Learning to see

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I counted insects for a living. Primarily the lovely apple maggot fly (Rhagoletis pomonella), though there were many others.

The thing about spending summers deeply involved with insects is that you start to realize exactly how much life exists around you unnoticed. Mites scurrying back and forth across the undersides of leaves, lacewing eggs on long slender stalks, aphid colonies tended by ever vigilant ants. (Aphids! Really, anyone interested in science fiction should have to read up on the life cycles of aphids.) Shifting populations, battles over territory, ravenous predators, the threat of sudden chemical intervention which favors some groups over others, all playing out in a mad rush before winter comes.

Expand that to an entire orchard, an entire world, and it makes your head spin.

I learned to see during that time. I learned to slow down enough to notice the cicada emerging from the skin she’d shed, stopping to allow her wings to fill and dry. To sit and watch a cecropia caterpillar eat a leaf, as methodically as a child might eat an ear of corn. To find a collection of tiny mite eggs, clustered around the scales of a dormant leaf bud.

Winter isn’t the best time for observing insects in the Northeast, but there’s still much to be seen. Spend some time exploring the bark of a tree. Listen for nuthatches, or the soft tap of woodpeckers, or the angry calls of crows mobbing a hawk. Look for tracks in the snow, and once you’ve found them, look for places they cross under or along a tree or a rock. Find the hairs left behind on those rough surfaces.

Sit quiet. Listen. Watch.

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