This Lavender World

Despite its colour having faded to a pale relic of its name, the lavender in the garden remains an illuminated host. For much of the summer its spires of scented stems attract the bright and the beautiful: the glazed and glossy greens of chafers drowsily clambering about the flowers; red admiral and swallowtail butterflies clinging with filament limbs to the bursting blooms; the tail of a green lizard swishing beneath a branch; the thrum and dance and swagger of bees.

But autumn brings change and a subsequent shift in the creaturely calendar. Although a few late lavender flowers rise expectantly through the rain they soon slump from the weight of it. The leaves darken with the wet weather and the whole plant carries an aspect of seclusion, a cold-season refuge harbouring the garden solitaries, the reclusive creatures that withdraw into its autumnal wreath of fading shades.

October shimmers with the spinning of silk, brilliant orb-webs slung between stems by the Argiope bruennichi spider. What is unusual about the web of this beautifully banded black-and-yellow arachnid is the ‘stabilimentum,’ a vertical zig-zag of reinforced web used to strengthen the silken snare. They’re spun near the eggcases that suddenly appear in autumn as well, mottled sacs tucked down amongst the lavender stems and suspended within a gossamer cage. They’ll hang there through frost and snow, through the winds and rains of winter until the first warmth of spring brings thousands of spiders the size of sand grains hatching their way through. The baby spiders are so small that the lightest breeze will carry them away with ease, swinging them on strands of silk through the vast and uncharted garden world to renew their kind again.

A praying mantis haunts this lavender world. Perhaps even two or three. Despite scouring the plants I easily lose track of them as they blend into the tangle of bent stems, only to resurface hours or days later. ‘Mantis’ comes from the Greek, meaning prophet, and the common name which has come to be regularly used for many of the world’s 2000 mantis species is derived from the prayer-like stance of the insect’s arms held clasped together before its face.

While watching the mantis, however, it occurs to me that the name might originate from an aspect of the creature’s character rather than its posture: the nature of its stalking. The praying mantis barely moves while it hunts small insects such as grasshoppers, shield bugs and wasps, waiting until they come within reach before unfolding its hands from prayer to snare its slowly closing prey. And when it does move, its appendages shift meticulously and its head swivels with such precision that I’m immediately reminded of the realm of the contemplatives. There is something monkish and devoted about its deliberateness, expending no energy other than necessary. There’s no frivolous fussing about; each turn of its compound eyes is graceful and without waste, as though its true purpose were of another, higher and invisible, order.

Standing beside the lavender I hear a deep hum circling what’s left of the blooms. It’s a hummingbird hawkmoth traplining the flowers, returning at the same time each day to a particularly rich store of nectar. There’s no certainty on how this memory-route is encoded, or even achieved, which seems apt for a moth blessed with such a mysterious form of hummingbird flight.

I try photographing the day-flying moth but eventually put my camera away without success. It seems that some things I’m not meant to slow. The hawkmoth blurs through the images, a ghostly apparition, a streak of flared and fading light that arcs over the wet gardens and pale meadows of the village at the dying of the day. So I crouch beside the lavender plants instead, waiting until the hummingbird hawkmoth eventually nears, as it always does, without any concern for my presence or proximity. It’s balanced on the very air itself, a stillness in unending motion fluttering beside my eyes. I watch its proboscis unroll into a flower like a river finding its way. I think of cupping my hand tenderly around its body to feel the pulse of 80 wingbeats a second vibrating through my veins. When its nectar gathering is finished it arrows off into dusk where it will settle with its wings at rest on a stone for the night. But tomorrow evening, by whatever complex internal map of flowers and scents it stores, it will make its way back to this same nectar patch, this straggle of fading flowers, this undimmed lavender world. 

I’m pleased to have a new piece of writing published this month in The Redwood Coast Review. Set up to support an independent and volunteer-run community library in Gualala, California, it’s a terrific publication whose efforts support a dynamic local initiative. My piece, ‘The Distance Between Us’, can be read in an online version here, beginning on page five.

17 thoughts on “This Lavender World

  1. Lovely post, Julian. Great pictures of the mantis; what dictates their different colours? Alarming close up of the old Argiope bruennichi; what’s with this specimen’s wonky abdomen – do you know? Is the hummingbird hawkmoth the one with the death’s head skull marking on its back? If so I remember watching one for a while when in the Picos de Europa some years ago and wondering if it was in fact a tiny, tiny bird for an instant.

    I’ll look forward to catching up with your piece in The Redwood Coast Review this evening.

    Hope you had a great birthday!

    Love Tweet x

    1. Thanks Tweet! Glad you liked it. Other than the different colours of slightly different species, the mantid family also has the ability to change colour to adapt to its environment. Typically they are green in wet environments and brown in dry places, but I believe there is a great deal of latitude to those distinctions. At first I thought the two individuals pictured were different species until I observed them mating! The male is far smaller than the female.

      The Argiope’s abdomen is pretty wonky isn’t it! I can only imagine that it is somehow connected to the phase of egg-laying which is the same time that they appear on the lavender. But that’s simply a guess as I haven’t actually seen the laying of eggs. Suddenly one morning the beautiful egg cases are already dotted about the plant.

      As to the moth, you’re thinking of the Death’s Head hawkmoth, which is the largest of Europe’s hawkmoths and is named for the skull-like pattern on its back. It’s a moth that I’ve never seen and can only imagine how wonderfull it must appear in flight or at rest. The hummingbird hawkmoth is of the same family but is considerably smaller.

      Wonderful birthday in Bulgaria….always a delightful country to travel in! And many thanks….

      love Julian

  2. Congratulations for the work you had published Julian! Cannot say I am fond of this post. Love the writing as usual and the photographs are just as outstanding as before. It is just that I happen for some reason I cannot really understand to have an aversion for both the spider and the mantis. It’s a childhood thing I just never quite outgrew! That said, your haunting description of the changes the lavenders go through once again brought vivid images to my mind. I am sure we do not have lavenders here in the tropics, so it was very, very educational as well. Cheers!

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

    1. Thanks Rex! It seems that we’ve found a cure to the blog addiction you mentioned in a previous comment! Spiders and mantises…It’s intersting how that aversion, especially of spiders, can be found across cultures and countries. I think I had a similar feeling towards spiders as a child, although since then I’ve come to be fascinated by their beauty and the intricacies of their webs and hunting techniques. But I can vividly remember a sense of being blessed when as children we found a praying mantis. It was one those rare creatures that as children we seemed to have a great respect for and would never harm. And even now, when in the midst of a beautiful summer, I often think: October, that’s when I can go looking for mantises…

      Many thanks for reading, Rex, despite the subject! Glad you found something in there all the same.
      Best wishes,
      Julian

  3. A wonderful post, Julian. It’s interesting to see that you have some of the same insects in Greece as we have been seeing here in Eastern Canada. I always love stories about argiopes! Look forward to looking at your new piece in the Redwood Coast Review.

    1. Thanks very much, Cait! It’s true; I’ve often found resonances between the insects of the two places. And I like that idea of sharing these connections across the ways, crossing over to different places through the study of similar species. Are the argiope egg sacs still underneath your eaves? One by one the spiders seem to be leaving the lavender in the last couple of days, but I have no idea at the moment of where they’re headed…

      Thanks for taking the time to read the Redwood Coast Review piece, much appreciated….

      Cheers,
      Julian

      1. Yes, the egg sacs are still there and will hopefully remain until the wind carries the little spiders away in the spring. I love the thought of them being carried away on a breeze. It would be lovely to watch.

        I loved your story in the Review, Julian, it was beautiful, as I expected it would be after reading your amazing work here! It really is incredible to think of the connections and potential experiences all around us that we aren’t aware of…people who passed by so close and we’ve just missed or had the luck of finding.

        1. Thanks ever so much, Cait! I’m delighted that you liked the story and humbled by your kind words. Thanks for taking the time to read it…..I appreciate these connections very much.

          Hope to hear back about the spiders come spring when they’re spinning away on the wind…

          Best wishes,
          Julian

  4. Congrats on the publication Julian! You’ll gain lots of fans in California! Keep up the great work. You’re after my own heart sitting in a patch of lavender and watching the 6-leggeds do whatever it is that they do to keep the world spinning…

    1. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence, roamingnaturalist! And for the time you’ve taken to read all these posts and comment. An hour ago I found the female mantis and saw that she was considerably slimmer. After a while searching about I’m pretty sure that I’ve found the egg case low down and wrapped around a lavender stem. I need to look into a bit more to be sure but I think it belongs to her. I’ve never watched baby mantises hatch out so I could be in for some long hours “sitting in a patch of lavender…” Will let you know in spring what happens!! And if the world’s still spinning…
      Cheers,
      Julian

  5. This is a meaningful reminder to me of the value of patience and observation. I’m always exploring and seldom really seeing as you do here. I tell myself to sit and watch and wait, but something always catches my attention ‘over there’ and I have to jump up to check it out. The trail that sneaks beyond the rise beckons and I can’t resist. If I had a lavender garden…but no, that doesn’t work. I have a whole forest and would love to know a tiny piece of it as intimately as you do your scented garden and its denizens.

    Congratulations on your publication. Your article shines among some other admirable writing. I love the idea of lives being connected by these ephemeral but lasting threads swiftly woven on an instant. I’ve also requested to borrow The Emigrants through interlibrary loan, your description so intrigued me.

    Admiringly,
    Cindy

    1. Hi Cindy, lovely to hear from you, as always. I’m in Poland at the moment and about to catch a train for Berlin so will reply to your thoughtful comment when I’m back home, rather than from this somewhat dingy internet cafe in the middle of a rainstorm! Delighted that you liked the piece though. Hope all is well with you…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

    2. Hi again, Cindy! Thanks for the very interesting comment. I think there is a fine balance between exploring and staying still. Some years ago I began asking myself why I moved when out in the landscape, and what it was that I was seeking; I think it was part of a process to recalibrate my relationship to what might constitute and be called home. Like yourself I adore the moment when something “catches my attention over there” and eagerly slip off to discover what it is. But at the same time I began slowly realising how so often those miraculous ‘things’ that grabbed my attention unfolded where I was if I was willing to stay still and engage with the tiny pocket of the world around me. They aren’t the same experiences, of course, which is why I love your idea of the trail beckoning you beyond the rise. There are things that I simply can’t experience in this garden world, however long I stay still with it. However, there is an intimacy and practice of observation that I’ve learned from this patience that I’ve tried to apply to my wider roamings. It’s often not very successful at all to be truthful! The glint of light up ahead, a distant sound of waterbirds, a hilltop shrouded in fog; there is plenty to lead me on, but I adore the still centre and what it reveals when I finally remember to be patient again in whatever place it is that I’m in. But it’s a lesson that I have to relearn each day! Part of a practice I suppose.

      I’m so pleased that you liked ‘The Distance Between Us’ and I have to say that your description of “lasting threads swiftly woven on an instant” is extremely beautiful. Thanks for taking the time to read and hope you enjoy The Emigrants.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  6. I have seen this spider, but never its egg case. Thank you for sharing your photographs.

    I must point out that spiders are not insects.

    Spiders are arachnids.

    Insects have six legs, while arachnids have eight legs. Scorpions, ticks and mites are also classified as arachnids.

    1. You’re completely right, acleansurface. My apologies for the laziness in the post and thanks for pointing it out. Although commonly confused as insects, spiders indeed aren’t one of the insect orders and I’ll change that now.

      Glad you liked the photos and many thanks for stopping by!

      Cheers,
      Julian

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