Part One: Cosmic eddy

It is a small window when time meets action in New Mexico’s Gila Country. During monsoon season, the diminutive creek next to which I am walking — a regular tromping haunt — flows high, muddy and loud. Upstream campgrounds are often closed due to flash flood concerns. Soon enough, though, as the inevitable slide toward the dry that defines America’s empty quarter manifests itself, this creek, like all of the watercourses that pass through this generally parched land, will begin to diminish and will become mucky and stagnant till finally it might wither entirely until next year’s rains come … if they come. But now, in the middling days of autumn, there is water enough to maintain a flow, but not so much that it is defined by tumult and resultant opaqueness.

I stop next to a little pool, which is so clear, I can easily see the little pebbles lining the bottom. The pool is about 20 feet by 20 feet and perhaps a yard deep. On the far side lies a rock wall, 15 feet tall. Above the pool is a trickle of a chute. And my feet are planted upon a boulder that stands above the pool like a ship’s prow.

Save the gurgling of the creek, it is quiet, almost absolutely so. There is no wind ruffling the tops of the surrounding oaks and Ponderosa pines.

Even the birds are inexplicably mute.

Even my normally restive dog is sitting in rare contemplation.

And even more rare: The ever-present chainsaw-wielding Tasmanian devil that spends all but a few seconds of every year frenetically bouncing between my tympanic membranes apparently has run out of gas.

It is still.

I auditorily perceive the tinkling of water over rock but I do not let my attention flow in that direction.

I am normally unsettled by stillness. My native habitat is movement, and, when I remember, which is not always, I make myself stop for five measured minutes during my wanderings and look and smell and maybe even see.

Rarely is this successful. Here and now, it is so.


In the middle of the pool below me is a lone grasshopper fighting for its life. This mortal battle between insect and water is not occurring out in the peripheral provinces, where it can be ignored or subconsciously relegated to the realm of afterthought. It is front and center, aligned perfectly with two pupils that mere seconds prior had been impressionistically unfocused. I try to push the cognitive reset button, to ignore the plight of the grasshopper, which only gets me thinking about the plight of the grasshopper even more.

The wind picks up.

Jays and ravens start squawking.

My dog expresses her boredom with a long, theatrical sigh and begins rooting through the thick riparian underbrush.

The Tasmanian devil stirs.


I throw in the towel and intently gaze upon the flailing grasshopper, at first as though its undeniable troubles are not about it and its place in the drink, but, rather, about me and my place in the cosmos. Then I gaze upon the grasshopper as though its imminent interface with eternal rest is an abstract concept rather than a palpable life-and-death struggle occurring right before eyes that had recently been comfortably glazed over. But this was no abstraction. This was a creature in some seriously deep caca.

The Tasmanian devil gives the starter cord of the chainsaw a good, strong yank.

As far as I can tell, the grasshopper is in no way exceptional. I have seen some seriously psychedelic examples of the order caelifera during my tropical forays. Shit that looks like a hallucination, or a nightmare, shit with long multi-colored antennae and neon stripes and bright red legs and big eyes that glow in the dark. This was not like that. Seemed pretty much like a generic grasshopper. Faded green fading fast. No phantasmagoric characteristics I could make out.

And it was not even rare in its ordinariness. It wasn’t some otherwise blasé type of grasshopper that supposedly lives only in eastern Bhutan but, this one had inexplicably defied all odds by landing in a small pool of water in southwest New Mexico. Far as I could tell, it was but one of the 500 million exactly-the-same grasshoppers that populate my home turf. It is a member in good stead of whatever the exact opposite of an endangered species is.

There was no reason whatsoever for me to pay it the slightest heed. Mother Nature was clearly taking her often-cruel course. What business would it be of mine to intercede in any manner save staring, pondering life’s transience, then walking on to the same place I always walk to when I follow this particular path, a point with a long view toward distant summits?

After two or three more pulls, the Tasmanian devil successfully got the chainsaw started.

Truth of the matter is: I find myself inexplicably transfixed.

By the time I pull up a figurative chair to watch this foregone conclusion unfold, the grasshopper is listing badly to starboard. But it (since I have no idea how one identifies gender in a grasshopper, I’ll stick with the impersonal pronoun) had not given up the ship. Its relatively massive rear legs, legs that, were they attached to human bodies, would have us leaping tall buildings in a single bound, were still working hard. Perhaps by this time, it was autonomic reflex, but those legs kicked alternatingly, propelling the poor insect in the worst direction possible: right toward that 15-foot-tall wall. But a navigational miscue was functionally irrelevant, as the pool in which the grasshopper found itself was essentially a slow-moving eddy. Even had the hapless creature been pointed toward a shore that was receding farther and further with each kick in the wrong direction, it would have simply been pulled back into the heart of the pool. And it would have had added to its already wretched circumstances false hope, which some may argue is better than no hope. But not much.

Perhaps this grasshopper had already arrived at a point where it was comfortable with what little remained of its corporeal journey.

Perhaps its kicks did not amount to an effort to reach safety.

Perhaps it was in a middle-ground dream state — halfway between this life and whatever is next — with its merciful mind taking it back to its halcyon days, back when, with the most mere flick of its rear limbs, it could sail through the sky, seemingly forever.

Perhaps it was thinking of the first time it found love, and how it and its beloved hopped together through the tall New Mexico grama.

Perhaps the faces of its children, long since hopped off to greener pastures, were flashing by like a slow-mo slideshow.

I have heard it said that people who are drowning enter into a state of bliss and, that, if they are rescued at the last second, they often fight the efforts of those trying to save them. Who says such bliss is the exclusive domain of humans?

Though it is almost impossible to view a creature with one foot in the grave in any way save thinking that overt distress is part of the experience, for all I know, this grasshopper understood fully that its fleeting time on Earth was up and took the plunge intentionally, not necessarily as suicide, though it might well have been that, but the same way native legends that make their way to non-native listeners tell how the old Indians, when they decide to no longer burden their tribe, walk off alone into the deep forest to become one with the hungry wolves.

I have no idea if grasshoppers are able to survive winters at 7,000 feet. I have no idea what the natural lifespan of a grasshopper is. I have no idea how grasshoppers normally die. Maybe this one opted to sidestep the inevitable withering away, or freezing to death or getting eaten by a bird. Maybe it said to hell with it, I’m going out on my own terms!

Of course, maybe it simply fucked up big time. Maybe it lost its train of thought while hopping along and, next thing it knew, it was up shit’s creek sans paddle.

Or maybe it was an extreme-athlete grasshopper that thought the world would somehow benefit if it did something ridiculously stupid and insignificant, like trying to jump across the pool that lays beneath my feet. If so, there were clearly gene-pool implications, which ought to play out of their own evolutionary volition.

The grasshopper by now had stopped kicking. It was completely at the mercy of the elements, either to be pulled downstream by the current or recycled back through the eddy. It was clearly time to resume my hike and return to my usual vapid ponderings. But, well, truth of the matter is, I hate watching shit die. Even shit with six legs, exoskeletons and brains the size of pinpoints.

Had it been a puppy or a kitten or a bird, there would have been little hesitation to not only save it but probably bring it home.

But this was just a lowly bug.

Bereft of self-awareness.

Bereft of heart and soul.

I decided that, if the current took it downstream, I would remain dispassionate. If, however, it was moved toward the shore by the eddy, I would intervene. There was a delicate moment of balance, when the grasshopper’s fate hung by a thread it had no idea was dangling. It teetered. It wobbled. It could not affect its own destiny. Then, with no discernible physical impetus, it slowly started drifting toward the shore. It was back in the eddy. I stepped down off the rock and picked up a stick. When the grasshopper came within reach, I placed the tip of the stick next to it. It was now up to the grasshopper to either save its own life or go with the flow.

I held the stick there for a few seconds, then, just before coming to the conclusion that my half-assed effort was for naught, the middle of the three appendages on its right side reached out and made tentative contact with the stick, like it could not believe it was actually feeling something solid. Then the front leg followed suit. Then, with what must have been the insect’s very last energy reserves, it showed that, faced with a choice of life or death, most organisms will rally back toward the land of the living. It pulled itself bedraggledly onto the stick, which I then picked up and placed on the shore. The grasshopper just sat there, clearly spent. And if I can read body language that, when push comes to shove, is not species specific, but, clearly universal, that grasshopper was right then about as nonplussed as an animal could possibly be. It had been snatched from the jaws of death by … what? Were it to relate this unlikely story of survival to its grasshopper compadres later, what would it say? “There I was, 60 seconds from the bright white light, when, suddenly, a big stick descended from the sky and pulled me from the raging waters and set me gently upon the dry ground.” Would the other grasshoppers snicker and roll their eyes? Or would they all hop down to the shoreline next to that little pool and stare in wonderment as the grasshopper pointed to the stick and said, “See! There it is! I’m telling you, it just came down out of the sky! It was as though it was wielded by some omnipotent being that held the power over life and death! And it choose me!”

Would the rapt grasshoppers then be tempted to test the waters themselves, to personally experience being saved by the power and magnanimity of the Big Stick?

As I walked away, I wondered if the grasshopper I saved was now a born-again prophet for a new grasshopper cosmology: Big Stickism, which, once codified and institutionalized, will espouse as part of its fundamental rubric allegories about Big Stick benevolence, which would of theocratic necessity be counterbalanced by frightful tales of Big Stick wrath wrought against unrighteous and unholy grasshoppers.

I wondered which direction the grasshopper would next hop.


Part Two: Poker face


A couple days later, I was hiking along a completely different, and different kind of, trail, several miles away from the grasshopper pool.

My dog and I had not gone far when we heard a whirring sound emanating from the desiccated thigh-high grass though which this rocky trail passes. Perplexed, I stopped. And right then, finger-snap-like, a cloud of grasshoppers rose from the field. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,“ except it was “The Grasshoppers.” Visions of the more poignant plague-and-pestilence parts of the  Old Testament, which pretty much covers the entirety of the Old Testament, played in my head as the insects swarmed. I would not have been the least bit surprised right then had frogs started falling from the sky.

Scads of the little buggers bounced off my head, pinged off my thorax and ricocheted off my abdomen. Several got temporarily tangled in my locks. One flew into my agape buccal cavity, where it T-boned my uvula, before it executed a perfect bat turn and launched off the tip of my tongue like an Army paratrooper jumping from the back of a plane.

Then they, in seemingly choreographed unison, flew off as one to the northeast, in the very direction of the grasshopper pool.

It suddenly became very still.

The plague lasted a short enough time that, as I was getting ready to re-commence my forward momentum, I wondered if it had really happened. I looked down at my dog, whose noggin was tilted in abject bewilderment, and only then did I notice that, on the front of my T-shirt, was parked a cadre of residual grasshoppers.

The laws of coincidental thermodynamics would argue that, given the large-scale grasshopper chaos that had just transpired, these stragglers, which ended up numbering 12, would have at least been facing in different directions. This was not the case. They were all aligned in parallel fashion, as though they constituted the fascist wing of the grasshopper nation. Thing is, they were not uniformly facing down or off to one side. No, they were, rather, all pointed directly upward, directly toward my tilted-forward face. They formed a modified arc — meaning that all 12 of the grasshoppers had unimpeded views of what I’m certain at that point was a denotatively perplexed visage.

It’s not as though I had anything to fear from the assembled grasshoppers. It’s not like a gang of Japanese hornets had landed on the front of my shirt. Grasshoppers do not bite or sting. All they do is dribble out of their mouths what we in our youth used to call tobacco juice, and, in the pantheon of truly funky biological material I’ve interfaced with in the backcountry over the years, they could spew that shit like “Exorcist”-level projectile vomit and it wouldn’t even register on my Richter scale of recoil.

Nonetheless, there I am with a dozen grasshoppers on the front of my shirt ogling in unison, as though they were expecting me to utter words of wisdom. Or maybe give a motivational speech. Or a sermon.

Which is weird.

I figured, if I started walking, they would likely light.

I did, and they didn’t.

Then I figured, if I grabbed hold of the untucked bottom of my T-shirt and shook it vigorously, again, they would take the hint and depart en masse.

They only dug in deeper.

I scrutinized their expressions and determined in short order that these are not entities you would want staring at you from across a poker table. You could exhaustively research the etymological origins of the word “inexpressive” — root, prefix, derivatives, fraternal and coincidental synonyms and antonyms, the whole linguistic shootin’ match — and not begin to approach the level of inscrutability displayed by those grasshopper mugs. There were no twitches. There were no pupils to dilate. No eyelids to squint. No eyebrows to scrunch. No lips to grimace or smile. You’d have to be a pretty damned dedicated entomologist to suss out the mental machinations of a grasshopper and consequently predict its imminent behavior based solely upon facial cues, or lack thereof.

Thing is, now that I think about it, you could round up a representative cross-section of the drunkest people at the lowliest imbibery and you could get a 99-percent rate of accuracy predicting imminent grasshopper behavior: They’re probably going to hop, and probably through grass.

These, however, appeared to be members in good stead of the remaining one-percent; they seemed moored for the long haul.

I started entertaining the unpleasant possibility that I might have to smote the entire congregation in one fell swoop.

Before doing so, though, I instinctively channeled my favorite smoter: Gandalf.

“Fly, you fools, fly!” I exclaimed to the assembled fellowship.

And fly they did.

Now, given the orderliness of their shirt-front docking pattern, I would have assumed they would vamoose in a similar methodical manner, like a tactical fighter formation. I would have assumed incorrectly. A professor of trigonometry could not have designed a more haphazard dispersal pattern had he or she worked his or her entire career on a unified theory of random tangential egress.

They literally flew off into an indiscriminate combination of fate, the four winds and the cardinal compass points — the holy trinity of overlapping tidal forces — supernatural power, serendipity and physical orientation — that guide and sometimes misguide all journeys worth taking.

Now, where was I?



Addendum: Many years ago, I was hiking with a group of six or eight friends not far from here. One of these friends was part mad scientist, part nerd and part psychopath. At one point, he reached down and picked from the ground a grasshopper. He held it by the tip end of its ass, as though he actually knew the proper scientific way to hold a grasshopper. He raised it up in front of the group for all to see. We awaited some taxonomic terminology intertwined with some arcane biological minutiae. Instead, he said, “I wonder what would happen if I did this.” He then proceeded to reach around with his other hand and pull the grasshopper’s head from its thorax. All jaws, save the one owned and operated by the man now holding and examining a disembodied grasshopper head and the headless grasshopper body, simultaneously dropped. I guess here would be a good time to add that any time that particular group of friends went together into the hinterlands — which was often — there was always some combination of pot, mushrooms, acid, speed, opium, hash and alcohol involved. Most likely, all of those things. Which added a psychedelic veneer to what had suddenly become a surreal scene. “Put it back,” one of the stoned women in our group, a sensitive artist type, wailed abjectly. Verily, the grasshopper’s lobbed noggin had attached to it what well could have been its spine, except that I don’t believe insects have spines. Whatever it was, it looked like a pointed peg. It looked like my lunatic compadre could have easily reinserted it and all would have been well and forgiven. The mad scientist looked closely at both segments before dropping them unceremoniously into the dirt. He walked off while the rest of us remained frozen, gobsmacked, mandibles still fully distended in utter astonished disoriented disbelief. I have heard that, after being guillotined, the human head can retain something approximating consciousness for five to 10 seconds, a fleeting period of time that I’m certain is defined by a remarkable degree of disorientation.  I shook my head and lowered my boot onto the separated head and body. Something about putting it out of its misery. The last thing that grasshopper saw, if, indeed it was still able to see, was a size-11 Vibram sole descending from the heavens. Then its world went still.


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