Alchemy, the oriole, and the bagworm

by Rachel Creager Ireland

The ancient alchemists, following the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, had a principle, often stated simply “As above, so below.” Oh, I must be fully honest and confess that I really don’t understand philosophy or these esoteric ideas, but this one is so beautiful and so beautifully illustrated in nature, that I feel a certain affinity with it.

What is it about nature that makes it so immense and intricate? Human creations never approach the beautiful complexity found in forms created by the earth’s powers. There is so much to witness in nature, that it is impossible to comprehend it all. One’s only hope is to be as still and receptive as possible, to let in the greatest number of details. Many such details are only visible in the spring or summer, when life is at its peak of vitality; but keep looking and waiting through the fall and winter to see other things, only visible when summer’s explosion of life has died back.

This week I saw an oriole’s nest, which is often best viewed in winter, when its inhabitants are far distant, and the sheltering leaves have fallen. The uniqueness of the oriole’s nest is that it hangs from the branch or branches of the tree, rather like a lady’s purse full of eggs; or, later, baby birds. Presumably the hanging nest affords the best protection from the predators that might prey upon the helpless young, if they could.

Orioles like to eat insects and nectar. It is often said that half an orange will attract orioles to a feeder. Another favorite food of orioles is the bagworm (really a caterpillar). My friend Melch has an elm hedge running the length of his property, and if he neglects to trim it, invariably late summer finds the bagworm population in a state of excess. But he is rewarded for his failure by the brilliant orange and black of a summer visitor, the Baltimore oriole. Oriole comes daily to feast upon the smorgasbord of bagworms, which he apparently has no difficulty extracting from their cases. Here’s a series of pictures of orioles with bagworms. Here the male perches near a bagworm before eating it, perhaps to say a little grace? In this photograph, he’s grabbed the bag. Finally, here’s a shot of his mate, victoriously holding the prize in her beak, having ripped a “worm” from its bag.

And what is the point of all this? Perhaps it’s a stretch, at best, but when I saw the hanging nest, my first thought was that it was an oriole’s nest, which I had seen only in pictures before that day. My second thought was that the nest bore a remarkable similarity to the protective case of the oriole’s chosen food, the bagworm. The similarity doesn’t run deeply, so it may well be a flight of fancy to imagine some kind of symmetry reflected through the behaviors of both predator and prey, as they shift places in the intricate dance of the living earth. It probably is, just as the alchemists have been long discredited. But I’ll like to think that in this little piece of the puzzle of nature, I can see a mutual reflection between the “above” and the “below,” the prey and the predator who becomes prey to some other larger predator; and that the alchemists would have approved.