Jeanie and I were sitting at the beach at Saugatuck along Lake Michigan, three hundred miles northwest of Yellow Springs. The wind was cool and the sun was hot, and we dozed and read and dozed and stared out at the clear blue, blue sky and water. In the distance, sailboats moved across the horizon, and seagulls bobbed in the waves.
Things were all in order. Lovers walked hand in hand along the shore in front of us. Children built sand castles. Fathers raced with their sons, and mothers huddled and chatted with their daughters.
Once in a while, a horsefly landed on one of us but then flew off without biting. Sometimes when a cloud covered the sun and the wind grew colder, three or four common black flies would take refuge on my jeans. In the course of the afternoon, butterflies came by, swallowtails and viceroys, their explorations light-hearted and playful.
In the middle of the afternoon, a ladybug landed on the novel I was reading. Not wanting to accidentally crush the insect, I gently pushed it off. Ten minutes later, it – or one like it – was back on the pages of my book as though trying to tell me something. I brushed it off again, but it returned again a little later, apparently in trouble, the fine beach sand sticking to its fragile wings. I got up and brought it to the dune behind me and set it on a blade of grass. It fell upside down to the ground, and then I noticed that there were ladybugs everywhere.Some of them were regular lady beetles with two or nine spots; others had no spots at all. Most were the pale brown Asian variety, the kind that appears throughout Yellow Springs in late summer and early fall.
Unlike all the other creatures at the beach, all of the lady beetles were clearly having problems. They were the most numerous creatures along the waterfront, but they were the least prepared to deal with that environment. And it also seemed they had no purpose for being there.
Landing or falling on the wet sand, they hobbled awkwardly toward the lake. When small, gentle waves spun them around and set them up higher on the beach, sometimes the ladybugs would turn around and head right back at the water. Sometimes, they tried to escape toward land, racing in the direction of a low mound only to be swept up and turned upside down by the pursuing tide. They seemed stupid and brave, helpless and blind, determined and dogged, unready, clueless.
Were they really playing like the butterflies and the children? Were they migrating? Had they crossed vast Lake Michigan on some high wind only to be dropped here on the sticky sand? What did the great architect of the universe have in mind for them here and now?
The activities of the gulls and the horseflies I could explain and anthropomorphize in order to pretend to recognize their function. I could see their activity on the beach as purposeful and focused. I could see the play and courtship and relaxation as making sense.
But then the absurd fate of the ladybeetles, the futility of their struggles, and my lack of understanding began to color the way I saw the rest of us at the beach. Instead of the false sense of comprehension, the hollow peace of finding each thing meaningful and in its place joined by proximity on the great canvas of the lake and sky, I began to see our overwhelming lack of connection. Horseflies and children and lovers and I were all arbitrary and random objects, brought here together by motives so deeply discrete and distinct – the heart of the sailor out a mile from shore so distant from my own heart, the boats and the beetles all solitary and separate.
As the sun cooled and the wind grew stronger, I moved from the morning’s sense to nonsense, taking things at face value, resigning myself to them, which was, after all, the very purpose of a day at the beach: pattern, design, explanation, context all unravelling as I let go of the pretense of control.