Ladybugs and Lear

 

I ran into an article today about "a harbinger of bad insulation . . . good fortune and an early spring," which stirred a memory from a few years ago, an episode out of doors.

On a Friday in September, three friends and I drove east from Reno on I-80 into the Nevada desert to climb King Lear Peak.  We camped that night at the base of the mountain, which looms on the eastern edge of the Black Rock Desert — a vast playa once the bed of ancient Lake Lahontan, now the site of the notorious Burning Man festival. A lone ranch light burned in the valley below us as we crawled into our tents far from Reno's millions of technicolor bulbs.

We ambled along a neglected jeep track the next morning, then up through sage. The ground was flecked in places with shards of obsidian, perhaps the remains of Native American hunting camps. The climb was over 3,000 feet, past hundred-year-old juniper stands. We flushed chukar from a creek bed. We kept an eye out for bighorn, but saw none. At times, we scrambled on our hands and knees. At the top, the desert stretched out like the white of an egg in a cast-iron skillet, Black Rock Peak at its center like a dark yolk.

But what I remember most is this: beside a faded, damp ledger in a jar with a loose lid, there lay a tattered copy of King Lear, slowly becoming mountain. And between its pages, hundreds of living ladybugs. What species specifically, I can't say — there are over 450 species of ladybugs in North America alone, shades of yellow, orange and red dotted in a multitude of ways — over 5000 species throughout the world. This tiny colony hid in a tragedy, along its binding, in clumps of five to 50.

When I opened the book, some of the beetles snapped their carapaces wide and took flight, landing on our arms, our shirts. Bits of paper lit off like the bugs themselves as I leafed gently through the play. Those ladybugs would circle back, we were sure — King Lear soon would be crowned with snow. It's known as "diapause": their metabolism slows, their freezing point lowers.  Somehow they overwinter at almost 9,000 feet in the desert.

Where would they have roosted, if not for the book? Perhaps wedged underneath the rocks we lay down on after lunch to absorb the sun, out of the wind. We glissaded through scree and dirt to our car, afterward, and drove on to a hot springs to recover.

I read just a few lines of the play atop the mountain, out of respect for the ladybugs. But there was something more broadly Shakespearean about this scene, a feeling I've often had in the deserts and mountains throughout the West. Something blood-like, and quickening, as the bugs stirred and trickled from the book's spine. You can climb all day to an incredible overlook. But sometimes, on top of a peak, it's the small wonder at your feet — hundreds of red beetles, slipping into torpor,  able to survive where you never could — which becomes the most expansive view.

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