“Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt In solitude, where we are least alone.
― Lord Byron
This past weekend at Camp Earnest, we were hiking through the forest of mixed pine, oak, and cedar trees, a tessellation of colors backlit by the sun that smelled like autumn. We were looking for mushrooms when we spotted massive gatherings of ladybugs. What a marvel! Fallen logs and upturned branches shivered with these red and black, delightful “good bugs.” I was taught as a child that ladybugs bring good luck when they land on you – you make a wish and then they fly off with your wish, to the ether world where tiny dreams go to incubate. I never knew where they
went. And there, in the Sierra Foothills, I saw them, a lifetime of wishes, shimmying and scurrying on the logs where sunlight streamed through ochre and amber leaves. Ladybugs are great luck for your tomato and squash plants, as they eat aphids, spider mites, corn borer, and mealy bugs – the bad bugs that can destroy your garden. They’re like cute garden superheroes. They are also pollinators, so you can plant marigolds, calendula, yarrow, angelica, and other flowers and herbs to draw them in – the flowers and herbs create more beauty and bounty in your garden, and the ladybugs will help pollinate your plants. No need for pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
I had not even known this took place, that there was an aggregation– or a “loveliness” of ladybugs – as it’s also called in the forests during fall and winter months. At Camp Earnest in Twain Harte, log after log, swarms of them were going about their business. Apparently, they do this for warmth, mating, defense, and resource sharing. Rather than have a militaristic hierarchy like bees and ants, they are egalitarian chaos, an adorable orgy. Due to the structure of our society and communities, we recognize, at times admire, the work ethic of ants. Due to beekeeping for honey, we have come to learn about their intricate societal structures, organized around a monarchy. But what to make of the ladybug? In the book “The Roots of Romanticism” by Isaiah Berlin, he writes “The romantic doctrine was that there is an infinite striving forward on the part of reality, of the universe around us, that there is something which is infinite, something which is inexhaustible, of which the finite attempts to be the symbol but of course cannot.” Is the infinite where our lifetime of wishes and wants, impulses, and vague or acute yearnings go? Were my childhood dreams as tiny and fragile as a ladybug? Were they as sweet and beneficial to the world?
We grow up and our wishes get more concrete – heavier and practical. Far from the whispering of ladybugs, we find ourselves in a world of ants and bees as adults. I had a deadline for a cookbook and needed acorns to test some recipes, so I had to leave the ladybugs to crawl around on the ground collecting acorns. I’m still not convinced I’m going to include acorns in the book. While the Native Americans in California were skilled at ridding them of tannins and using them as a food staple, I haven’t been able to soak the tannins out or get over how much w
ork is involved in processing them into flour. But while picking them up, I spotted stunning leaves - my heart leaped at the intricate lace designs. I learned from a local naturalist, Dan Webster, that these are made by leaf miners- a variety of insects that lay eggs on leaves. The larva eats the leaves in patterns that resemble the tracings of an artist or the dot matrix of a laser cutter. Farmers don’t like to have these leaf miners on their crops – organic and permaculture farmers use Lamb’s Quarter or Columbine to attract them to their leaves. In the wild, a tree that has many leaves with the design cut into by leaf miners means that this tree is not healthy. I was once told that the beaver, an apex species, a marvel of engineering, that saves ecosystems from drought and creates habitat for hundreds of other species, is more likely to take down a tree that has the most tattings from insects. So it’s culling the unhealthy trees for its dams. Salmon, Coho in particular, benefit from beaver dams. Salmon feed over 500 other species, in the ocean, rivers, and skies. When asked if I believe in God, I can only answer that I’ve seen some glimpses of perfection in these ecosystems. That even the bugs that we deem bad are aiding the ecosystem and creating beauty. In the W.B. Yeats poem "He Wishes for the Cloths From Heaven, "I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …"" I tiptoed back to the lodge at Camp Earnest, careful avoid stepping on ladybugs.