The garden spiders are getting fat this time of year. Overnight they close off new paths between the back porch and the jasmine, the alder and the wood cabinet, the chicken coop and the Japanese maple. The webs can be four feet across but are invisible until I walk through them, feel them clinging to the hairs of my arm, see the blurred form of the spider itself dangling in front of my glasses.
There are more mosquitoes in the city this summer than I recall from past years. We set up a screen and projector in a corner of the yard and watched Grease one night. We ate citrus-flavored ice pops and the kids groaned at every song. No one escaped unbitten. We counted up our welts and compared them the next day.
Meanwhile ants make daring incursions into the house. I left the dog’s breakfast uncovered on our way out the door for Mass one Sunday. Coming home, we found the bowl crawling with them and a highway six lanes wide that started under the front door and wound impressively through the living and dining rooms.
In his 1954 autobiography, Scottish poet Edwin Muir says we feel a special fascination and horror for insects as children because we’re physically nearer to them than to the airy world of the adults who tower over us and live their lives in the clouds. He writes:
The insects were all characters to me, interesting but squalid, with thoughts that could never be penetrated, inconceivable aims, perverse activities. I knew their names, which so exactly fitted them as characters: the Jenny Hunderlegs, the gavelock, the forkytail, the slater – the underworld of my little underworld… Their presence troubled me as the mind is troubled in adolescence by the realization of physical lust. The gavelocks and forkytails were my first intimation of evil, and associations of evil still cling round them for me, as, I fancy, for most people.
On a camping trip as a boy, I once found what I imagined to be a tiny dinosaur with a low, squat body and a small head raised up on a long neck. I was charmed and nearly snatched it up in my hand but instead called an older boy over to show him. He explained that it was, in fact, a poisonous scorpion and I was looking at it the wrong way round. For weeks I got chills just thinking about it.
I’m not bothered by most creepy crawlies anymore, but the house centipedes that scramble across the concrete floor of the basement make me uneasy: living, panicked eyebrows of dissolute old men who’ve been up to bad things and fear the light. And when I snip off dahlia blossoms from the garden and put them in a vase, only for two dozen earwigs (Muir’s forkytails) to drop out from among the petals, I do feel a little sick.
Some insects, however, are magic. The other night I was watering the back garden at twilight. The first stars were coming out in the east, while the west was still fading to purple. As I turned the hose toward the ferns and ivy that grow against the fence, orange Isabella tiger moths one after another came fluttering from the shadows to brush against my face and fly up toward the sickle moon.