Playing in neighbors’ yards, I sometimes spied wasp nests hanging from eaves or embedded in trees or bushes. Most of the time I remembered my father’s swollen face after an encounter in a rosebush and fled. But abandoned nests were more valuable to me than any other childhood artifact. I’d come back with a whiffle ball. If I could find a foothold on a windowsill or branch, the nest would come down… gently, cleanly whole.
Nature’s art is an order of order well beyond anything made with paper, paint, or glue.
A friend had a wasp nest the size of a rugby ball that he and his father found while deer hunting. I coveted it. You could hold it by the branch it surrounded, and the outside was all one irregular sheet of paper, understatedly striped and stratified like levels of foam on a the glass of a finished coke float photographed in black and white. Its grayscale spoke each day’s source. Some zones came close to white. Others charcoal.
I love nests’ deliberate and alien fabrication. What spurs wasps to begin them? What secret compulsion resides in all that mastication? How do they know without knowing how to build paper houses?
My friend talked about cutting his nest open to reveal its inner architecture, but, for a long time, I persuaded him not to. It wouldn’t be worth anything, I said. I spoke with authority, as if the wasp nest market followed laws of value easy to understand.
Nesting must still be in us somewhere, traveling lines of thought long subsumed by more complicated purposes. We are still makers but make less palpable stuff, much of it crap.
Carl Jung said creation isn’t accomplished by intellect but, “By the play instinct acting from inner necessity.” That necessity, he suggested, is deep affection. “The creative mind plays with the objects it loves,” he said.
I protected the nest my friend found because I knew how hard it’d be to find another. I begged him to consider how much time the wasps took to make it and how rare such unbothered time must be.
Once I watched my son as he sat with his laptop at the kitchen table. He slumped in a chair, ear-buds in, his head shifted to the left out of alignment with the rest of his body while, with his right hand, he stacked and unstacked paperback books. First they were stair steps, then the edges of an empty pool, then a tent preparing for a pyre.
For a long time, my friend’s wasp nest occupied a high perch in the corner of his room. He’d lodged it there, and, when you stared up, it looked like a disembodied head, faceless but ever vigilant and possessive.
Sometimes I think I might have something great to do if someone set me to it. Brilliance awaits the proper assignment. It only takes the visit of compulsion—Paul on the road to Damascus, Buddha silently lifting a lotus to show his disciples, Melville scratching, “Call me Ishmael” in an unoccupied patch of paper.
Perseverance dies in us. We hate the million daily delays that find us waiting before web pages or in line at Starbucks or between the subject and object of friends’ sentences. We desire nothing so much as completion, fruition, almost any result. Work accretes but not as one task. Stunted piles stretch over a vast surface, no tower more than a bump.
Last summer I visited the rare book room of the Columbia library and saw a copy of Shakespeare’s first folio. His bean-shaped head presided over its collection of columned pages of broken type, and I read his expression as a challenge. How many people have those eyes turned away?
The architect Louis Kahn said, “The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of need.” We desire what’s made. The world never needed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he said, until Beethoven wrote it.
I offered to buy my friend’s wasp nest. The bid was a rumpled stack of ones, a mermaid’s purse I’d found on the beach in Galveston, and a conch big enough to blow. He only shrugged.
In a college creative writing class, I drew a slip of paper from my professor’s hand and on it was written, “Librarian at Alexandria.” She wanted me to write a poem from that perspective, but I knew nearly nothing about Alexandria. My trip to the reference room gave me the facts of its destruction and what scholars think might have disappeared. I can’t remember exactly what I turned in, but I’m certain my librarian threw himself into the conflagration, reaching for a scroll that burned his hand and erased his consciousness.
Steven Jobs bristled when people undervalued his products as pretty things, pure design. “Design,” Jobs said, “is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product.” Even the surface, it seems, has soul.
The part of Texas where I grew up was boggy much of the year, and, when I picture it, I see fields full of crawfish chimneys. I don’t recall ever seeing a crawfish.
Everything nature makes follows its own design. Universal principles may lay behind the plans but its works are so various, so beautiful, so new.
I wonder if other organisms think about permanence as we do. I wonder if we think of it as much as we once did. I wonder if permanence is real or human invention.
My friend and his father often went deer hunting. They’d reappear in the neighborhood and flop a dead animal into the yard beside their driveway and then take it around back. Once they hadn’t had time to field dress it, so they wrapped yellow rope around one set of legs, hung it from a branch of chinaberry tree, removed its organs, and bled it out. I watched horrified.
When I sell my artwork online, I have to package it carefully to avoid damage. I’ve learned how, but one of my first attempts failed. The buyer sent a jpeg of a creased corner and a fold line stretched diagonally through the image. My handler at the art site suggested I send a message saying I’d remake the painting, and I emailed that offer to the buyer. He chose another painting to replace it instead, and I was grateful. I’d stared and stared at the damaged painting wondering how I’d made it originally. The lines, the shades and colors, the shapes, the media I’d used, the process I’d followed were all lost. Or trapped in the hours I devoted to creating it. I could not muster that effort again.
Growing up, we would tell each other we weren’t afraid of bees, or wasps, or the hornets that sometimes hovered near our faces, their flights audible and menacing. We didn’t think much about their having homes. Their interest in hurting us mattered more, and in the categories of making and unmaking, we knew where they belonged.
Though I don’t believe in ghosts, sometimes something of an owner lurks in what’s left behind. I have two of my father’s watches, and the only time I ever wore one, I later discovered the glass over its face broken, the hands stopped. The other is in my drawer now, long dead at 2:35.
I wasn’t there, but eventually my friend stuffed his wasp nest with firecrackers. He described its final moments like the rupture of an incendiary bomb. First it flew apart in shreds and then ignited. Most of it disappeared in ash, but my friend said afterward he found black larvae left behind like bits of tar. Those too he burned.