With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter. I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books. Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day. At first I didn’t know what it was. I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect. Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass. I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it. As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside. It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.
Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like. I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary. I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed. (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.) My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant. We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces. But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost? It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform. It needn’t bother.
Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed. Especially in a cold house during winter. My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life. Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room. No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug. How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust. How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again. I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.