The Bug Assignment
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home....
A few weeks ago I was working on a painting in my studio. The room has an outside door, and as darkness fell, I remembered I needed to mail a letter. My mail box is just at the end of my short driveway, but when I came back inside and picked up my paintbrush to continue, I noticed something unusual in a corner of my painting. I wondered when on earth I had painted a moth. Maybe I was painting in my sleep. I looked more closely and realized it was a little tiger moth, and it blended perfectly right in with my painting. It was real, it was alive, I wasn't dreaming. It must have popped in for a visit when I opened the door to go in or out. The painting was dry in that corner so I didn't disturb it, but that little moth reminded me of how close I came to becoming a fourth grade dropout.
I was a good student and I was gifted with a vocabulary that could stop you in your tracks if I chose to use it, but normally I saved it for special occasions. The fourth grade science project was just such an occasion. On Friday my teacher said: "Your assignment for the weekend is to collect as many bugs as you can find, mount them on a board with straight pins, and write the name beside each bug." Always polite to my elders, I raised my hand. "Ms. Webb, you talkin' bout killin' bugs? No way am I killin' bugs, it's against my rules. You'll just have to flunk me right here, right now, cause I can't kill bugs. I won't be poking pins in them either, cause that would hurt. Those are my own rules and I can't break them. I'll just quit school." Yes, an excellent vocabulary, I thought it was quite persuasive.
I went stomping down the road on my way home, wondering how I was going to tell my mother I was now a fourth grade dropout. She was not teaching that year, so she didn't always have first hand knowledge of my school experiences. I figured if she could quit teaching for awhile to take care of my brother, I ought to be able to quit school because I couldn't break my own rules. I played with bugs, for goodness' sakes, I carried ladybugs in my pockets and I always had a June bug around somewhere. More often than not I had a butterfly hanging out in my hair. I absolutely would not kill a bug.
Aunt Bett always told me that bugs were good for the garden. She said beetles ate aphids and some bugs ate things in the dirt to keep the dirt in good shape. She told me every living thing had a purpose, even if we didn't know what the purpose was. That was enough for me, I made my own rules based on whatever Aunt Bett told me. She and Ninna told me stories about bugs. I knew the scarab beetle was sacred in Egypt. I also knew the ladybug was considered lucky and killing one would for sure bring sadness and bad luck. And if a ladybug landed on you, whatever is ailing you will fly away with the ladybug. And the June bug could fly so high it could take a message all the way to heaven. Butterflies, well, Aunt Bett said they were flying flowers that were sent to brighten up our day. There was no way I could ever kill a bug.
I came back to the here and now, put down my paintbrush, and blew gently on the moth that remained on my painting. It tucked its wings more tightly, so I knew with no doubt it wasn't a figment of my imagination. It had simply stirred up a moment of memory, a moment that clarified who I was becoming. Then I headed to Dave's Garden to do a little research. There is a wonderful section just full of information in Bug Files, and I read until midnight all about my favorite little critters. Aunt Bett and Ninna sure knew what they were talking about.
The virgin tiger moth on my painting (Apantesis virgo) drinks nectar and eats clover, plantain and other low lying plants. Its caterpillar eats the leaves of weeds. I loved the clarity of the yellow markings on black wings.
Another of my favorites was the writing spider (Argiope aurantia), it is a great bug catcher, just sitting in its white zigzagged web waiting for its prey. I thought it was the prettiest spider and wondered how it learned to write Z's.
Of all the flying critters, I loved the luna moth best. The luna (Actias luna) did not visit me often, and only late in the evening. Aunt Bett told me it could not eat and it only lived to mate, then it died. I felt so sorry for it, knowing it had such a short life. I found in my searching that it is on the endangered species list in most places and its caterpiller eats the leaves of nut trees as well as the sweet gum and persimmon. It seems that excessive use of insecticide as well as the clearing of forests might mean the demise of this beauty.
The dung beetle, (Bolbocerosoma hamatum) was not my favorite, but my little ladies told me that it was good for the soil, and sure enough, I find in Bug Files, the dung beetle controls parasites, improves the health of the soil, and revitalizes pasture land. Wonder what Aunt Bett would have said if I had ever told her it was a natural pooper scooper?
The sweet little ladybug, Hippodemia convergens, is a gardener's best friend. It eats aphids and other small insects that are harmful to plants. I built ladybug houses out of matchboxes underneath the old cedar tree in front of my playhouse. I watched them go about their work in the weeds all around their little yard. How could I ever hurt a ladybug?
I even tiptoed around trying to never step on an ant.
I finally worked up enough courage to say to my mother: "Mama, I quit school and I'm gonna get a job, cause there will be no bugs killed for my science lesson. Bugs are good and if I kill a bug just to pin on a poster, that bug will come back and it will haunt me till I die, so I just quit school. It is against my rules to kill any livin' thing, and I just can't do it, Mama. I reckon I might just as well just give up on school."
That was on Sunday afternoon and I had pondered the dilemma for the whole weekend. My mother had asked me several times what was bothering me. I couldn't come up with any other answer for her or for myself, but I figured I could hire myself out to make dyes for women to use on their feedsacks. I thought that would be a good moneymaker and I liked to make dyes. My mother said, "Well, you are a pretty good dish washer, and I guess you could learn to scrub floors and wash and iron. It just might work if anybody needs that kind of help. But I think there are many women who already know how to make dyes." Well, I was only 8 going on 9, and wasn't big as a minute anyway, and I had never scrubbed a floor nor had I ironed any clothes. And I had to climb on a chair to wash dishes in my kitchen sink. Back in those days it was common to skip a grade when you got too smart for your britches, so I ended up being the youngest in my class. Also the smallest. I had no answer for my mother, except to tell her I had my own rules and I didn't intend to break them.
My mother thought for a minute and then she made this suggestion: "You like to draw pictures, so why don't you draw all the bugs that you really like, then color them with your crayons. You can label them and you will have your poster without killing a thing. And maybe you wouldn't have to quit school. Don't you think that would be a good idea?"
And so I did. I worked on that poster for hours, and drew every bug I had ever in my life seen. For once my mom was on my side. She brightened my long dark weekend with sunshine again. I went to my classroom on Monday morning and when it was time for science I raised my hand. "I guess I broke your rules, Ms. Webb, cause I didn't kill any bugs. But I drew them and I colored them and I wrote their names right there beside them. I just could not break my own rules 'bout killin' any livin' thing, I just can't." That dear sweet teacher smiled at me and she said: " I respect your own rules because they are good ones, and I am glad you found another way to do the assignment. You did a good job."
I guess I learned a valuable lesson that day, and it wasn't about bugs. I didn't get kicked out of school, and I wasn't a fourth grade drop out, but I sure learned a lot about respect.
Dave's Garden Bug Files became the source of information for this article, along with stories and legends remembered from my childhood in the mountains of southeast Kentucky.
The photographs, in order of their appearance: The tiger moth as it sits on my painting, is my own photo. The moth was gone the next morning, and I hope it made its way safely outside. The other photographs, ladybug, writing spider, luna moth, and dung beetle are all in Bug Files, the excellent contributions of my friend Melody Rose. Thanks, Mel.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 12, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)