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Four Dispatches from the Interface

by Charles Goodrich

Listen to Charles Goodrich read this essay from his garden:

1. The Behavior of Flies

I’ve always thought they were good-for-nothing free-loaders, trash mongers, corpse defilers. Even the adults were just winged maggots, to my mind.

But this one on the porch rail appears to be doing exercises—push-ups, neck stretches, and wing-flexing isometrics. Which makes sense when you think about it, for what is the fate of an out-of-shape fly?  

Its wings are like isinglass. It has bulbous eyes the color of chestnuts, and whenever I lean close, it crouches and holds still, ready to flee if I move to strike. And I am tempted to take a swat—it’s a kind of itch in my chest muscles, an urge to lash out.

2. The Master
Early morning in the herb garden, I’m watching a bumblebee bang around in a poppy. Buzzing over to the penstemon, he shoves his way down a blossom, then backs out with pollen stains on his face. Now he shambles across the rosemary like a drunkard and stumbles headlong onto an aster, a clumsy, fat ballerina in a black tutu.

It’s hard to take a bumblebee seriously—the stubby wings, pudgy thorax, chandelier eyes. When he lifts his ponderous body in flight, he seems to be fudging the laws of physics. Weird, how evolution can flirt with absurdity.

Still, I study his every move. My mother used to tell me, “Don’t be half a fool.” That’s why I bow to the master, who has just gotten stuck in a foxglove. Humming and shoving, he shimmies back out, combs his antennae with his forelegs and zooms away, my mentor, my implacable guru.

3. An Ant in the Gorge

Sitting by my campfire in the Columbia River Gorge, with the hiss and pop of burning cedar punctuating the drone of traffic on I-84, I think about the catastrophic floods that roared through here 10,000 years ago when the ice dams that held back ancestral Lake Missoula fractured and burst, carving those stair-stepped striations in the walls of the gorge and gouging coulees out of solid basalt in the Channeled Scablands north of here—cataclysms of an unimaginable scale.

“Geology makes me feel insignificant,” I tell the ant climbing my shin. It’s a big carpenter ant, its feelers tapping my leg hairs, tarsal hooks pricking my skin. I intercept it with a finger and it scrambles onto my palm and keeps on trucking. I block its path, making it clamber from hand to hand, again and again, forgetting for a minute how small and lonely I am.

Then the ant plunges off my knuckle and disappears into the duff. And I’m left alone, staring into the fire, thinking about floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis yet to come.

4. River Midges

That’s what I’d do if I were one of them—glide up and down like that in a tight column with a hundred of my kin, cruising intently beside the river like there was no tomorrow, all of us small and drab, no preachers among us, no bosses or peons, just an unremarkable middle-class family of insects out for a late-summer evening’s swarm.

From time to time one of the midges leaves the dance, and veers away to course over the water. I’ve done that, flown away and come back, sadder, maybe wiser. And now two midges grope in mid-flight, a quick insemination, and I shiver in sympathy.  

Yes, nothing better of a summer’s evening than being a midge. If anyone questions your worth, tell them, hey, I wasn’t born yesterday. Indeed, I was born this very morning. Look around—every moment is an eternity. Give no thought for the morrow, for there shall be none.


Charles Goodrich is the author of a volume of poems, Insects of South Corvallis, a collection of essays about nature, parenting, and building his own house, The Practice of Home: Biography of a House, and the forthcoming Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden. Following a long career as a professional gardener, he presently serves as Program Director for the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. For more information, visit www.charlesgoodrich.com.
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