Meet The Beetles

This is my childhood beetle collection.  Somehow it has managed to survive, more or less intact, for over forty years.  All the beetles, save one (the large rhinoceros beetle, a gift from a kid whose military dad was stationed in Indonesia), were collected by me in or around Billings, Montana, between 1968 and 1972.  Or so.  Give or take.  More or less.  In any case, every specimen is over forty years old.  I pinned them in a See’s Candy box, which despite having a lid is not at all air-tight, and thus, they all have accumulated four-plus decades of infiltrating dust.  Here is how the much-younger me made it:  I lined the bottom of the box with cardboard to give the pins something to stick into, then glued a piece of paper on top of the cardboard for a cleaner appearance.  I typed numbers on a typewriter and cut them out, then Elmer’s-glued them next to each beetle as I added it.  I glued another piece of paper on the box’s lid and wrote “Beetle Collection” and in the lower right my initials “TA” so that, being thereby scientifically christened, no one would accidentally throw it away.  A few of the specimens were pinned with thin, black, insect-mounting pins — but before I discovered the “right” tools in a science-supply catalog, I used whatever pins I could filch from my mother’s quilting.  Pinning beetles is hard, literally — their elytra are tough, and hey, I was a kid, so sometimes the pin didn’t go in straight.  Meaning I’d try again.  And again.  Which explains why several of the beetles have more than one hole in their wing covers.

Some days I can scarcely remember where I set my coffee cup a moment before — but I can tell you where I got every single beetle in this collection.  In some cases, I can tell you with GPS-beating specificity.  A few of the beetles I found already dead, but most I captured alive.  Usually I kept them as “pets” until they keeled over of their own accord, but some I hurried to their demise in a sealed killing jar, in which I used alcohol-soaked cotton balls to euthanize them.  Later (from the wonderful science-supply catalog) I bought a small vial of something called “dispatching fluid,” which killed bugs dead right quick, and which was cheerfully sold to ten year-old boys in the 1960s whether they asked their parents or not, which they didn’t.

I got back into photography over the last couple of years after a long absence.  I was fortunate to be able to attend a macrophotography workshop in Belize in 2013, a few photos from which I posted earlier.  I’ve taken a few shots I really like… but I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do something different, something a bit more personal.  I was sitting in my home office a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed, on a lower shelf, my old beetle collection.  It’s been on the shelf, boxed up, for a long time.

So I opened it.  And took some pictures.

I did not alter the specimens.  I photographed them as objects, impaled and imperfect bits of chitinous memory, not as natural history subjects.  They are dusty and damaged and poorly-mounted.  They are numbered but not labeled.  They are, quite literally, nothing more than a bunch of dead bugs.  But I can hear the wind in the lodgepole pines as I gripped the wooden handle of my butterfly net — taking a break from fly-fishing — and feel the crunching gravel under the thin soles of my sneakers in the hot dusty alley behind my house and smell the alcohol-soaked cotton balls and feel the living insects’ spiky strong legs pushing against my fingers and I can remember watching them alive, in jars big and small, tunneling in dirt or devouring dropped-in earthworms, and I can even conjure the sensation of cool white glue on my fingertips as I placed numbers next to them in the poorly-sealed candy box.  I can remember all of this, thin slices of gloriously-unsupervised childhood.

We value rare things:  works of art, lifelong friendships, vacations with no rain.  I doubt the specimens in this collection are anything beyond mildly out of the ordinary; it is, after all, unlikely that a kid sticking beetles in a box forty-some years ago discovered a new species.  But the collection as a whole?  It’s a singularity.  No one else has one just like it, no one in the whole world.

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