Nature, here and now ( 2013.8.5[Mon.])

 

  One hot summer afternoon a few years back, I was walking along, net in hand on a path known for its natural scenery, when I heard the cry of a large brown cicada (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata; abura¬-zemi in Japanese) directly overhead. When I looked up to investigate, I saw that the cicada had been captured by a praying mantis (Tenodera aridifolia) and was in the proces of being eaten. Insects live in a stark and pitiless world of predators and prey. But at that same moment, an elderly couple was walking on the same path, enjoying themselves: “It’s hot, but what a lovely day, isn’t it dear?” I still recall how that contrast of realities struck me.

  Both worlds were equally real, but where was I in all this? One moment I was patiently waiting, watching for the slightest tremor of a twig or leaf, scanning the grass for hints of insect life, focused just a few meters ahead, senses attuned. A few species of swallowtail flitted in and out of what seemed to me to be ‘butterfly trail,’ and a great purple emperor (Sasakia charonda) flew about the trees with its dappled gloss of ultramarine, built solidly enough to scare off hornets, even small birds. A cuckoo wasp, its form glinting metallic, flew right in front of my face when my attention was drawn to the voices of my fellow strollers. Their eyes were cast much further off, taking in the surroundings as a ‘view,’ the calls of the birds little more than faint tunes in the background. Insects didn’t even rate notice as noise. Dragged back into their reality, it struck me that my own perspective was somewhere between the scenery-lovers’ world and the ecosystem the insects inhabited.

---------

  Chasing insects on that same mountain trail, when one of a group of guys daytripping walked over and asked “Any interesting bugs around?” Now, if this had been a family with kids or something like that, I would ordinarily go out of my way to tell them all about the area attractions, but with guys like this one, I somehow instinctively become arrogant and standoffish, and I just ignored him and walked away. I feel bad if I runied his hike, but there are some things you can’t change. Maybe it’s something about the age we live in that makes me resent the idea of having to respond to such idle questions. I suppose it’s not wanting to share the secret little places where I can let myself wonder with all manner of random wandering eyes.

---------

  I recently encountered a local pit viper (Gloydius blomhoffii; mamushi in Japanese) one late midsummer afternoon, sunning itself, as pregant females are known do. I experienced a thrill at finally having seen my first mamushi and for moment forgot all about the insects. It’s a terrible confession for a lifelong zoologist such as myself to have to say he had never encountered one of these snakes in the wild until that day. I must be lucky, but whether it’s good luck or ill, I can’t say. I’ve seen a school of luna lionfish (Pterois lunulata) in Okinawa, been threatened by a monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia) in North Vietnam, and attacked by a kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) in Australia, but for whatever reason I never met a mamushi, and frankly had kind of a complex about it. On that long-awaited day, my son, 4-years-old at the time, was with me — a mamushi at four! The previous year a leech (Haemadipsa zeylanica japonica) latched on to him and took some blood; he grabbed a dangerous assassin bug (Agriosphodrus dohrni) his parents had warned him not to touch; and he caught carpenter bees and even a Chinese box turtle (Cuora flavomarginata) barehanded. I never got to do those things at his age! Unforgiveable! When the leech got him, it secreted hirudin, a polypeptide that prevents blood-clotting to compensate for the weak suction of the leech’s mouthparts, and he was panicked at first seeing that the blood wouldn’t stop. But when he got home, his mom told him, “What a wonderful experience you had!” he began to feel like a hero and wouldn’t stop letting everyone know about his adventure. A parent’s worries know no end.

---------

  Enjoying the discovery of nature involves a certain amount of risk. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the very act of discovery entails certain responsibilities for the discoverer. That’s not to say that a collector like me will be discovering new species, or that some novice will cause an extinction just by swinging his net around blindly. But if people rush in droves in search of some creature, or even just set up a new electric light where none was before, the risk of losing somethng from that locale is greater than might be expected. That’s the hidden side of why I find some people unpleasant; if they want to see something interesting, why don’t they just go out looking for themselves? If they do manage to find it, they will at last understand that simultaneous sense of fear and weakness. As for me, just think of stumbling across that mamushi in the thicket.