Take the African dung beetle.
No, when we put aside our jokes and our sneers—there is real magic here to be unearthed and discussed. But first, I think, we should step back.
Ancient Egyptians used the image of this beetle to represent the journey into being, the god of the rising sun—the dung ball it rolled representing the morning sun itself—resplendent as funerary art, a doctrine of rebirth and renewal and resurrection.
Dung beetles belong to one of the few groups of insects that provide parental care to their young, the balls of dung acting as both nest and food source for their younglings.
And they’re strong, too: each robust ball of dung weighs up to 50 times their own weight, trundled over great distances at alarming speeds.
And, and! They are essential to tropical forest biomes and to agriculture in how they consume dung and improve nutrient recycling. Many countries have introduced dung beetles to their wildlands, helping to improve overall sanitation, better hygiene.
These beetles, so small and yet: they matter, don’t they? But wait, there’s more:
We now know the African dung beetle navigates by the Milky Way. They don’t use individual stars, no, but see the bright effervescent strip, that cosmic cluster of infinite possibility, and know where they are in relation to it, where their homes are, their final destination.
Initially, puzzled researchers didn’t know if it was the moon or other polarized light that guided them, especially on moonless nights when they maintained their trajectories, never wavered. In most recent research, the beetles were brought to a planetarium in pitch-black boxes. Researchers controlled the appearance of the sky above them, how and what stars they saw, but kept the glowing bands of the Milky Way constantly visible. And every time, they oriented themselves like great naval sailors traversing an endlessly-inky horizon.
Yes, other animals like bats and frogs and seals and, sure, humans, use the stars to position and to orient and to travel, but consider the lowly dung beetle, the butt of jokes, a creature that doesn’t, not really at all, warrant any speculation. To us, it moves senselessly, has no internal life, keeps up with some revolting job that’s easy to deride. But oh, oh, these purple-green shimmering insects can see the world better than us—and they know their place in it, wherever they are. They know.
You aren’t a dung beetle at all, at all, peppered as you are with hesitation and guilt and confusion. It always knows where it’s going, and in what direction, but you: you took the scenic route, didn’t you?
From an early age you learned to hate the land you walked on, to question what it meant to be from a place at all. If the only home you’d ever known could feel alien and hostile, you made sure that it did. Your default was aggravation and ire, but really, you were lost: sordidly stomping around the planet looking for answers—how you fit into the grand scheme of things, looking in the wrong places, losing yourself in Los Angeles, surprised and distracted by the glitter, then back to the Midwest, then to England for school, and then to South Korea because you were, as you told people, escaping a bad breakup, but really, you just needed more distance from the world that you knew. You couldn’t make decisions about who you were in a place you’d always been; you needed to see the bloody sunrise halfway across the world, the scalloped moon hanging low across foreign cityscapes, that the sky and the stars were still firmly rooted and it was only you who was on the move this whole time.
And yes, you were lost. But then you breathed deep and came back and made it your own, in some small way, and realized the footprint you’d left behind in the black loam bank of the snake-winding creek near your house still fit, after all this time.
There’ve been whole years lost, forgotten now, paths still unclear ahead, while these dung beetles have pressed on, maintained, maintained.
See? Always, there’s a fire inside them we can draw from, a drive: to navigate the heavens. To move with purpose.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his illustrations and writing at robertjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter/Instagram at @robhollywood.
Artwork by: Robert James Russell