In 1656, 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza, a Portuguese Jew in Amsterdam, was excommunicated by his community and formally cursed to the end of his days. The young man's supposed heresies were likely related to a burgeoning pantheism, which he would later develop more fully -- the idea of God as an infinite being who contains everything in the world. God is existence itself, the universe, Nature, what is. Spinoza believed we were all modes in this Body of Being. We live in the Mind and Body of God, which by definition is perfect. What we perceive as imperfect, as pain and suffering, is a problem of our limited human understanding.
Today, in the philosophy called scientific pantheism, the universe with all its laws and properties is an interrelated whole that we can rightly consider sacred. In this marvelous universe, we are connected to everything. We have a relationship with everything. I have come to suspect that some of my existential loneliness -- and my angst about the future of this planet -- comes from the fact that I focus on just a few of these relationships and ignore so many others.
Which brings me to the pinacate beetle, genus Eleodes, which has roughly 120 species in the Western United States. You know this guy, marching about on long legs with raised rear end and lowered front, at home in desert, shrubs and mountains. Eleodes comes from the Greek for olive-like, the insect's general shape, and "pinacate" stems from the Aztec pinacatl for black beetle. It's also known as the clown beetle, for its habit of raising its posterior in a kind of headstand, and as the stinkbug, for the chemicals it emits while in that position. The particular species I have grown to admire, the one I stop and greet -- sometimes out loud -- is about an inch long: smooth, shiny, elegant (that attractive pinched waist in the thorax region), with the jet-black of obsidian and a hint of Aztec grandeur. ...
But also a little comic. Trundling across the path. A little officious. Then that headstand! You have to smile. Could a beetle be more personable than this?
I should admit that some insects make me anxious. Soft pulpy larvae, the plump bodies of moths -- it's that squishy element, the possibility of insides unexpectedly becoming outsides. By contrast, the hard carapace of the pinacate is what one guidebook describes as "extremely durable-looking." Its carcasses can last for years in the desert, like the debris of old cars.
I also like the beetle's public nature, the way it goes out for a walk much like I do, active year-round, even in the day if the weather is cool. The insect is looking for food, bits of grasses and forbs. I'm looking for beauty, insight, exercise. Often enough in the rural West, I get all three.
The pinacate's defense against predators is what permits it to be so visible. Eleodes armata can spray a noxious brew multiple times and as far as 20 inches. For humans, these chemicals are painful if you get them in your eyes. Some animals have found a way around this, of course. Before eating them, skunks roll the beetles in dirt, letting them discharge their offensive fluids. Grasshopper mice simply jam the insect tail-end into the sand and start with the head.
Even so, the pinacate has a certain air of fearlessness. It's already come a long way, from tiny eggs to pupae and adult. In a laboratory, this development can take nine months. The miracle of metamorphosis. The constancy of change. Insects understand this.
Yes, I know. The sin of anthropomorphosis. It's absurd that I think, "Oh, a friendly face!" when I see a pinacate trundling along the path. Up close, the face of a beetle is hardly friendly, and in any case why would the pinacate be friendly toward me -- an impossible giant casting an enormous shadow? You're Eleodes obscures. I'm Homo sapiens. We don't have that much in common. Or do we?
Call me an unrequited lover. But I claim this relationship. When I do, like Spinoza, I find myself walking through the Mind and Body of God, another mode in the Body of Being. Later in the day, I may also have a relationship with sacred datura or hairstreak butterflies. As a conflicted introvert, I need my solitary walks. Yet I don't want, really, to be alone.
The truth is: I'm not.
Sharman Apt Russell lives in Silver City, New Mexico. Her most recent book is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist.