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Paper Wasps

by Lee Martin

The crape myrtle at the corner of my house blooms in late July and keeps its color--almost pink, almost purple--long into September. Delicate stems, tinged this same color, connect the blossoms to the berries from which they’ve unfolded. But the blossoms, though freed from the berries’ tight orbs, are crinkled and papery. If I roll one between my fingers, it wads up like a piece of damp tissue.

The yellow jackets and wasps come to feed on the honeydew glaze that aphids have secreted on the crape myrtle’s leaves. My study is at this corner of the house, and as I write, I hear the wasps humming. Such a busy noise they make, as if they’re frantic to be heard as they go about the business of being wasps.

Their proper name is social wasps because they live in colonies, their nests holding anywhere from two hundred to five thousand of them. They build their nests from wood pulp, so they’re also known as paper wasps. They use their mandibles to scrape fibers from weathered wooden fences, barns, telephone poles. They then chew the wood, using their saliva to moisten the fiber. They add the paste to the nest and spread it about, sculpting it with their mandibles and legs.

What patience it must take, the wasps’ whiskery legs skittering over the wood paste. Not exactly trowels they’re working with here. Some ancient instinct must fill them with faith. They keep moving because nature has made them thus. Little by little they build nests the size of a man’s fist, or, if they must, a bushel basket.

When I was a young man, just out of college, I worked for a federally funded program called Educational Talent Search. The program targeted individuals who were either economically, culturally, or physically disadvantaged, but who also demonstrated an interest in and a capacity for postsecondary education. It was my first professional job--the first one that meant anything to me other than a paycheck--and I was eager to do it well. I visited high schools and social service agencies in search of people who needed help. I went into county probation offices, half-way houses, children’s homes. Every day, I met people who were in trouble. I talked to thieves and junkies, abusers and their victims--all manner of people whose lives, for one reason or another, had exploded. I caught the fragments, and they lodged inside me. I worried over the women with bruised faces and blackened eyes from a husband’s or a boyfriend’s beating, the twelve-year-old girl whose brother had raped her, the gaunt, ethereal boys, their frail arms scarred with needle tracks. Some of them were con artists, feigning enthusiasm for my services just to see what they might be able to swindle: money, rides, a place to sleep. Others were so desperate, so frazzled, they latched on to any offer of help that came their way.

Many of these people could barely keep still while they talked to me. They jounced their legs, popped their knuckles, bit their fingernails. They paced the floor, swiped shaggy bangs back from their eyes. Their lives were crazy, they told me again and again. I wouldn’t believe it, they said. Man, they’d landed in a mess.

I think of them now when I see the wasps, frantic at the crape myrtle, hovering and jitterbugging from leaf to leaf, landing to sip from the honeydew, and then lifting off, held aloft by their gossamer wings.

This evening, I notice a nest beneath the eave, wasps clinging to the comb. I remember how I retreated into my home when the sadness of those lost people became too much for me. I nearly lost myself to depression. I silenced myself to my wife, I ignored family and friends, I became ill with chronic bronchitis--a convenient excuse for staying home from work. I was eager for some long sleep, for a sweet remove from the world.

The paper wasps are more perfectly made than those of us who sometimes want to fade from the living. Industrious, persistent, they keep to their work. They scrape minute bits of fiber from the structures we have so confidently erected--our fences, our very homes--because to them these things are only wood, and that is exactly what they need, and surely they won’t take enough for us to ever know.

Lee Martin is the author of a memoir, From Our House, a novel, Quakertown, and a story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He teaches in the creative writing program at The Ohio State University. "Paper Wasps" is excerpted from his forthcoming Turning Bones (U of Nebraska Press, 2003).


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