Phyllophaga Totemus

In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beast, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and moon should man learn.. all things tell of Tirawa. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”-Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa Pawnee

On a recent daily constitutional, I noticed the preponderance of a certain entomological critter littering my path. Really noticed it. Wasn’t the first time. These guys come out every year, and in great numbers. But on this day, I began to sense a connection with this so-called lower life form that could only be called mystical. That bug? Nay, that archetypal being? The lowly June Bug.

These little fellows have always perplexed me. Unlike other naturally occurring, chuckle inducing oddities (e.g. the platypus, or the two-tailed sperm cell, its two oppositely situated propellers ever fighting eggward, but against each other, causing the whole organism to spin in place futilely), this beetle is not a failed genetic mutation. Nor, arguably, does it have an irreplaceable role in any ecological niche. It consumes only certain types of plants, which would be otherwise consumed anyway. The shell on its back (which it can’t reach) serves as an incubator for other inconsequential insects’ eggs. Certain small, irritating mammals (moles, anyone?) sustain themselves in part on them. Not a terribly holistic view of all of Mother Gaia’s children, true, but would our world really be that different, worse if the waved light fly (Pyrgota Undata), for instance, were to lose its main source of nourishment and disappear from the world?

The June Beetle’s main activities seem to consist of: 1) locating a source of light, 2) taking brief, extremely awkward flight, 3) abruptly colliding with any proximate object, causing it to, 4) be knocked out of the air onto its back, where it, 5) lies, for a long while, struggling to uncapsize itself, after which, it, 6) repeats the whole process. Until it simply dies or ends up in the gullet of a lizard.

So, after seeing scores of these bugs on my daily walk, and repeatedly trying to help those diminutive brothers by toeing them gently right side up, only to find them right side down again on the next lap, I began to feel a sort of empathy for their plight. I identified with their seeming desire to stay mobile and fed (for me, to stay sober), their temporary success of being on their feet (for me, all too brief dry periods), and the subsequent backslide into immobility and helplessness (for me, of course, relapse).

I thought of the many Native American religions that include the idea of a Animal Spirit Totem, a non-human companion in the natural world meant to guide us and illuminate certain aspects of ourselves. And many people (not coincidentally, the reincarnated Cleopatras and Alexanders of the world), choose to believe that their spirit guides are flattering, noble creatures: the regal lion, the soaring eagle, the stalwart bear. Not me. I have been blessed enough to be kin to the scrappy little Phyllophaga.

The reason I continue to draw breath today is that, no matter how many times I was on my back (or, more accurately, ass), utterly submerged in the throes of withdrawal, unable to eat, sleep, or effect any kind of locomotion, I had a deep desire to keep kicking. Even with the prospect that, even if I were able to rotationally struggle myself upright, the walk or flight would be brief, and I would soon be right back helplessly looking up.

The June Bug, exhibiting that drive inherent in all biological life, continues to strive to live. To exist. To be. I was fortunate enough to have not suffered a completely broken will during the worst of my drunken days and weeks shortly thereafter. But even more so, that making it through that subterranean (with a detour through hell) tunnel did not guarantee that the cycle was over. Hope, that I had made it through that one, and despair, that, odds were, another one lurked around the corner. This ambivalence, the mental tension pulling in opposite directions, could have had one of two effects: self-immolation or self-actualization. Give up and coast to the bottom, or pick my sorry ass up and keep fighting. (Apologies, 12 Steppers, but both surrender and fighting have their place in recovery). Again, Providence graced me with the latter of the two, and here I am today.

So just as eagles soar above, lions reign over their surroundings, and sloths, well, just chill, the June Bug represent humanity’s constant struggle against circumstances and limitations. It is the real world manifestation of mythical Sisyphus. The Rocky Balboa of the non-human world of life. And though it flies (however briefly and clumsily) under the radar in terms of representation on inspirational posters, t-shirts, and calendars, it is a pretty good reflection of our own basic human plight. Indeed, I am the June Bug. Goo goo g’joob.

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