In Plain Sight

Walking across the campus where I work yesterday I paused by a small ornamental tree at the side of a busy path. There’s nothing particularly special about the tree, although it has attractively smooth, papery silver bark and a pleasingly twisted architecture. I must remember to ask one of the botanists in my department (or anybody else who might know) what it is.

My eye had been caught by a small fleck of something hanging from the trunk which may or may not have been an insect. It turned out to be the remains of a shieldbug (probably a parent bug Elasmucha grisea), still recognisable despite its form being obscured by a shroud of spider silk. As I inspected it, I noticed two aphids climbing the tree nearby – one large (for an aphid), pea green and winged, the other chocolate brown, unwinged, with distinct lines across the abdomen. The more I looked, the more aphids I saw, until I could see that quite a number were advancing up the trunk of the tree in several loose columns, starting right at the base and roughly reaching head height.

In amongst them, in what crevices there were in the bark, countless springtails bounced busily about. The larger ones were all Orchesella cincta, which sports a distinctive golden band about halfway along. Watching all this, antenna quivering constantly, was a tiny scrap of an emerald green chalcid wasp, which may well have been looking for an aphid in which to lay an egg. On the far side of the tree from the path, a crevice behind a peeled-back section of bark hosted the den of a smart little shiny black spider, which retreated at the first invasion of light into its lair. On this side, too, the aphids marched. Where had they come from? Where were they going? What I know about aphids you could probably write on the back of a postage stamp.

At my feet, a strongly mushroomy smell emanated from the bark chippings the grounds team have, for some reason, been spreading around the base of every tree on campus during the last few years. I think it’s something to do with weed ‘control’, often a misguided process but I suppose they must make life easier for themselves somehow, not to mention keeping the bosses happy by maintaining a staid, carefully tidied corporate atmosphere around the important bits of the university. The chippings are good for fungus, anyway, and here they were playing host to a dainty red-brown mushroom with beautiful, regularly spaced gills, almost like the rows of baleen in the mouth of a great whale.

Leaning over to take a sample, my eye was distracted again by a mobile mote of light, which proved to be rays bouncing off the back of a shiny ground beetle tearing around the base of the tree. I let it run into a glass specimen tube for observation. A 3mm sprinter with pale yellow legs built for speed, mounted on a metallic black-green body with four opaque blotches, one for each corner of its wing cases. Most likely Bembidion quadrimaculatum, a name which refers to those four marks – sometimes scientific nomenclature is as straightforward as it appears.

I straightened up again, tube still in my hand, and realised all of a sudden that ten minutes must have passed since I first stopped and began to really look at this tree. I’d become engrossed in the fascinating comings and goings of what had seemed the most mundane of places, oblivious to what I imagine must have been the mystified expressions on the faces of students walking by. I don’t know – I didn’t pay them any attention!

I increasingly find that we live in a world of near endless possibilities, if I’m only prepared to be a little but creative with what I find interesting. No need to wait until some after-death experience to go ‘further up and further in’ – there are miniature kingdoms hidden in plain sight. We only need to change focus to see the little heaven that’s always waiting right in front of us.  It’s just a shame that real life – as if the things I had observed were not far more real than anything else I turned my mind to during the day – inevitably intervenes, breaks the spell, and moves us on.

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