THURSDAY: They Seem to Know


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WHERE DID the burying beetles come from and how did they know that a truck had flattened a frog in the dust of this logging road?

Some call them carrion beetles. They’re perversely pretty. With their tidy orange belts, you could take them for bumblebees. But rapacious? That poor frog just vanished overnight.  

The natural world can be downright uncanny. Those bugs get me thinking of the trout we stock for local children and how, right away, their predators come: herons, mergansers, and some we rarely see at our pond– ospreys and, particularly lethal, otters. It’s astonishing how quickly those fish can disappear but more astonishing, as I say, how those creatures know to show up.

The natural world can be downright uncanny. I remember a radio report, maybe two years ago, that reported on an almost biblical plague of grasshoppers somewhere in Utah. Once again, the most amazing part of the story concerned farmers’ contending with an equal curse, the army of gulls that had flown all the way from the coast to feed on the insects, meanwhile befouling the fields.

Or maybe they were inland gulls from the plains? My power of recall is not what it was. No matter, those gulls were also a wonder. How did they know?

The instinct that draws such creatures chills me. It’s not that I’m squeamish, just self-absorbed, I suspect. I’m likely not the one to judge. And of course I can’t begin to compare the epic to the personal. Still, there have been times when I foresaw some things as if by instinct, a few against my will,: that a car crash  would one day kill a good friend; that the Blue Jays would defeat the Phillies in the ‘93 World Series; that although my father looked healthy, his heart would soon destroy him; that my teenage girlfriend would later lose interest in men; that a bull at my uncle’s farm would charge and I’d better get up a tree; on and on.

This all used to be a rich miscellany of dark and bright, appealing and tragic; but with passing years, such inklings seem to bring on the more ominous side as a rule. I suppose there’s a logic to that. Anyhow, in order to repress things I just don’t want to predict, I come up with ways to distract myself when they loom.

After the frog was devoured, lying in bed that night I tried to think up some towns which I could match to countries whose opening letters they shared: Jericho, right here in Vermont, for instance, and Jordan. That diverted me into pondering how many nations begin with C but just one apiece with O and Q and — needless to say — none with X.

Well, so what? Well, I know what. These are mindless efforts at avoiding despair. That particular night I meant to forget the beetles, or rather the way they stole in, uncanny, from who-knows-where. Like so much else.


Image of Sydney Lea, with greying beard, in three-quarter profile, wearing a blue polo shirt, outside against a treed background.

A former Pulitzer finalist and winner of the Poets’ Prize, Sydney Lea served as founding editor of New England Review andwas Vermont’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2015.  He is the author of 23 books: a novel, five volumes of personal and three of critical essays, and fourteen poetry collections, most recently Here (Four Way Books, NYC, 2019). A fifteenth book of poems, What Shines, is due in September, 2023.In 2021, he was presented with his home state of Vermont’s most prestigious artist’s distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.