19 February 2006

Ode to a dung beetle

The Economist, in Names for Sale, its leader discussing the millions of animals in need of names, brings up "the difficulty of who will sponsor unloved animals such as leeches, worms and dung beetles."

Dung beetles? Unloved? Oh, what deskboundness wreaks! Discounting history, what type of modern human, having met, truly met a dung beetle, cannot be awed, held in thrall, cannot see the beauty of the beast (like all beetles, the many dung beetles are spectacular) let alone its helpfulness? Finding an email to a friend, I come upon my own words, "How can one feel down when the world has dungbeetles so close that they are visiting the balcony now?"

There was one special night when they came in their many thousands and mated in front of us, the body of them moving against the balcony window like a sleeping five-year-old boy. Here in Australia, they are a rare case of beneficial animal importation, and the nights are often filled with their buzzing. Put your head down to a fresh cowpat and you can hear the crackle and pop as they move about. The native antechinuses adore them, and in the sheltered hideaways where they prefer to eat their prey, you'll find a boneyard of beetle shells (many of them dung beetles) like a pile of armour whose knights have been eaten right out of it.

Ode to a dung beetle

I wanted to write an ode to a dung beetle
but everyone would think it silly
or repulsive.
So I wrote an ode to a swan floating like
its neighbour swans. Watched from the shore
they look like so many discarded tissues.
Why look, though, when we know all the
allusions, princesses et al.

The dung beetle tunnels lonesome
lacking resonance of swans
but with a necklace of
golden servants cleaning
its russet fur, and a smell
of musk that queens would
kill dragons for with their own
bare hands.
Take that, you princesses!
Take that, you swans!
Ring the bells of resonance
for the clangers they are.
Clean on, golden servant-mites.
Trundle your dung-ball to your
secret den, dung beetle unsung.
This poem shall be for you:
Oh Odious One.

Now, to one of my favourite books:
Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance from a Hidden World, edited by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz. Here it is, with a portrait of the unloved on the cover.

So, advice to the deskbound: unbind and see other worlds.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Well, the ancient Egyptians respected them anyway (though the ball they rolled was the sun).

-- Faren

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! My boyfriend and I once had a conversation about what animals we were and the only thing I could come up with for me was a dung beetle -- always working hard and doing the small but collectively significant things no one notices.

Haha, that might have sounded arrogant, but no one thinks so offhand when you're calling yourself a dung beetle.
Anyway, you lifted by spirits for the day! Thanks!

anna tambour said...

Your taste is impeccable! I love your worry about sounding arrogant. I never thought so high, but now I too can aspire to be a dung beetle.

Giles Watson said...

I'm glad you have written an ode to the dung beetle. Life would be a lot poorer without them. I hope you don't mind me posting three poems at once, but here are three more insects whose reputations have, I am sure, been unjustly maligned:


It doubled as our larder,
This horse turd where we grew;
One day we pupated
And another day we flew.

We have hairy legs,
Dung-coloured are our bristles,
We fly and look for fresh new piles
Among the grass and thistles.

When you walk by we’ll gad about,
A merry cloud of yellow
Where the dung is steaming
Or where it has grown mellow.

When we were grubs, we gobbled dung
Like all the other flies,
But now we’re homing in on them
Fixed in our compound eyes,

And all the scatophagic flies
We’ll gobble where they sit,
For now that we are fully grown
We’re sick of eating shit.

Source material: Despite its scientific name, the adult dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria does not eat dung, but preys on other species of fly feeding on it. The larvae develop in the dung. The males, yellow in colour, are the most commonly observed; the females are rarer and greyer. This song was inspired by observation of their habits on Port Meadow in Oxford, where there is a ready supply of horse dung. They are equally partial to flies which feed on cow-pats.


I am of fine lineage; my forebears
Skulked in the crevices of London
In 1670. Aristophanes knew them too.

To prevent our coming is impossible;
A greatcoat holds enough of us,
In its hems, to stock a house.

We keep to the cracks by day.
Or secrete ourselves in old socks;
By night we suck your blood.

You can stop every nail hole with putty,
Every crack with plaster of Paris,
Smother the ceiling with white lime,

Dip the bedstead, disassembled
In turpentine or corrosive sublimate,
And sprinkle the sheets also, to no avail.

Though your house reeks and drips with spirits,
I’ll crawl the crack between your legs;
You’ll be scratching by the morning.

Source material: Curtis’s British Entomology, 569.


Sylla the dictator fell to our host
As Pliny’s discourse will tell you -
He scratched and he groaned
And he gave up the ghost -
And if that’s not enough to repel you:
We have lobster claws
We have bloodsucking jaws
For tapping our guts to your pulses,
And our dinner’s apparent,
For our bellies transparent
Make it easy to watch peristalsis.

Source material: Pliny records that Pherecydes Sirius and Sylla the dictator both died phthiriasis, a disease caused by louse infestation, and Quintus Serenus adds: “Great Sylla too the fatal scourge hath known;/ Slain by a host far mightier than his own.” See G. Shaw and F.P. Nodder, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1789-1813.

anna tambour said...

Mind? MIND? Giles, I only feel bad that I don't have a spectacular place to present you. Even X, who HATES poetry because he was forcefed Shakespeare when young, enjoyed both the poems, especially LOUSE, as well as the gripping "source material" plus. The comments section of my blog doesn't do you justice. You are ALWAYS invited (nay, entreated, but not bugged) to post whatever moves you. I can't leave you just here, however. Must do something to make your book in progress (I mean it!) more prominent, but the problem there is that my blog hardly attracts anyone to stop and taste. If only I were a fresh scat or pat.

Penelope said...

'Ring the bells of resonance/for the clangers they are' appeals in particular...

Then you move to rounder 'ung' sounds. As if you were rolling something throughout the poem.

So very clever and poised.

It is always a delight to locate something like this while browsing the web, even if I am egregiously late to the party.