The Earwig in the Zen Blend
I lift a brick and dozens of them scatter and disappear. They run from the light. They run from me.
Inside the mailbox. Under the planks. Between the flower pots. In corners, cracks, and crevices. In dampness and darkness. Hiding from the light. Hiding from the world. Hiding from humanity.
The European Earwig. Forficula Aricularia. Order Dermaptera. We all know the earwig.
For my whole life, when I have seen them, I have shuddered. One reaction: repulsion. Why such strong feelings for such a small creature? What did they ever do to me?
No warm thoughts for the earwig. For no reason. With no excuse. Earwigs bring me to the edge of language. I cannot romanticize them. I cannot idealize them. I struggle to express their beauty. They are not alone on the list. There are others I have habitually turned from with aversion: cockroaches, slugs, snakes, jellyfish, mosquitoes, raccoons.
Do they dream? Do they love? Do they feel what I feel? Can I ever know? Can I widen the way I look at the earwig? Can I change my perception?
I take out books from the library. I start reading. Borror and Delong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects.
We’re in the pick-up truck on the way to our community garden plot. I take the box of cutting zinnias into the car. I want to plant them so we have flowers for our summer parties. Red, pink, orange, and yellow zinnias in blue mason jars. We’re down the hill and just on our way when we notice the earwigs. They made a home in the box of flowers I was neglecting. We are startled and flustered. We pull over the truck and empty them out of the car. Earwigs in the cab. Earwigs fleeing from the box. Earwigs everywhere. Ugh.
I live in upper-middle class suburbia. I live in a land of round-up and Termanix. A land of strong opinions and rigid refusals, of conditions and implications. Sweat is ok, but only at the gym. Makeup is a must. Gray hair is for the grave. Eyebrows must be precise. Nails must be manicured. Legs must be shaved. One must not smell, one must not age, one must strive toward one’s sense of perfection. One must appear clean, beautiful, healthy, and fresh. One must keep up. I live in a land of biophobia.
Perhaps it’s connected. The hatred of our own bodies. The discomfort with our own flesh. Our failure to see our own embeddedness. The hatred of earwigs. The hatred of being dirty. The fear of being less than perfect.
It’s time to get our hands dirty. It’s time to dig in.
My husband makes his living with vegetable gardens. He raises beds and raises vegetables, and sometimes, when everything aligns, he raises awareness. He brings in the soil, compost, seeds, and seedlings. He builds trellises and negotiates with water. He encourages the homeowners to get their hands dirty. He educates and inspires. He brings our ideals into reality. He has noticed that many of his clients are reluctant to cut the hearty greens growing in their gardens—not even for their green juices or their vegan salads. They still go to Whole Foods to buy kale and mesclun greens, even as there are pounds of produce thriving in their own backyards. Why? Perhaps they do not see the insects at Whole Foods. There’s no dirt. Somehow, the products just seem cleaner, safer, better when they are packaged and pre-cleaned. There are no aphids or worms. No weevils, no ants, no centipedes. And certainly, there are no earwigs.
When I harvest a head of escarole I can see those who have made their home within the heart of the plant. Little worms, pill bugs, beetles, earwigs. They are safe in the center of the leafy greens—close to the earth, shielded from the sun. I bring the bunches home in a basket. To clean the escarole, I submerge the leaves in a sink of cold water and let them sit. Soon enough, the bugs begin to crawl to the top. I catch them in a glass and bring them outside. This takes time. This is a whole different way of thinking about whole foods.
They keep making their way into the kitchen with the garden lettuce. When I separate the romaine leaves from the base of the plant, they scatter and sometimes they sunder. Yesterday I accidentally sliced two earwigs in half. The forceps-side sat on the cutting board, while the other half kept moving—only half a body, frantically fleeing. One moment, safely nestled in the heart of a head of romaine. The next moment, sliced open and scattering across the kitchen counter. Would I move if I was cut in half? I take a moment of silence to take stock of my action. I take a moment to give thanks for my dinner.
Patanjali: Being firmly grounded in non-violence creates an atmosphere in which others can let go of their hostility.
The yogic moral disciplines, or yamas, offer ways of relating to the world that do not generate added suffering. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras delineate a method of sustainable and compassionate relation. Ahimsa asks us to pay attention to small creatures and to do what we can to recognize and respect their sentience.
I live in a land of soap and water. I live in a land of hand sanitizers and antibacterial everything. I live in a land of Tide and bleach and Tide with bleach.
The challenges of this topic: the words don’t flow. The blankness of the creature in front of me. The absence of rapture.
What really interests me is my capacity to have so much aversion to certain living things without having any sense of their identity—of what they are and what they do. I know next to nothing about earwigs, yet I dislike them. This is something worth exploring. This is something worth thinking through.
Patanjali: The causes of suffering are not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I”, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life.
What makes something ugly? What makes something a pest? What makes something disgusting? What makes something an “it”? What makes something an “I”? What makes something a worthy subject?
Romantic poetry is full of grasshoppers and butterflies. It is easier to write an ode to a cricket. It is not so challenging to rhapsodize about delphiniums and verbena. It’s easier to write about dragonflies and summer afternoons. It’s easier to write about lightning bugs.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
Keats and Wordsworth never wrote about earwigs. Are earwigs not included in the “poetry of the earth”?
Patanjali: Aversion is a residue of suffering.
What I can write about, what I have written about, are gardens and the idea of a garden. I can write about what happens in the gardens, both figuratively and literally, and what they teach me. This is the place where my existence converges with that of the earwig’s. This is where we meet.
My subject is my antipathy. My subject is aversion. The Sanskrit word is dvesha. Translations include hate, dislike, repugnance.
I would not be thinking this way without Terry Tempest Williams and her work with the prairie dog. Her work with Rwanda. Her suggestion to think a bit more about what we call a pest or a varmint. Her work teaches me to be careful with my language. She writes about mammals, but we can extend her thoughts to insects.
To regard any animal as something lesser that we are, not equal to our own vitality and adaptation as a species, is to begin a deadly descent into the dark abyss of arrogance where cruelty is nurtured in the corners of certitude. Daily acts of destruction and brutality are committed because we fail to see the dignity of the Other.
Thank you, Terry. You’ve been guiding me for years.
I would not be thinking this way without the limbs of yoga. Without Patanjali’s explanation of the causes of suffering, which concern an individual’s inability to see her own true nature. They are called the klesas: ignorance, self-sense, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life.
Instead, Patanjali suggests cultivating equanimity, compassion, happiness, and friendliness. Instead, work to see the dignity of the other.
My usual writing subjects: sensuality and song, the seasons and flowers, longing and loss, risk and connection, elegy and celebration. My pull toward that which seems beautiful. My work: to find beauty where I did not think it could be.
Can I write a song of the earwig? Can I write a song for the earwigs? Can we write songs for those who repulse us?
The classic haiku poets offer points of convergence. They teach me to widen awareness. In particular, Robert Hass’s translations of Issa illuminate an infectious compassion for small creatures. They help shift my perception.
O flea! whatever you do,
that way is the river.
Dear Issa. Poet of flies and fleas. Poet of inchworms and spiders. Poet of snails and slugs. Poet of the earwig.
My meditation practice asks me to take time. To take time with what arises. To spend afternoons just watching. To watch what happens and to watch how I respond to what happens. To take time with earwigs.
The poetry on earwigs is sparse. I am able to find one poem by John Ciardi. Ciardi was a poet, a translator of Dante, and an etymologist.
Legally classified Forficulida and distinguishable
by its wing structure and tail pincers,
the common European Earwig (F. auricularia)
was called by the Saxons earwicga,
which is to say “ear beetle” or “ear worm,”
so named because it was believed
(erroneously, but when has that mattered?) to burrow
into the ears of men, producing afflictions
equal even to the effects of gossip.
Earwigs have an unfortunate story. Superstition named them and their name damned them. The image is so visceral. You’re lying in bed, peacefully sleeping. An earwig, with pincers pinching, climbs onto your pillow and goes straight into your ear. The earwig then bores into your brain. You are utterly vulnerable. This is an old superstition. And like many old superstitions, is terrifying. And completely false.
I’m not really making an argument about what we should do. I’m not trying to decide if earwigs are good or bad. I’m trying to understand the nature of my aversion to some of the creatures of the world.
Don’t kill that fly!
Look—it’s wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.
We are all creatures of this world. Those words are easy to say and yet their implications are the beginning and end of our ethical engagement.
For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.
So earwigs are not really earwigs. Their name is based on a false belief. Their name is based on human fear. Instead, their Greek origin— dermaptera—is lost between entomology and etymology. Derma meaning skin. And pteron, meaning wing.
Why do we fear certain creatures of this world—even creatures that are small and harmless? Is it because they lack anthropomorphic identification—because we cannot see ourselves in them? Millipedes, slugs, crabs, and beetles. More challenging to see a human face and form. Such strangers.
And even though they do not look much like us, perhaps some creatures tickle our senses in other ways. Lightning bugs, butterflies, and crickets will always fare better in the human imagination than will spiders, maggots, and mosquitos.
An archetypal aversion. The earwig’s abdominal forceps. Clamps, forceps, pincers. We forget how big we are and how small they are. We forget the fear that we too are capable of provoking. We forget our responsibility.
Fleas in my hut,
it’s my fault
you look so skinny.
The principles of organic gardening teach me to feel responsibility for my actions. They require a constant education. They allow the revelation of my relation. They ask me to cultivate humility.
I learn that earwigs like what I like: zinnias, dahlias, sunflowers, and roses. They can be found in the strawberries, lettuce, celery, beans, and potatoes. I learn some of the many things we have in common.
Earwigs eat vegetable matter. Earwigs cherish the compost pile. Earwigs are omnivorous scavengers. Earwigs live in communities. They seek shelter from the elements. They dislike exposure and they run from danger.
A maternal earwig makes her home in the heart of a rose.
Cleaning the greens takes time. Cleaning each leaf of escarole. Submerging, rinsing, inspecting, drying. Perhaps this is why dinner tastes so good. It’s hard-earned.
And what is the alternative? The plastic “organic” boxes that abound in the supermarket? They call them “clamshells.” Earthbound Organic Farm. Industrial organic farming. In my suburban culture, these boxes have become synonymous with health—with the best you can do for yourself. There’s nothing better than organic greens. They are expensive, wasteful, and bizarre. People buy them every week and feel healthy. Mixed baby kale. Baby spinach. “Power Greens.” Arugula. Baby lettuces. Triple washed, dried, sealed. Ready to go. They even have one called a “Zen Blend”: baby Asian greens, chard, spinach. We live in New York; they come from California. At our local supermarket, it costs $4.69 for 5 ounces of greens. Fifteen dollars for a pound of greens. What are we paying for? For plastic? For shipping? For the eradication of earwigs?
There is more at work here than meets the eye. The refrigerated diesel trucks that drive over 3000 miles across the country. The need to keep the greens cold in the supermarket. The “clamshell” that most likely finds its way to a landfill, or worse, to the country of garbage swelling in the Pacific. There is some breakdown here. A failure to see the connection between health and wholeness. A failure to see how the diesel fuel and the plastic waste also influence our bodies and well-being—how they influence the earwig’s well-being.
Somehow plastic has become synonymous with cleanliness. The clamshell, typically made from the toxic petro-chemical styrene (which if consumed would certainly kill us), is there to protect us from the harmless footprints of earwigs. The clear plastic container somehow blinds us to one inarguable fact: earwigs were here. And herein lies a great breakdown between rational understanding and perception. We do not perceive the earwig’s presence in the organic clamshell, despite how common sense tells us that even those perfect greens were touched by dirt, by bugs, by worms, by earwigs, by the poop of literally millions of unseen creatures. Perhaps it is the plastic that is perpetuating ignorance, aversion, and so, suffering. The great non sequitur between what we know rationally and what we perceive; if it’s out sight, it’s out of mind. There is such danger in this propensity. It facilitates neither ecological thinking nor sustainable practice.
Having an organic garden teaches me to be more skeptical of the perfect leaves—to take comfort in the little holes or dark patches. Usually someone gets to the escarole first. And that’s ok. I turn to Thoreau.
These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail?
This is one small lesson from the garden. We are doing this for more than the pure product. The harvest is daily. The harvest is more than the sum of its parts. The harvest is the whole escarole—the infinite escarole—the life and death radiating from the escarole. The harvest is our practice. As a practice, it cannot fail.
Ecology and sustainability insist we involve ourselves with the processes of our world. That we cultivate new awareness. That we formulate our own sense of the zen blend. Earwigs and all.
Literal whole foods necessitate ecological thinking. Ecology asks for imagination. Ecology humbles us. Ecology asks us to question both what we desire and what we dislike. Ecology asks us to consider the nature of our relation. Ecology asks us to touch the infinite.
Last night at a dinner I was talking to a passionate tidal wetland ecologist who studies the salt marshes here on Long Island. As he tells me about his research and life’s work, I realize he is also talking about human aversion to mosquitoes; the history of the wetlands illustrates our aversion—our lack of ecological understanding. In the attempt to control the mosquito population, the wetland ecosystems have been severely compromised. Their twentieth century history is one of dredging and spraying and endless attempts to stop the mosquitoes. This is his life’s work. The mosquito. Another creature we hate. The mosquito, who, as it turns out, is a native of this place. A creature that has been making its home here long before people arrived.
I think about the humble earwigs—not demanding such wide-scale eradication as the mosquito. Not carrying malaria or dengue fever or West Nile virus. The humble earwig—a creature we just don’t like. We do not like them despite their small size and their nocturnal existence. We dislike them despite their inherent humility—or, at least, their tendency to hide when revealed.
If there is one poet I know with a heart wide enough for the earwig it is Emily Dickinson. Although earwigs themselves do not appear in her lexicon, she takes time for the insects of our world. She lets the infinity generated by their otherness unhinge her consciousness. She sits in her uncertainty and wraps her heart around what is alien. Dickinson, with her piercing intelligence and her generous spirit, continues to guide me:
Patience—has a quiet Outer—
Is an Insect’s futile forces
‘Scaping One—against the Other
Fruitlesser to fling—
Patience—is the Smile’s exertion
Through the quivering—
Love has to do with perspective. And, as Dickinson perceives, with patience. Her poem defines patience—both its exertion and commitment. And it is an insect that best represents the work of this virtue—an insect that surfaces infinity.
The single Flower of the Earth
That I, passing by
Unconscious was—Great Nature’s Face
Passed infinite by Me—
The things that I’ve learned:
That the oldest earwig fossil dates back 200 millions years. The Triassic. Deep time. Well beyond human sight.
That earwigs do not quite seem to qualify as garden pests. The ecologists and gardeners seem to be on the fence. Some suggest the damage they can do to certain crops; others suggest that the earwig’s appetite for aphids qualifies their utility to the system.
I am learning more than just facts. What is becoming clear, as I think about the earwig, is that writing is a way of wrapping my heart around a subject. Writing is a means of approaching something from as many angles as possible. Such work might be done guided by the intention of generating compassion. That writing is a way of creating a zen blend. And in the zen blend there are greens and roses and people and earwigs. There is ahimsa and compassion and aversion and acceptance. There is patient time spent with the earwigs of this world.
I’m not an entomologist. Indeed, I’m new to bugs. I’m more an etymologist. But I can get to know the small creatures of this world. I can work on accepting their presence and respecting their complexity. I can imagine that their existences are just as real and intense as mine. I can work to bring Great Nature’s Face into my consciousness.
I can work to make a home in the heart of the zen blend.
Pincers and forceps. Whole foods and mosquitoes. Bathing the escarole. Weeding the garden.
This morning, I saw an earwig on the white carpet in the living room. Instead of killing her or capturing her, I watched her for a few minutes. She seemed to freeze in my presence. And then I left the room, allowing her an opportunity to flee and hide. I know I’ll never see her again. I know the white carpet in the living room is no place for an earwig. I know enough to let her be—to see how she was out of place—that she would surely find her place without me.
The quiet earwig.
Great nature’s face.
Passed infinite by Me—
Jesse Curran received her PhD in English from Stony Brook University, where she currently teaches courses in literature, writing, and the environmental humanities. Her poetry and essays have been published in The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Green Humanities, Blueline, The Fourth River, The Kudzu Review, and The Common Ground Review. She also holds certifications in hatha yoga and permaculture design, which practically inform her approach to sustainable education and community building.