Like their middle-school classmates, two of the girls in the special-education program I worked with on Monday are raising milkweed bugs in biology class. Oncopeltus fasciatus is a true bug, belonging like cicadas and aphids to the order Hemiptera. Their outer wings are black with orange triangles and other geometric shapes. They are shiny and elegant creatures, and might have been designed by a jeweler. The bugs, a male and two females, live in a plastic bag furnished with a stick, cotton balls (for egg-laying) and shelled sunflower seeds (food, in lieu of milkweed). Some of the girls’ classmates have already found the yellow stain of eggs on the cotton.
Their assignment was to describe what they saw in the habitat, emphasizing what had changed since last week. The girls were lost. One is more verbal than the other, and I asked, “What do you see? What’s going on in there?” “You mean data?” Well, yes. Not my first choice of words, but adequate. “Well, they’re still alive,” she said. “Excellent,” I replied, having overlooked that obvious but critical fact. Then the flood began, at first only the verbal girl, soon joined by her shy partner. No detail was too trivial. They talked and wrote in their notebooks a catalog of impressions, even counting the bits of excrement. Except for encouragement and praise, I said little, and soon each had filled two pages with detailed notes.
The biology teacher was pleased and perplexed. I was merely pleased. Art and science share attentiveness to detail, the opposite of laziness and indifference. As Guy Davenport put it in his essay on Eudora Welty, “That Faire Field of Enna” (collected in The Geography of the Imagination): “Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world.” These girls are not likely to become artists or scientists but attention paid to the gratuitous bounty of the world is an act of respect, gratitude and intelligence.
Over the weekend I reread Nabokov’s “`That in Aleppo Once…’” [The title is drawn from Othello. For extra credit, name another Nabokov work with a Shakespearean title.] In the second paragraph of the story, which takes the form of a letter written by a Russian émigré to a Russian friend, Nabokov writes:
“I have a story for you. Which reminds me - I mean putting it like this reminds me - of the days when we wrote our first udder-warm bubbling verse, and all things, a rose, a puddle, a lighted window, cried out to us: `I'm a rhyme!’ Yes, this is a most useful universe.”
We – poets,biologists; students, teachers -- are adapted to the world. Together, we have co-evolved. “I’m a rhyme,” indeed (Nabokov wrote the story in English. Does the rhyme co-exist in Russian?). We rhyme with the world. No writer can honestly complain about lack of material. Look around. Make some notes and caress the details.
“Yes, this is a most useful universe.”