Stories

Zzyzx

Zzyzx is a small town at the edge of the Mojave Desert in California, approximately 40 miles from Las Vegas. The consortium of California State Universities maintains a biological research station there. I visited the insect professors of Zzyzx during spring break for several years. My voyages south usually included a quick stop to pay respects to Black's Beach, as well as greetings to the ocotillos and Joshua trees of the lower Sonoran Desert.

With proper timing and rains, spring flowers emerge as carpets on the dry barren sands, later to bear seeds and fruit. Dr. Hafernik was our guide, and Gene Hannon the Dancing Machine his assistant. They taught us how to capture bugs. One way was an active hunting style, using hands or a net. The other, sit-and-wait, bait them with light or food. Specimens are collected (killed), so that they can be positively identified and classified. One of the entomologist's tools is the kill jar; it is a glass jar that has a mixture of cyanide and plaster at its base. It is labeled POISON so that no one will confuse it for a jar of hardened mayonnaise. The insects are put into the jar, gassed, and retrieved when they are ready to be pinned (dead) in a collection box.

For some bugs, this can take a very long time! Insects have the ability to shut down the breathing holes on the sides of their bodies, and remain in a sort of coma until the environment becomes hospitable. The gray snout-weevil was one such bug. It was always found in mating position - the male clasping the female from behind, holding on tightly. After its capture, I left it for two days in the kill jar, then pinned it. The third day, the box was opened. The weevil was still walking and moving its legs, even as it was suspended in the air, a pin stuck through its body!


The darkness made for good bug hunting. Silhouetted walking sticks were taken with flashlights, and a mixture of luck and dazed concentration. Scorpions glowed as the hand held black light burst under logs. Crickets chanted for a little love; we grabbed them from beneath the stones. One night I went walking on the salt lake, imagining that I would reach the other side by morning. With every step crunched the white flecked mud under my feet. I walked and walked, got sleepy, and fell into the starry sea of the desert. Even as I drowned into the sky, the creosote bush whispered of robber flies and giant water bugs, velvet ants and backswimmers. Buzzing dragonflies woke me up in the morning light, as I lay cushioned in the dusty clouds of brittle bushes.

At Kelso Dunes we tracked darkling beetles on sandy trails, and entered the palace of a horned lizard. On the salt flats we chased tiger beetles in circles. They're fast! Driving on the highway, we smeared sphinx moth larvae as they crossed the road. In the desert, I caught glimpses of death and transformation. A caterpillar became a magnificent queen butterfly. A bloated and bloody coyote was hammered on the side of the guardrail, dreaming beneath a palo verde tree.

I was a worm, a gasping graduate student stuck in the lower world - in a hole of mud and salt, under the bark of an ironwood tree. In the upper world above, the professor flew contentedly, surrounded by screw bean mesquite. In the middle world lived bugs! Millions and millions of them! Live ones and dead ones, invisible to most adults but ever present, awaiting metamorphosis. The true rulers of this planet.