The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

Zen and the Art of Zzz’s

1.

In 1998, I was lucky enough to get a job teaching at the University of California in Santa Cruz, a beach town in northern California. I hadn’t expected the offer and it came as a surprise. Both Sharon and I were raised in cities, and apart from my extended stay in Amazonia, neither of us had spent much time anywhere smaller. We were happy in our barely heated apartment in downtown Manhattan, even though the cold from the refrigerated warehouse below would often eat right through the floorboards and into our bones. But California seemed like an adventure, a whole new world. We packed up our stuff, rented a car, and set off like a couple of pioneers, trying to imagine what we’d find on the far side of the Holland Tunnel.

2.

Our favorite beach in Santa Cruz was at Wilder Ranch State Park. It’s called Three Mile Beach. To get there, we would walk along the cliff tops overlooking the Pacific at the northern tip of Monterey Bay. Because it’s so exposed, Wilder Ranch is usually windy and often much colder than Santa Cruz itself, which, only two or three miles away but sheltered by the bay, is a miracle of balmy weather.

The walk along the cliffs is blustery but astonishingly beautiful. We couldn’t tire of it. The ocean, like all large bodies of water, never looks the same from one day to the next, and its mood always caught us unawares. Feet planted firmly on the cliff edge, high above the waves, we would look out on sea otters, seals, and sea lions far below. Sharon was the champion at spotting whales, and she’d point out gray whales and humpbacks spouting, sometimes pretty close to shore. We would tip back our necks, back, back, back into the sharp glare of the sun just as flocks of pelicans—the most inspiring of all—soared overhead, the whitest white against the bluest sky.

3.

Once we came across a dead whale. For days, we’d smelled the stench of something rotting as we drove out past the flat fields of artichokes that line the ocean side of Highway 1, a stench so strong that despite the summer heat, we rolled up the windows on our un-air-conditioned Datsun pickup and kept them up for miles. The next time we went to Wilder Ranch, we realized that the source was nearby. As we walked out along the cliffs, the smell grew more intense until the path fell away above a narrow inlet, and below we saw a discolored hulk, something indefinite that slowly became a whale.

The animal was melting, dissolving into viscous liquid. Its mouth gaped open. Its massive penis dug awkwardly into the sand. Everything was awkward. Everything about it was wrong. Its skin peeled away in slimy blues and greens. All around it buzzed clouds of flies.

4.

When the weather was warm enough and the wind not whipping up the sand, we’d sit and read on Three Mile Beach. It was usually deserted, and sometimes I’d strip off and swim out a short distance, cautious of the crosscurrents and riptide, the icy water shocking my warm skin.

The beach is a pocket, a cove between the cliffs that slopes down gently into the ocean on one side and gives out into wetlands on the other. It has fine pale-golden sand and dotted clumps of tough marsh grass. We’d spend hours there, stretch out, breathe the sun into our bodies, the open sky above us, around us the roar of the surf as it rushed in, the tumble of smooth rocks as it poured out again.

5.

But despite all this, it was often hard to relax on Three Mile Beach. There were tiny flies, maybe the same flies that swarmed around the whale. They were fast and they were determined, too, impossible to deter. Every few seconds, one would deliver a sharp pinprick to an exposed leg or arm and then zoom off. The pinpricks hurt. They didn’t leave a mark, not even any redness, but they made it difficult to sit still and even harder to sleep.

6.

Recent research suggests that insects sleep. Or at least like most other creatures, they go through regular periods of rest and inactivity, during which their responses to external stimuli are greatly reduced.1 It would have been helpful if we’d known how to coordinate our visits to the beach with the flies’ inactivity, but that just wasn’t possible.

The sleep research doesn’t investigate whether insects dream. That’s a little too speculative for biologists right now. Perhaps the methodology isn’t obvious. But what if they do … What do they dream of? Yet more unanswerable questions.

7.

The insects are all around me now. They know we’re at the end. They’re saying, “Don’t leave us out! Don’t forget about us!” I’m trying hard to include them all. But, honestly, there are just too many. Even the most ambitious and richly illustrated insectopedia wouldn’t have room. Even Vincent Resh and Ring Cardé’s monumental Encyclopedia of Insects had to perform some triage.

The beach flies stopped us from sleeping. Their bites were sharp stabs. They refused to leave us alone. In other ways, they were very Californian. They kept repeating the same thing, a four-part mantra: This is our beach too. Learn to live with imperfection. We’re all in this together. The minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.