Sunday, November 18, 2007

About Bugs and Other Adventures

Two Sundays in a row, Antonello and I have been good, busy caver people. Not usually a rarity for us, lately, we've been a little bit slack in terms of caving. In fact, these 2 Sundays just begin to make up for the last few months, during which we have done very little to even approach a cave, and our spelunking flexibility skills (climbing in and out of small tunnels, climbing up and rappelling down ropes) have gone downhill. fast. So it was time, last weekend, as we gathered round with a group of our fellow cavers (some of whom were in similar situations as we were), to head to our favorite practice wall at the church of Sant' Eustachio to do some rope work. Sabrina and I, both having been appointed assistant caving instructors (aiuto istruttrici) back in May, were put in charge of helping out some new spelunkers, explaining the basics and taking them up the ropes for the first time, while some of the other cavers (among them two other new assistant caving instructors) set up the ropes course. As always, a day at Sant' Eustachio is something that I really enjoy. Caving often means crawling through tight spaces in the darkest little corridors, but I secretly love being outside in the open air just a tad bit more, climbing ropes where you can see all around you, and, as you scale that last wall, you're able to look do and see everything from an entirely new vantage point.

And with that memory in mind, this morning it took me a bit to be coaxed out of bed, where this Sunday's temperature was a lot lower than last Sunday's, and the day ahead meant an actual cave, a place I hadn't been inside for what seemed like an eternity (but was more like a matter of months). But I did get up, and we did go, and, as we drove toward the caves, I got a little jolt, a moment of excitement to get back into a cave and explore.

Finally, when we had changed clothes, met up with our caving companions, and climbed our way into the cave entrance, I found out what we would be spending the day doing.

We were collecting bugs.

What's this? You ask. Bugs? Have you accidently stumbled upon a Calvin & Hobbes comic book? Or maybe you've found someone else's blog on accident? No, no, unfortunately it's not so. You're still right here at Jackie and Corrie's blog, and you read correctly. We started to scrounge around the cave floor, searching for little pill-bug-like creatures. We needed to find thirty pill bugs. I couldn't believe it. I shook my head as I got down on all fours, searching for bugs and wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into.

Thirty pill bugs and almost an hour later, we got up, brushed ourselves off, and went off to another part of the cave, and I was eager to get down to some serious exploring. I had all of my tools and rope stuff fastened onto my caving harness, and I wondered, "what would we be up to now?" climbing up and down ropes? I was almost ready to forgive the last hour of bug searching if we could only do something more interesting--check out rock formations, do some rope work, even collect samples from one of the many lakes that were found in this particular cave. We stopped in front of a big pile of bat guano, and the head of our little group knelt down in front of it. "What now?" I asked.

"Another thirty bugs," Antonello said to me, as if it were obvious. I glared at him--since WHEN had he mentioned these bugs? Did I have any idea before we entered the cave that this would be our day's destiny? NO! I was starting to ache in my harness, and my legs were uncomfortable, and I did not want to be searching for insects in a big pile of bat poop. My knees hurt from crawling around to find the last thirty bugs. I wanted to shake my hands in disgust, to give up and head back to the cave entrance. This is ridiculous! Why bugs? I'm a spelunker! I thought, proudly. Bugs are bugs. What did they have to do with me?

But I stayed around anyway, turning over a rock here and there in search of a bug or two. The day would go on like this, and I would continually be bad at finding the pill-like bugs, only finding a total of three within the first hour and a half. Finally, at the last room, the last thirty bugs to collect, I began to have a little more success finding the little guys, and it was eventually explained to me about the bug habitat and how it seemed that the number of bugs had gone seriously down within the last few years. We were collecting bugs as part of a bigger project to see how the bugs were evolving in their habitat. I tried to look at the day differently--the assistance I was offering as a bug collector was helping some biologists figure out some very important information about the environment inside the cave. This was a major scientific project! I wasn't just a simple bug collector, I was a biologist, a researcher, a field worker. I hurried along, looking for more bugs, remembering past experiences as a "cave scene investigator" when members of our caving group did research on newly discovered caves. What a feeling to be part of something bigger than me! Yes, I decided, this was serious stuff! I tried to convince myself to think like that, biting my lip as I closed the plastic box of bugs just in time, before one of the little rascals managed to crawl onto my hand.

Thirty bugs later, after having collected various water samples and mud samples, we talked to the biologist who was leading us through this bug collection phase, and we discovered that he had taught university students in the United States a few years back. As we left the cave, from the crystal caverns inside to the freezing cold outside, we chatted about his memories of America, laughing about his experiences there, and my experiences here. I decided not to mention that this experience today--crawling around the cave floor searching for bugs as if we were children on a search for fireflies on a summer night--was one of those spelunking experiences that I might never forget. How could I? When was the last time I had ever hunted for pill bugs before? And here we were, our boxes of 30 pill bugs each, changing out of our muddy uniforms into normal clothes and discussing life in America, as if a conversation can turn from terrestrial isopods to American traffic law in just a matter of moments.

But I guess it can, as we had forgotten about the day's work, and we spent time talking and sharing stories, before packing up our bags and heading home. Driving back to Macerata that afternoon, Antonello and I laughed about scrounging around in search of bugs, but oddly enough, I didn't regret it at all. It had actually been a fun morning, despite my achey knees and memories of turning over rocks to find centipedes and pill bugs beneath them. It's amazing what my life as a spelunker has meant--some of my craziest moments in Italy have been spent with fellow cavers, and sometimes it's hard to believe all of the strange situations we've been in, all of the unlikely things that we've done--crawling in and out of caves.

But who would want to trade all of the laughter and fun, all of the stories that we have, all of the fantastic adventures, all of the friends that I have made over the last five years for normal, ordinary things? Who would REALLY give that stuff up? Would you? Not me. And if that means bug collecting on a grey Sunday morning, I'm happy to do it. I'm happy to be a bug collector, thank you.

- Jackie


At 7:05 AM, Blogger Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita said...

Wow Jackie, you're brave. I would totally freak out from the tight dark spaces. We have a cave here, but I stay in the bigger room where there's a "lake". Maybe there's a shortage of pill bugs because cavers keep collecting them? haha

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Stelle in Italia said...

maryann: i said the same thing about the shortage of pill bugs when the biologist guy with us mentioned that there weren't many left--maybe you're right, it's cause we keep collecting them!

At 2:06 PM, Blogger rowena said...

Jackie, I'm just glad that it wasn't a bug collecting experience meant to be finalized in a hot wok over the fire. This actually sounded like a lot of fun, even if I was immediately reminded of the bug-eating cultures to be found....elsewhere. ;-)

Bring on the snakes!


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