Packed for winter

Outside my window here at the beach a slender pine rocks, tick tock, in the winter's northeast wind. It has been roped and staked to keep its top from bombarding the eaves of my cottage roof, a concession the tree and I both agreed to as an alternative to being hacked and hauled away. The tree shakes its head gently, as if aware of its uneasy probation, and strokes the cedar shingles with the green softness of long needles, whispering, ''See, I would never hurt you.''

At its base, in the sand hummock left by the builders of my study annex, are scraps of discarded roofing, patches of dried grass, and a small bayberry myrtle struggling for breath through the sand. These are the more or less permanent lodgers on my Chesapeake landscape.

There is also a visitor, so to speak. At the base of the pine tree, in the fork of an exposed rootlet, there is a thumb-size indentation in the sand, now covered with brown needles. About six inches below this spot, past the pencil-narrow tunnel filled with sand, there is a small round white thing sleeping the winter away in a hammock of silky threads. It is the larva of the steel-blue cricket-hunting wasp, Chlorion aerariumm, according to my handy field guide. It will grow in the dark warmth of the sand and pine roots from an egg smaller than a raindrop. I know. I saw it placed.

On the October morning I was preparing to leave my strip of the Chesapeake sand, I happened to glance out of the front room window - any excuse to delay the exodus. Most people look up and out at the sky and the horizon, but the French entomologist Henri Fabre has taught me also to look down at the earth, where dwell the small, winged, creepy, crawly things that share our footsteps, swim between our toes, hop into our pockets, and zing away to their own destinies without acknowledging us any more than we notice them. And so as I looked down out of my window, as was my habit, I was promptly rewarded by the appearance of a small winged thing buzzing around the sand hill at the base of my pine tree. It hovered like a helicopter over a landing pad, the whirr of its wings fanning out the sand grains below. It landed with a bounce of its arched back legs and looked around nervously, a shiny blue-black glistening on the white sand. The antennae moved up and down, the head jerked, all six legs pawed the sand, then zing off it went like a slingshot from a rubber band.

I knew enough to wait for its return. The hunter might be at any stage of its nest-making. She could be scouting for a good site for her burrow. She could have the tunnel already dug and be on the hunt for her prey. She could have accomplished all that already and be making a last-minute double-check to ward off predators and parasites. In any case she would have closed the sand door to her nursery and be expected to return.

I left the bed unmade and propped my elbows on the window, waiting. It is always a long wait watching a six-inch patch of sand. My impatient mind had clicked off an hour or two during the ten minutes I stared at the foot of the pine tree when a sparkle of blue-black glanced off the corner of my eye and the twitching, excited voyager returned, lighting gently on her doorstep. She glanced around once more before digging into the hillside. She worked feverishly with her front legs, passing the sand grains under her long body to her pair of thorax legs and then with a final kick to her back legs. As she worked in quick rhythm, the pencil-size hole was unsealed, revealing a black tunnel apparently slanted down toward the base of the tree.

She cradled her body over the entrance and twisted around in a full circle, cocking her head up, down, and sideways, looking for the telltale movement of a parasitic fly. Apparently satisfied that the coast was clear, she turned around and disappeared into the tunnel. She was gone only about thirty seconds when the black head appeared at the door. As she pulled her body out, she began flicking sand back into the hole. Without turning around to say goodbye to anybody inside she picked and shoveled and kicked the little yellow boulders into the black chasm until the sand spilled out of the doorway.

Then she turned and tamped the door shut with her head, packing the grains tight with loud thumps that echoed to the tree roots. This final clanking of the sand door signaled the giant watcher from the cottage window that it was all over: the cricket was already in the pantry, the egg had been laid, and the winter larder was sufficient to provision the hatching larva. When fully fed in the sandy darkness, the grub would spin a silk cocoon to cradle its metamorphosis, until the spring tides and the warm sun called forth the young glistening black creature to struggle up the path of the old tunnel and dry its sticky wings in the sunshine.

I would like to be there for the coming-out party next summer, but the odds are very much against it, unless I should just happen to be making my bed and looking out the window at that small patch of that particular sand in that twinkling of the solar eye. In the meantime it is there asleep beyond the frost line and I am here beyond the storm window, and we wait together for the changes yet to come.

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