The Sun is Too Much
The sun is too much. Too much light. Too much heat. I’m burned, dehydrated, dazed. I’ve left the day behind and now move at night. A thousand tree frogs join me in the darkness. They serenade their mates. Other creatures have joined me on other nights—to escape the sun. A yellow scorpion hunted moths drawn to a dim porch light. A moray eel—as thick as my thigh—ventured to the surface of a reef to hunt. Her sardonic grin revealed a hundred needle-sharp teeth. I averted my dive light and my gaze and moved on, away from the monster.
The sun is too much for these creatures—for the frog and the scorpion and the eel. The sun is too much even for a cactus that drinks in the day’s light and heat, but only opens her blossoms at night.
Tonight, every branch conceals a frog, and when my headlamp reveals their hiding places, they only call more loudly, more desperately, to their mates. But I’m not here for them. Other forest denizens have emerged—to mate, to kill, to lurk—on this moonless night. Their eyes are upon me. One million eyes. Spiders’ eyes.
These spiders are easy to find. Too easy. They stare from branches and vines all around me. They peer from under every fallen leaf on the forest floor. They come alive in the tropical night—wandering, watching, waiting. The sun is too much for them. They hide from the daylight, from too much light. Like rabbits or mice when a falcon casts a shadow at noonday, these spiders freeze in a catatonic spasm while the sun passes overhead. But at night they awaken, to crawl and dance and leap.
Their eyes—perfect surveyor’s prisms—reflect light directly back to the source. They are watching me here. Their eyes reflect the pale-yellow light of my headlamp. But the reflections are emerald-green, ruby-red, and yellow the color of fractured lemon drops. Bright. Sharp. Crisp.
I have seen them elsewhere—in desert canyons, scrub-oak forests, prairies where they dodged cattle and coyotes. But they were sparse in those places. Here in the tropical rainforest they fill every dark hole and niche. They wave their mandibles in the air as though paying obeisance to the passing stars. Then they watch me again, and their waving stops. The headlamp gives too much light for them. They retreat into their dark places, fearful that the sun might catch them in the open.
When I’ve had enough of the spiders, I walk to the edge of the forest. A kerosene lantern hangs on the little shack that is our field kitchen. Fifty yards away, the lantern burns like a single red-orange eye, a miniature sun. I turn off my own headlamp and let the lantern guide me across the grassy airstrip. I know there are spiders here, under each blade of grass. But I am bored of spiders and so I keep my headlamp off and let the weak light of the far-off lantern guide my steps.
A few steps ahead I see a white ribbon moving along the ground, a serpentine shape slithering slowly across the jungle airstrip.
This is new. I walked this airstrip today and never noticed a pattern breaking up the ground here. I stop. The white ribbon continues moving, pulsing, undulating. Thirty feet long. Is this some giant snake that has been waiting for me to leave the forest?
I take another step and another. Is it moving toward the lantern? Toward the warmth of the light? Another step. And another. I hear no rasping or brushing sounds—no scaled belly pushing against the grass. I only hear the chorus of a thousand tree frogs behind me.
It pains me to turn on my headlamp; so many creatures have come out tonight. I’ll turn it on and send whatever is out here running for the darkness. I’ll miss something. This white ribbon—whatever it is—may slither off and disappear.
When I turn on my headlamp, I discover the long white ribbon is no serpent—not even a single animal, but thousands, perhaps millions. A column of leafcutter ants is marching from field to forest. They have hacked out a two-inch-wide highway in the short grass. The largest ants stand by the column—guards—swaying their menacing jaws up into the darkness, and now into the light of my headlamp.
I have seen leafcutter ants before—carrying their namesake: pieces of freshly-cut leaves, every piece the shape of the crescent moon. But these ants carry loot of another sort. I lean closer. Each ant carries a single white blossom, the base pinched in the mandibles and the flower open to the night sky—a pure white blossom, bright against the maroon body of each ant. They carry these blossoms like offerings—reverently, respectfully—as though these were gifts given to them, and they are now bringing these to their temple deep in the earth.
I follow the column across the airstrip, where it enters the forest, and the forest grows thick with vines and thorny branches. I can go no farther. I won’t find the tree or bush that is supplying tonight’s offerings.
This procession of ants—each on a pilgrimage—moves at night. The sun is too much for them. The blossoms would wilt in the heat of the day. But this way, at night, the ants keep each blossom fresh while they carry them into a great underground garden.
I watch them until my headlamp dims. Then I walk back toward our camp, toward the kerosene lantern.
The next morning I return to the same place. Their path is clearly marked: the grass is cut to the bare ground. Fragments of white blossoms remain on the side of the little highway. But the sun is up and the ants are gone, hidden in the ground, working in their garden. I consider their work, and wonder for a moment if they feel gratitude for the blossoms. They carried the flowers graciously like so many precious gifts.
I once saw a dozen Buddhist monks lined up along a smooth stone wall, clothed in maroon robes, the color of leafcutter ants. They stood in the shade, their bare and shaven heads out of the burning sun. As people passed by, the monks held out bowls to receive food offerings. One man had no food to offer, but gave one of the monks a white linen handkerchief, as delicate as a flower blossom. The monk set his bowl aside and received the pure white piece of fabric gently between both hands—reverently, dignified, as though praying. He touched it to his forehead and then pressed it to his chest—graciously—white against his maroon robe.
Each morning I set out to find one metaphor during the day—a place or activity or event that becomes a microcosm of a larger life, with a larger meaning. I am slow to grasp many of the day's challenges; they are too complex for me to resolve without dismantling them and distilling them into something comprehensible. Metaphor enables me to do this, to contain and manage these complexities.
Paul Burnham works and lives in Montana, where he is a civil engineer by day and a river rat or powder hound by night. His stories and essays have appeared in Litro-UK, daCunha Global, Dash Literary Journal, Flathead Living, Route 7 Review, the Entrada Institute, and elsewhere.
More on Paul Burnham's work can be found on our Links page.