Since those long-ago hot Mississippi days, squatting in grubby shorts and bare feet with a close-up view of whatever small wildlife crossed the lawn or flowerbeds or chicken yard, I’ve been fascinated by the low-down creatures. The right-on-the-ground (or beneath, for many of those interesting hours were spent fishing for doodlebugs with a spit-and-dirt broomstraw, or digging for fishin’ worms for Mr. Shug with the “little shovel” way before I knew the word trowel), the close-to-the-earth little beings held the allure of all things small to me.
Roly-polies and ants going about their little bustly business, a grasshopper poised to spring when I moved, or a praying mantis turning her head to contemplate my face with those wise, all-seeing eyes---those were endlessly attractive, in both the magnetic sense, and the beautiful one. I loved the shapes and colours and tiny perfections of wing and limb, the minuscule feet made exactly for their purpose, the faceted eyes of big ole horseflies, the great honor of having an iridescent dragonfly light upon my outstretched hand. The cosmic secret of cicadas emerging by the calendar, with a whole seventeen years of life in that still, dark hibernaculum—-that will ever be a mystery great as the sun’s call to seed.
And snails---I’d never offer a hand to a snail, for I knew that salt from my skin would cause her harm, but I thought them some of the most beautiful creatures, especially with the sun igniting their translucent shells. Carrying that home around for escape and rest, and those marvelous little antennae to periscope out to check the air—those were magic and science and all good talents in one, to me.
Once, I heard Art Linkletter ask a little girl, “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” And the answer was, “A lady snail with her shell on.” I kind of think so, too.
I fed a moth, once, I remember, having found it inside Mammaw’s screendoor on a Summer’s night. It was sitting there like an immobile velvety arrowhead, and I imagined it to be looking out at the moon, longing for that light. I was so cautious of “knocking off the powder” and making it unable to fly, that I slid a piece of paper beneath and opened the door to take it out for release. Instead, it walked right over and up onto the back of my left hand, just confidently sitting right there. Since I had seen pictures of moths feeding from flowers, with those unimaginably long tongues like minute party-rollups that you blow in and out in such cheerful colours, in my ten-year-old confidence, I decided to see if I could feed her.
Maneuvering over to the table, hoping she wouldn’t fly away into the house, I got the tiniest pinch from the sugar-bowl and dropped a few crystals onto my skin, right in front of her face. No movement for quite a time, and so I put my finger beneath the faucet, and dropped a small drop onto the sugar. In a moment, something happened to convey that here, indeed, was a treat; her head lifted, and her magical tongue unscrolled from beneath, like unrolling a ribbon small as a sewing-thread. I still don’t understand if she lapped it up like a kitty, or if her tongue was hollow like a straw that she sipped through, but that homemade nectar disappeared like magic. I could feel that almost microscopic touch, light as kittens' breath, as she licked the sweetness from my skin.
I took her back out into the night of the back yard, and she stepped from my hand onto the leaves of the gardenia bush, where I left her to go on with her pursuits. It was a magical moment that I’ll always remember, and anytime I see one stranded on the inside of the screendoor, before I send it on its way, I’m tempted to offer a sip from the sugar-bowl.