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by Margy Stewart

I have often heard people say that they don't want to learn more about birds or wildflowers because they "just want to enjoy nature." They say that counting wing bars or petals or learning species' names will rob Nature of her magic.

It's as if they fear that Nature is a humbug, like the Wizard of Oz: If they look too closely, the illusion of grandeur will disappear. There will be only a little man behind a curtain, with no magic powers.

But the more I learn about my many-footed, winged, and rooted neighbors, the more mysterious my world becomes. The more I know, the more I wonder-not just about the natural world but about myself as a human being and my place on earth.

Two incidents from this past summer in particular come to mind:

It is mid-July. I watch a wheel bug stalk a cucumber beetle on the blossom of a compass plant. I marvel that the beetle doesn't fly or crawl away. The wheel bug gets closer and closer, then grabs its prey with its muscular front legs. The beetle is already dead or in a death-like state, for there is not a wave of antenna or twitch of leg. The wheel bug begins to feed, his proboscis piercing the beetle's thorax just behind the head.

The back of my neck tingles. The sun sets while the wheel bug pulls nourishment into his own body from the beetle's innards. The meal goes on and on. Night falls. I take a picture of the wheel bug and beetle locked together. It is dark, so I have to use the flash. The photo shows dots of light reflected in the beetle's eyes.

I can't help but identify with both prey and predator.

The beetle's death is one of trillions taking place on this patch of prairie in this stretch of time. Death is one of the elements here, like earth or air. There is nothing more common. Nothing to see here! But when I contemplate my own mortality, my death seems remarkable, extraordinary, in fact, impossible!

How can I wrap my mind around the end of my mind?

Predation is a mind-bender, too. No matter how kind we try to be, we humans have to kill to live. We are herbivores, carnivores, omnivores. I can feel gratitude for my meals, but I can't feel guiltless toward the plants and animals whose lives I've shortened or distorted so that my life could be longer or more full.

But watching the wheel bug feed on the beetle my perspective changes. It's as if everything is in motion. I no longer think of links in the food chain as separate entities. Plant, plant-feeder, meat-eater appear as swirls in flowing currents of energy. I imagine channels all lit up and buzzing, shimmering with change.

Is individuality even real?

Wheel bug does not exist without Beetle, nor Beetle without Flower. We humans do not exist without oxygen or water or food-plants or food-animals.

We are relationships more than we are separate individuals.

But just because individuality is not self-standing, it doesn't mean that individuality is non-existent.

We are all biological individuals, like bumps on a road, no two alike.

The bumps do exist. But so does the road.

We are particle and wave.

That dynamism, that shape-changing at the heart of Life-I like to think about it. It helps to reconcile me to my mortality and my omnivory.

I too am molecules on the move!

The second incident: It is the end of August. My husband shows me that swamp milkweed is blooming in one of our wetlands! I am thrilled, as this is a first for this species on our property. Swamp milkweed is a beautiful native plant with gorgeous deep-pink flowers and a great source of nectar for late-season butterflies.

While watching the monarchs flutter from plant to plant, I notice how many other insects make use of this milkweed, too. One of them is a large iridescent beetle whose front end I never see because its head is always buried in a blossom, slurping up pollen.

It is clearly a flower beetle, but of what species?

With help from my naturalist friends and confirmation from, I learn that my beetle is Dark Flower Beetle, aka Euphoria sepulcralis. It is one of the scarab beetles, which puts it instantly in the realm of lore and myth. Poe's "Gold Bug" was a scarab, the sign of a lost treasure, but also a death's- head, the mark of death. In addition, the sacred beetle of the ancient Egyptians was a scarab, in fact, a dung-beetle.

Remarkable: The beetle eats dung and yet incarnates the divine!

But it should not surprise us too much. Vultures eat carrion and they are sacred in many cultures.

Somehow, in the spiritual vision of many peoples, lowly, repulsive waste appears simultaneously as holy, creative power!

Similarly, the very names of my beetle fuse opposites together: "Dark" with "Flower," "Euphoria (wild joy)" with "sepulcralis" (of the sepulchre or tomb).

The bloom of darkness, the wild joy of death--these are paradoxes. And just as it did for the ancient Egyptians, paradox characterizes the mystical, logic-transcending visions of all religions-dead but alive, poor but rich, buried but risen, last but first-opposites that can't both be true but that in a higher reality are both true.

Paradox is mystery.

Thus have human cultures in all places and all times reached for what is beyond comprehension.

Therefore, as I get to know my humble beetle, I am reminded that knowledge always points beyond itself-and that euphoria is somehow involved.

That's what encounters with the natural world are for me: Knowledge growing, mystery deepening-filling me with my own wild joy!

This essay first appeared in the Junction City, Ks. Daily Union, Sat., Jan. 9, 2016, 2C.

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