The Wayfarer

I do not weed between the paving slabs as much as I used to. Nobody sees the garden except me, which you might think is the reason for my allowing a rather natural style. Perhaps you would be partly right in thinking so, but perhaps its urchin looks are not only born of idleness and a disfavour of grubby hands. Encroaching upon their privacy, the simple act of weeding is cause for much vexation amongst many of my closest neighbours. They are private folk, and I aspire to be neighbourly.

We call them woodlice. You might know them as roly-polies, or pill-bugs as we used to say in childhood, or Armadillidium if you are of a scientific bent. Maybe you call them tiggy-hogs, parsons-pigs, sow-bugs, or grammer-sows, but that sort would come under the auspices of Porcellio, which is different.

* * *

It was on a damp and overcast day, like this one, that I took recess to stand at the back door as I often do. I breathed fully at the sky, hoping to find some perspective there beyond the mind’s confines. My gaze drooped gradually to the ground; the time-tested association with vastness failed me at that moment, but in the next instance I was glad of it.

From a mossy crevice came a mighty but miniature wayfarer. Little did he know his role as a porter of portent, but he moved with surety in the role he saw as principal. It took him less than a few seconds to cover the ground from one fissure to the next, but I replay it many times a day. I will never know what prompted his venture abroad from dank security, but only the conviction that accompanied it. The lesson was simple: he was being a woodlouse, as God intended.

He was giving it all he had; each little leg synchronous with the next to propel him in the straightest line, in the necessary tangent, at the highest velocity. Did he indulge in doubtful wavering, or defensive furtive glances? Did he fret that others may label him unmanly for his stature, all the while harbouring the regret that he was not born under the name of Porcellio instead of Armadillidium, because it sounds more handsome? No. His head was down and he was pinned inextricably to his goal.

Admittedly, as a crustacean, he is exempt from a good many complexities; certainly having rather separate concerns from those one attributes to humanness. It is anyone’s guess how easy he finds that ordained role, but he was seen to be living it fully. The illumination came from his acting with simple completeness: if he, the tiniest brute, can manage to get on with being who he was born to be, then why not me?

So it was with a profound renewal that I returned indoors. I first wondered about the weeds, as I often do, but soon averted my eyes. A second regular pause followed as I observed two more exoskeletal neighbours. Their homes have also survived due to my awe of nature overriding my inherent tidiness. Two small garden spiders have taken up residence in the same corner of the back door. One is inside; the other choosing an alfresco plot. The two webs are intensely intricate, and I often admire them separately - the light is usually such that only one is visible. This time the two were mirrored to create a dense grid of parallelograms from their individual hatching. The inner and the outer combined to form a unique symbolism: a compound beauty yet more perfect than the sum of the already perfect parts.

* * *

Before returning to my tasks I wondered about the lineage of the two types of arthropod - spider and woodlouse - and was delighted to find they are linked by the trilobite. Not only adapting admirably to human co-habitation over centuries, the woodlouse has embraced a complete change of context over millennia. As one of the few land-dwelling crustaceans, the woodlouse still breathes through gills. I am no paleozoologist, but one of my favourite possessions as a child was a trilobite fossil. I was fascinated by its seemingly metallic armour and mechanical construction, but more so by its keen survival over eras. It seemed God Himself did not tire of its perfection, seeing no need of honing it further: it escaped evolution for well over three hundred million years. As Richard Fortey writes in, Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution "Who are we johnny-come-latelies to label them as either ‘primitive’ or ‘unsuccessful’?”

Even so, who am I to feel superior to the humble and diligent woodlouse? If he is able to live his role so perfectly in that little precision-engineered body, then today let me at least try to live mine.

Sumangali MorhallOctober 2005