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July 30, 2003

Leptocoris trivittatus

Becky wanted to paint our house yellow. I thought that was a fine idea. The old paint was flaking, peeling, coming off in whole house-sized sheets. And yellow is a good color to garden against, tolerant of pink, orange, scarlet, the various shades of green that gardeners accumulate. I was fine with yellow.

I mean. . .

. . . if it were just me. . .

. . . I'd go for something bolder, terra cotta or some such, but I want you to be happy, so it's your choice, sweetheart. Yellow sounds good.

. . .But it's harder to pick out a yellow for a house exterior than you might think. We have bright sun and days-long fog both, and a yellow that looks just fine in one light will look ghastly in another. We'd drive by yellow houses in the morning, decide that they were exactly the color we wanted, and then return in the afternoon to find the color had transmuted in the interim to something altogether too brown, too orange, too pink or green.

As the 2002 House Painting Window grew ever shorter, and we faced the prospect of our stucco going through yet another unprotected winter, Becky - unable to decide on a yellow - finally told me to pick a color. So I did. One friend saw what I came up with, thought a moment, and called it "ripe persimmon." Another offered to find us a neon Tecate sign for the front wall.

The color wasn't quite what we both expected, due to the vagaries of paint company color chips and base paint substitutions, but I liked it as soon as we opened the first can. As the first few hundred square feet of wall went under the orange onslaught, I grinned my fool head off. I couldn't have told you why, for sure, except that something about the color seemed deeply familiar.

Over the next few months, I smiled when Becky would venture the rueful opinion that the color "sure is bright."


Twenty years ago, I was working in a nursery in Washington, DC. I was an organic gardener, and the universe has a perverse sense of humor, so my job was in the garden supply department, where I sold pesticides to people who wanted to kill bugs. One such was the box elder bug, a harmless creature whose main character flaw, aside from eating holes in the leaves of box elders, is thermotropism. Box elder bugs like warm walls in cool weather, and they congregate on them, often in the thousands. For DC homeowners during the Reagan administration, this was enough reason to deploy the Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Which - I confess - I sold them.

I much prefer an enlightened attitude toward box elder bugs. They eat little, emit no foul odors, do not crunch distressingly underfoot nor slick the highways with their carcasses. All they ask is a thriving population of box elders, which grow in soil too soggy for other maples, and tolerance during their yearly mass meetings.

They are, truth be told, an occasional cosmetic pest on stonefruit, especially stonefruit planted withing a fifteen-minute walk of the Acer negundo groves of the Central Valley...

on the banks, leaves catch breezes.
blue heron preens knee deep in muddy stream.
box elders sway, new in leaf and bud.
a million reddish tassels dust the ground
with pollen. A million
pollinated tassels swell with seed.
out of the clefts in ragged bark, out of
the eaves of homes along the road they come.
lithe, in black and red, insensible
to dot the swelling almond fruit
to perforate the maple leaf
to mass upon the ground and there to mate.
Conjoined, they face away
and each one pulls against the other.

Yesterday, I found a set of 3/4-inch garden hose quick-connect adapters likewise conjoined on the ground in our backyard. Inside, surviving on air and dew since I dropped the adapters several months ago, was a thriving specimen of Leptocoris trivittatus, the box elder bug. Freed from its brass prison, it flew to the back wall of our house, landed there, walked a few exploratory inches. Its orange stripes exactly matched our "ripe persimmon" paint.

Now I know why.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 30, 2003 10:26 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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