A Cape Cod Notebook 4/22/08

listenOn the Power Lines II

By Robert Finch

On a warm and sunny day recently I took my annual spring walk along the power line right-of-way that runs through Yarmouth and Dennis. I always look forward to my hike along these narrow transmission corridors, for despite their scars and apparent sterility, their frequent ugliness and border of sub urban sprawl, I have found that they contain remarkable opportunities for encountering wildlife, both huma n and otherwise. At one point during the morning, the right-of-way skirted one of the Yarmouth ponds. Two teenage girls were soaking up early spring sunshine on a wooden raft. They turned and hailed me in Boston accents: "Hey mistah - why don'tcha walk ovah heah? "Hey, mistah - what's ya name?" But I still had miles to go (not to mention promises to keep), so I simply waved and, remembering Ulysses, left the teenage sirens behind.

At lunch time I drop down off a high ridge in Dennis into a long, lovely wine-red corridor of cranbe rry bogs that lies between Flax and Run Ponds. I sit beside one of the bogs to have lunch, cooling my f eet in the clear water of an irrigation ditch. In summer this ditch would be clouded with microscopic pl ant and animal life, but now only a few small early flies skate across its surface.

Then I notice a piece of twig that seems to move on the bottom. I reach down and pick it up. It's a black, hollow case about 1/4" wide and nearly 2" long. I recognize it as the home of a caddis worm, or caddis fly larva. Caddis fly larvae are master architects of the insect world. They build tubes - o r portable homes - for themselves out of bottom plant material, small stones, and sand grains that the y cement together.

As I hold the case the larva itself appears at one end, a fierce-looking little mite with a hard yel lowish head striped with black. It waves tiny claws and mandibles at me menacingly. Then it emerges furthe r, exposing the thick, soft abdomen, like pale fish flesh, and encircled with vicious looking miniature spikes. These spikes serve as hooks that the larva uses to anchor itself in its protective case.

The caddis worm shows no fear of me, and despite my enormously larger size, I feel a chill to the bo ne and a sudden urge to drop it. What viciousness there is in its manner and aspect! Are a minnow and I frightened by the same things? Are the deep structures of terror universal? In its twelve inches o f water the caddis fly moves in worlds far, far removed from me.

Then above me I hear the sudden hissing scream of a red-tailed hawk, the third of the day. I look up as it swoops low over the bog, so close that I can see clearly the dark broken belly band on the lig ht breast, the reticulated display of underside feathers and quills, the scaled feet, the black, unforg iving eyes. And I wonder, if we?re frightened by the same shapes, are we also exalted by them? Does a mouse have a moment of clear, apprehended beauty before the dark talons dig in?

I drop the caddis fly case back into the water, where it emits a bubble from one end, and sinks back down to the bottom. I dry off my feet, put my socks and shoes back on, and set off again on the pow er lines, headed home.

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