The path from the dirt road to the river dodges at last through shaded willow, that birth canal entrance into water and sun, the explosion of light. I’m humming along the bank with my long net and collecting boxes, looking for tiger beetles and thinking about my life. About my failures. How I didn’t do this, didn’t do that. I surprise three ducks, gloriously green-headed mallards, and they fly away in a triangle quacking and I feel that giggle like the small child always amused by peek-a-boo, never getting tired of the joke: ducks actually quack, QUAACK, QUAACK, complaining and petulant. The delight of onomatopoeia. The delight of remembering that word. A toad hops from beneath my foot, a little bit of mud suddenly moving. Water rushes over rock. The fruity smell of decay. A butterfly sails past like a hot air balloon. An American Painted Lady.
Every few feet, I spot another Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle, that pattern of seven blotches with a musical note. Then one of the beetles has a different pattern, four creamy dots, and I’m not only looking at an Ocellated Tiger Beetle, I know I’m looking at an Ocellated Tiger Beetle. David Pearson calls this species the house finch of tiger beetles because it is so common in the Southwest, abundant around water edges, more solitary in the uplands. Sometimes these beetles climb shrubs and plants to roost at night or escape the hot surface soil in mid-day. I watch this particular beetle until it is approached by another beetle, another Ocellated, and when they both fly up, I can see the red-brown ends of their abdomen. The rest of the abdomen is metallic dark-green.
Pattern recognition. Four creamy dots. Something in the world and something in my brain snap into place like the two ends of a Tinker Toy. Tiger beetle and butterfly enthusiasts share this satisfaction--matching up beauty with order. Chevrons, bands, circles, dots. We can identify some species fairly quickly. The mind has a picture. The picture matches. The square peg goes into the square hole. The round into round. Birders also know that pleasure, a flash of color and form, and they have an answer: scrub jay or vermillion flycatcher. This kind of competence feels completely right. It’s as if we belonged here, as if nature were our real home.
I confess to that Paleolithic nostalgia. We are hard-wired for walking through the woods, along the river, and feeling at home, matching patterns, knowing what we see and what to do next. Willow and bear. Mountain lion and squirrel. They make sense. They may even feel like family—hello, good afternoon, hi-- relatives that are friendly, and relatives that are dangerous, people we have known all our lives. We’ve replaced these competencies with new ones. Books and computers. How to use the remote for a ceiling fan. Perfectly reasonable, I tell myself, as I look for tiger beetles along the river bank. I think of my achievements. The machines I know how to use. The machines I don’t know how to use. The machines I know how to use but don’t know how to fix. It seems to me suddenly that we’ve replaced these competencies with a thousand incompetencies, that I live in a world I understand less every day.
Something darts by my feet. Another tiger beetle. And I’m focused again. Another Ocellated.
I eat my peanut butter sandwich on a slab of rock beside the Gila River, birds singly madly in the cottonwood trees, river water rippling, insects humming. Twenty years ago, Peter and I brought our children to this spot when our eight-year-old daughter had a science fair project collecting and pressing plants. Of course, I knew how to love my children. I understood that fierce all-embracing love, and even today I understand that this love means your children will leave you. Toss you aside. Perfectly natural. I remember David and Maria now with a longing that can come on me at any time, an emotion I’ve learned to simply watch, those beautiful children, so happy to be with us, playing in the river. How short a time, how halcyon, that part of my life.
Throughout the day, a long complex afternoon, I can think about my life because I do not have to think about my dinner. I won’t go hungry tonight if I don’t find a deer or catch a fish or dig up some roots. Hunting and gathering, the Paleoterrific, has its pros and cons. I’ll never know what they are since imagining that life is only a dream of received ideas, stories we make up from scanty evidence, dreams built on dreams--a sense of loss, a vague excitement.
The best part of this day is when I focus on tiger beetles and the insect drama at my feet. But a good part of the day is when I look at my life from a certain distance and feel pleasantly relaxed about all that. A good part of the day is when I think about what it means to be human, 40,000 years ago and right now in the twenty-first century, when I let myself range across time and space, one of the stranger competencies of the human mind.