We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander
THE DEATH OF THE BEETLE
After “The Death of the Moth” from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
I am looking at Annie Dillard looking at Virginia Woolf looking at a dying moth: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.”
I am looking at the pictures of dead bugs on my phone that I took after deciding to become a writer. On my way to the gym there is a desiccated thing about the size of two thick blades of grass. It’s upside down, brown legs curled in and exposed, a stripe of inky black down its middle. The eyes are turned up, meaning they’re looking at the sidewalk instead of the sky. The wings look like the glass in old houses.
I am looking at beetles pinned to a board in a museum that looks like a painter’s palette. Instead of a hole for my thumb there is a beetle shining green with apples of red on its thorax, one painted like a chestnut with a horned projection emerging from its face, a periwinkle blue that reminds me of a chip of sea glass, a long, black string of a beetle that ends in a crossbow, a zebra-striped beetle with long antennae that curve like a sad face, one that is more pin than beetle, and a little brown one that looks like a caterpillar-eaten leaf suspended from a pin with a few strings. These beetles have no labels, scientific or otherwise. They are all positioned away from me, facing the top of the display case, looking at a strip of wood.
Five years earlier, in my freshman year of college, I joined a lab to study mercury bioaccumulation in the ephemeral pools that formed all around our local forests in Vermont. As part of my job, I spent hours in a “clean room”—clean of metals, clean of rodents, often clean of people—identifying little brown bodies beneath a microscope. The beetles I studied were already dead—I was not witness to that process—but it was my job to look at their backs, and their wings, and the protrusion of their eyes, and the number of tarsi—the little segments that make up a beetle “foot.” The beetles underneath my microscope were for the most part Dytiscus beetles (Greek for “little diver”) that were about an inch long with fat torsos. They fit easily on the two fingers of my blue-gloved hand. In life, they dove in ponds and ate smaller creatures. In death, I pulled them out of frozen plastic bags and warmed them beneath the lights of the microscope.
I spent hours with them as I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat—turning them over, making notes on the species, distinguishing males from females by the males’ sucker-filled pads for gripping mates. Over many hours alone with them, I learned to adore their feathery legs, the little triangle that separated wings from head, the dull shiny brown of their hard shells, where in life they stored air to allow them to breathe underwater. Each beetle became an individual for me, as real as the click my gloved nails made on the back of their shells.
I am looking and I wonder if one of these is a scarab beetle. The hieroglyphic for scarabs roughly translates to “transform.” They were sacred in ancient Egypt because they represented Kheri, the god of the rising sun, as he wheeled the ball of flame across the sky. The Egyptians believed only male scarab beetles existed, creating dung balls out of semen, and in doing so they represented Kheri’s daily creation of the sun. Self-creation, renewal, regeneration. The serpent eating its tail. The beetle creating itself in a new ball each day. One story cannibalizes another, until the sun passes over the horizon and never returns.
In my sophomore year, I took a trip to Cerro de la Muerte, also known as the hill of death. This was Cuericí Biological Field Station, in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Still studying biology, I arrived with a group of fellow students to conduct field studies for a week. On the night of our arrival, I slept in my traveling clothes under three blankets, in the bottom bunk on the top floor of the wooden house. I woke up three times from the cold, my exposed nose plastic and chalky. The room was dark and the beds creaked with the bodies of my sleeping classmates. I curled my fingers into the blankets and brought them up to my face.
The morning brought heat back into our toes, and we hiked up through vast hanging vines, listening to the birds calling each other in the trees. When we returned to the house, cold and sweaty, our professors called on us to propose research ideas. I picked my group not for their topic so much as the students who I liked. They wanted to stay close to the station. They’d noticed beetles on the flowers in the garden. We took our orange field notebooks and sat around the flowers. We watched little beetles unfold wings from under shells and make little jumps between yellow flower spring boards. We developed our hypothesis—that the beetles landed more on some flowers than on others, and that the reason was heat.
I am looking at the palette in the basement of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, and I see that someone has labeled it “Variation in Beetles.” On the side is a sign: “Physical Variation. Through the evolutionary process, insects have developed extraordinary variations in size, shape, and color. This is demonstrated by an array of beetles, in which each shows the physical characteristics which have enabled it to succeed within its own ecological niche.” In a big glass display, this is all it says, and these are the only beetles I can find in a building filled with articulated skeletons and glass eyes.
When I had finished identifying each diving beetle, when I had filled all my little boxes, my job in the clean room was done. The beetle was warm now, as warm as it had been when alive. And I knew what I had to do next. I took my thawed beetles out of the clean room and deposited them in a machine. A machine I knew I would have to turn away from when I brought it to life, because the purpose of this machine was to grind the beetles into a powder, so that they were no longer identifiable as anything that had ever been alive. I was the last one to see the beetles as they had been, as nature had made them, as they had grown from birth, before they were captured and frozen. I was the last one to stroke their heads, and feel the grooves down their backs, and press the pads that would never press another beetle. When I slotted them into the machine for grinding, to be broken down into their principal parts so that they could be weighed and so that we could put them through another machine that would sort through their component parts and pop out a reading on milligrams of mercury they had absorbed, it was a private little funeral between us. Between the beetles and the person who had known them only in death—when they were past anything that made them real, anything resembling cares or worries, mating and eating and survival. A mossy, earthy dust filled my nostrils as the machine rumbled and buzzed—bits of the bugs that once were. I collected the remains and returned to the clean room.
I am looking at these beetles in this room in this basement, far the places I have studied them. I have seen many beetles on many boards. And I realize now that, in placing them on a board, they no longer exist in the world—not to live or die, not even to decompose. They are mounted and coated and placed. They are divided up into satisfying categories, but nothing about the marks we assign them makes us understand what they are. They are designated for the consumption of human eyes alone.
After a week on the hill of death identifying native and nonnative flowers, setting out temperature sensors around the house and in the centers of flowers, I brought our professor one of the beetles in a petri dish along with the dog-eared identification manual.
“In order to identify it,” he said, looking down at me, “I’m going to have to kill it.” He said this with a look that showed me he knew me—the girl who had stayed vegan for the last month in Costa Rica, even when I had very little to eat.
I handed him the beetle reluctantly. He took the dish between two big fingers and placed it under the microscope. He lifted a small bottle of alcohol solution and, as I looked on, poured it over the beetle. It squirmed on its back, I think, or it tried to swim away, or it made to climb up the walls. Again, I was not really witness to its moments of death. Again, I turned away. Soon the liquid covered its body, and the wings stopped fluttering. My professor shifted in his seat and looked into the eye piece. I looked at the beetle now. I had picked it up myself, unassuming, from the center of a yellow flower. I had given it to my professor. It was dead because of me.
My professor looked up from the microscope and told us the beetle was in the family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Hispinae—leaf-mining beetles. In identifying the beetle, we had to kill it—as if to know it was to strike it through the heart. Categorized, collected. No longer a beacon of life now that it had a name, now that it could fit into an identification manual, its details diagnosed and digested. In his essay “Butterflies,” Nabokov wrote about how the smell of ether opened his memories, how he liked the sound of the pin crunching through the thorax, sticking into the cork board behind.
The next day, I returned to the lab alone and found the petri dish beneath the microscope empty, the alcohol evaporated. A little brown beetle was crawling beside it. Had it suffered all night, half-drowned? I scooped it up and returned it to a flower in the garden, not sure whether to feel better or worse.
As I walk home from the museum, I am looking at Annie Dillard looking at her students and telling them “You must go at your life with a broadax.” And I think perhaps my broadax is a beetle, and perhaps my life is an essay—or maybe my broadax is an essay, and my life is a beetle—or maybe my life is my broadax, and a beetle is an essay. Maybe we are all pinned to boards in a way, or at least our work is. And I wonder what will happen when someone tries to know our names. Goliath, Hercules, Harlequin, Rhinoceros, Bombardier, Great Diving Beetle. They were not named on the palette I left behind me. But I want to know them anyway.
And now I am thinking. I am thinking about how my thesis advisor once told me I would never write anything original, so I shouldn’t even try. I had by that point abandoned biology for writing, but the beetles stayed with me, like mosquitos on a hot night, or moths around a candle. From the beetles I knew that we are all inheritances on the backs of inheritances, like hard shells over delicate wings, all of which began in a single cell. Repetition, repetition, but with variation. The same, but slightly different.
I am thinking about the only piece of classical music I ever loved—Mozart’s “The Sparrow Mass,” which he wrote in 1775 or 1776, and which I sang as a choir girl in 2015. A song which only became magical to me once I was involved in bringing it to life, and, in bringing it to life, I took part in breaking it down. I knew it wholly within me—I could name it and label it and pick it out of a book and tell you all the words, and I knew only the soprano notes.
I am thinking about Measure for Measure, which I only started to appreciate as a true work of art when, in the same year I ground up beetles, I wrote an essay about Shakespeare. And now I only remember it for my own analysis, instead of the for the problematic beauty that it is.
The beetle sits in the middle of a flower, absorbing heat, having escaped death in a plastic petri dish. The energy that flows through the universe, from the sun to this insect is much like stories passed down from one to another. Repetition, variation. I am wondering: if we pin down a story, an essay, a piece of art—do we kill it? If we try to know a work and identify its parts, does it die? If I run these writings through a machine, and disintegrate them into such little pieces that are dust on the wind—if I put them in a box and observe their actions for a week, will I know what they mean?
I will never truly know what a beetle means. I will never truly know what it is to be a beetle, to die as a beetle. All I can do is try for the next one, the next beetle, the next work—to get closer to some understanding—as a writer, as a biologist, as a human. Whether I die or live, whether I am successful or not, I am just another part of the cycle, transforming energies. And that makes writing, and beetles, and death, both more and less knowable, both more and less terrifying. All I can do is keep striving for something more. To go at my life with a broadax, and carve myself into a beetle. To fold my wings on my back like origami beneath a hard shell, or sun myself in the center of a dahlia on a cold day in the cloud forest, or wheel my proud heap of dung across the horizon. To be down in the muck, jostling between detritus and leaves. To dive and mate and eat until I die. And then maybe, finally, I will know. But it will be too late to tell you.
Rebecca Flowers is an MFA student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she also teaches Rhetoric. Her previous work has been published in VICE and Guernica.