MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - "What do you do for entertainment out there?" my husband's friend asked him. Ron was traveling east to help his mother with a long drive and had stopped to visit an old friend in DC.
"The land is our entertainment," Ron replied. His friend looked blank. "Do you drive into town to go to movies?" he asked, as if he hadn't heard what Ron said.
Why couldn't he hear the answer? Perhaps he was in the grip of the old stereotype of Kansas as flyover country, the middle of nowhere. Or perhaps he had a concept of entertainment as a commodity, a pre-packaged experience for which one purchases a ticket. In any event, Ron was aware that he had a mentality that was not easily recognized by his city-dwelling friend.
When Ron came home, it became a joke between us. "What do you for entertainment out there?" we would say every time we found ourselves transfixed by something right outside our back door.
We said it one bright fall day when we were clearing sumac from the north pasture. We were trying to decide whether to leave a row next to an old stone wall: the sumac didn't impinge on the grass there, and the red leaves looked so pretty against the stone. As we peered more closely, we noticed that some of the stems had been skeletonized--was something eating the leaves? We turned the foliage over and there they were--dozens of caterpillars, all done up in red and yellow stripes. "Little clowns," my husband said, and sure enough--their heads were extra large, like false noses, and their prolegs were covered by fleshy red folds, like outsized shoes. We learned later that these were the larvae of a moth called Datana perspicua, a member of a family known as "Prominents" for their caterpillars' bright colors and hefty heads. The flamboyance wards off predators while the large head may be just what it takes to feed on tough, late-season leaves.
We left that row of sumac standing by the wall, and over the next few days we stopped frequently to check on the little munchers. One day they were gone -- down into the soil to overwinter and await their time to emerge as moths. We'd had a rain the night before and perhaps that softening of the earth was their cue to go below.
Now as nights grow long and snow begins to fall, the memory of those radiant little harlequins still makes us smile.
Would Ron's friend have understood if Ron had said, "We turn over leaves and look for bugs?" I don't know. We ourselves don't fully understand what we experience when interacting with our neighbors -- animal, vegetable, and mineral. It's just that each encounter with the near-at-hand -- what's around us all the time right here at home--seems both enlightening and familiar--a revelation and a recognition, all at the same time.
E. O. Wilson, the famed ecologist, says that every meeting with the wild stirs us humans, making us aware of "the way life ought to be lived, all the time." Wilson is the author of the "biophilia hypothesis" -- the view that we humans have an innate affinity for life. That's Ron's and my kind of talk. But if biophilia is part of human nature, why the incomprehension between my husband and his friend? Why don't we all react to the wild in the same way?
Variety, adaptability, nature, nurture -- all create much mystery in our civilization.
I only know that Ron and I feel we're really missing out on something when we're not at home.