Hal Borland (1900-1978) was writing about nature before writing about nature was cool, often as an outdoor editorialist in The New York Times, but also in more than 30 books. Hal Borland's Book of Days, published in 1978, dropped onto my left big toe this morning while I was dusting bookshelves in the bedroom. That seemed to be a sign. He was writing from his home beside the Housatonic River in the lower Berkshires in Connecticut. Here is his entry for January 24:
The weather has eased somewhat, though it wasn't really mild today --- the temperature at 2:00 P.M. was only twenty-eight degrees. But I found three ladybird beetles out and basking on a windowsill at the south side of the house. They had come from under the shingles on that wall, where they spend the winter with quite a few of their kindred. By late afternoon, when the sun had set behind the mountain, they crawled back into their hiding places. We never bother them. We encourage them, for they eat aphids and are an asset in our garden.
Most of us know the old rhyme:
"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home;
Your house is on fire, your children will burn."
Sometimes another couplet was added:
"Except little Nan, who sits in a pan
Weaving gold laces as fast as she can."
Those verses go quite a way back into English rural history. Farmers grew hops, the hop vines were infested with aphids, the ladybird bettles came and ate the aphids. After the hop harvest the vines were burned, and if the little spotted ladybird beetles didn't get out in time they were burned too. As for little Nan, she was the pupa of the ladybird. She probably had left the hop vines by then and sheathed herself in a yellow cocoon elsewhere. The name ladybird, or lady-beetle as it sometimes occurs, goes back to the Middle Ages. These little beetles were common in monastery gardens, and even then were known to be enemies of garden crop pests. They were the gardeners' friends, and the monks dedicated them to the Virgin and called them "the Beetles of Our Lady."