I used to watch them, hovering in the air in the middle of the room, seemingly for no reason. Some of my earliest memories involve watching hover flies. I’d hear the gentle purr of their wings and look up from my playpen, my anticipation growing as I wondered, How long will it stay in one spot this time?
Then suddenly it would dart off in an oblique angle to the right or left, only to choose another spot to hover. I appreciated hover flies as a child. They made the long, lonely hours while my mother left me alone in the two-room apartment in Paterson, NJ, while she smoked and gossiped with the neighbors, go by more quickly.
As I grew, I continued to notice small things. I was the first one to notice the peppergrain-sized ants that tracked into our kitchen and invaded the partly-opened peanut butter jar. My mother sent me sailing across the room with a resounding blow to the side of my head when she saw me crouching on the floor, watching the thin line of ants marching over the windowsill, across the living room and into the kitchen.\
“Why did you let these disgusting things into our house?” she shrieked as I tried to pick myself up off the floor.
I tried to tell her that I was just watching them, but she couldn’t hear me above her own whimpering that I had “made” her hurt her hand on my stupid head.
No wonder I connected more deeply with animals and insects than I did with people.
Fast forward, past the nauseating, seemingly endless cycle of abuse and neglect of my childhood. Past my early adulthood, when, in the process of the discovery of myself, I finally freed myself from the cult my parents joined when I was about four-and-a-half.
Forward and onward to a little oasis I found in the heart of a Washington State city.
It was summer and I was sitting in my yard on a plastic bench beside my fenced vegetable garden. I’d gathered samples of the herbs that I grow and was doing careful sketches in preparation for crating paintings of each.
A flicker of motion to my right caught my attention.
It was a hover fly. But it wasn’t simply hanging in the air as the ones I’d watched in my early childhood had done. This one was flying in a tight, distinct pattern. I focused on the fly, leaning a bit closer, careful not to allow my breath to brush the fly’s body and alert it to my presence.
As I watched, I noticed that the fly was making a precise shape. A short horizontal line, then a longer vertical line, another short horizontal line, then another vertical line.
It was making a precise rectangle. But why?
I looked a little closer, holding my breath now and angling my body so that my shadow wouldn’t fall across the fly’s field of vision. When I saw what it was doing, I blinked, giving my head a small shake to make sure my vision was clear.
I looked again, and saw the same thing. The hover fly was measuring one of the rectangular holes in the wire fencing around my vegetable garden. Once it had the measurements down, it flew to the center of the space, hovered for a few seconds, and flew through.
The “Inchworm” song from Alice in Wonderland instantly came to my mind. I wondered if Lewis Carroll had watched insects as I had, and if he had seen an inchworm actually making measurements as it moved.
A second hover fly broke into my musings. I watched with interest, wondering if this one would measure the space as the last one had. I wasn’t disappointed.
Just as the first hover fly had done, this fly made precise movements, measuring the shape of the small rectangular square of the wire fence. When it finished measuring, it moved to the center of the space, hovering as the first fly had.
When this fly tried to shoot through the open space, though, it banged into one of the wires.
I suppressed a giggle, wondering what it would do next.
The fly moved back about a half-inch and remeasured the space. Then it moved into the center and tried to fly through the space again.
Once again, it banged into one of the wires.
Again the fly moved back to hover in the middle of the space. It hung in the air for a few minutes, as if in meditation, or counting to a hundred, obviously preparing for another attempt.
For a third time, it measured, one short horizontal, one long vertical, one short horizontal, one long vertical. After that it hovered in the center once again. I held my breath again, willing it to succeed in flying through the center this time.
I cheered the fly on as it zipped through the center of the fencing.
“I bet you won’t need to measure this fence ever again,” I called softly to it as it darted around my tomato plants.
But I was wrong. After the fly zipped around the garden, it approached the other side of the fence. I thought it would zip right through. After all, I’d seen a National Geographic program that showed how bees and other insects triangulate to learn their environment.
And this fly certainly tried to use its experience with passing through the other side of the fence. It tried, but once again, it hit one of the wires. So, once again, it measured, one short horizontal, one long vertical, one short horizontal and one long vertical. This time, it only took one measurement for it to succeed in leaving the garden.
The lesson of the hover fly stuck with me because my own life had been filled with attempts at freedom. Though I knew the actions of my parents were abusive and dysfunctional, it still took me quite an effort to find my freedom.
But just like the hover fly, patience and careful preparation finally paid off.