sleeping and then losing even that. For the same reason, no recipe exists.)
We finally tore them away from the playgrounds to go inside. On our way, a stranger tried to give us bags full of unspecified ‘swag’. For some reason I was the only one with any caution about taking unknown things from strangers. But as she addressed Olivia as the adult in our group, and Olivia’s record of saying no to people is almost nonexistent, we were saddled with four bags of unknown contents.
After going back to the car to store them, because bags aren’t allowed inside the building, we got to go see the creatures!
“One adult and three children?” assumed the man at the counter.
We went in the aquarium wing first and saw horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, seahorses sleeping, lion fish, anemones, snails, and where the stingrays would be if their exhibit wasn’t temporarily closed (this and the lack of cephalopods, I found disappointing).
The butterfly house had species from everywhere else on the planet, and we got to take fake flowers with nectar sprayed on them to tempt them closer to us (one in particular then wouldn’t stop eating and fly away when we needed to leave): “Owls” who each looked like half of an owl’s face when their wings were closed, but when flying revealed sudden blue stripes; big, brilliant blue morphos; ones with orange or pink stripes, and one with a pattern like piano keys; and a green and black kind called malachite, which was my favourite. Also in evidence were turtles and some rescued quail (we were told it was a long story), all living together in the greenhouse, in a combination of man-made streams and gardens.
“Other exhibits” included a snake (labelled with twice the usual injunctions to neither touch nor bang on her glass), various cockroaches, giant millipedes, and a tarantula. Abby and I looked at these while Olivia and Hannah were occupied elsewhere.
Before leaving, we went back to the starfish-you-could-touch, whose exhibit hadn’t been open when we got there. They were open now, and we got to touch three different kinds, in three different colours and three different textures: knobbly; soft and sort of feathery, as with algae; and leathery “bat stars”. The big green anemones and the odd sea cucumber or urchin in the same tank were off limits for touching, however.
I can list the creatures we saw all day long, and even describe them, but that won’t convey what it’s like to stare at a creature of such incredible complexity, knowing that there are a hundred others with different designs in the same room just as wonderful, and a thousand million more where those came from, and myriads more than that on this whole globe, and that without even getting into the intricacy of the globe itself, and all the other planets, moons, asteroids, and other roughly spherical objects in the heavens — about which we know about as much as we know the depths of the ocean, which is to say, just the tiniest bit. And each separate tiny thing, every jelly that thrives in heavily polluted parts of the ocean and every fragile fish forced out of its habitat because of the same pollution — each snail and fish that eats gunk off things, and each thing that is thrown into the ocean to contribute to the gunk — each giant leatherback turtle and each tiny green agapostemon bee — each fiercely loving mama wolf spider and each burning star — even each human, strange as that is to imagine — completely cherished and loved, if not by the humans whose job it is to take care of it, at least by the highly playful and creative Love that moves the sun and other stars. And not only that, but each thing being given to every other thing as a love letter from their Creator.
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so all things have their beginning by the love of God.(If you haven’t been around me long enough to instinctively know the source: Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1373, and go read it.)
After an interval in the gift shop, where Hannah categorically forbade me to get a tarantula magnet, we returned to the park to let the girls run their energy off before we piled in the car for two hours again. I yielded to the temptation to join them this time, and was inching my way through one obstacle course that required good balance when Hannah suddenly chirped behind me, “You can do it, Sophia! If I can do it you can do it too!”
“Thanks for the enc —” I began, just as she added, “Hurry up, Sophia, I’m waiting on you!”
Back in the car, we made caterpillars out of big fuzzy beads and pipecleaners before everyone but Olivia fell asleep. Abby was the first to go, curled up against the door gazing at her new butterfly stuffy until her eyes slowly drifted shut. Hannah leaned against my shoulder, announced that I was Very Comfortable, and then spent the next half hour shifting around to get positioned just right. Olivia put on a playlist of sleepy music (she’s working at a Montessori school this summer and does this professionally), and Hannah clicked her pen in time to the chords in “Farewell To Stromness” as she ever so slightly fought sleep. I even fell asleep, but woke up again when Olivia changed the music to some lively Beethoven piano pieces. The girls stayed asleep almost until we were back at my place.
Then it only remained to run up to my apartment and say hi to the cat, grab a tray of spiders (made from crackers and pretzel sticks and peanut butter and chocolate-flavoured almond bark) and a stack of books for the girls’ siblings, and take them home.
There they told everyone all about it, and we stayed to supper, and some people enjoyed having spiders for dessert more than others.
I went to bed that night and dreamed I was at a chiropractor.