I need to write this down in order to find peace. At 3 o'clock this morning, I couldn't sleep. I could hear a clinking, scraping sound – like a teacup on a saucer – from the cat's dish. Jerry must be midnight feasting. But no, he was on the bed in the usual basket fungus shape he assumes when sleeping. Maybe Kevin had got inside. Kevin is another cat in the neighbourhood. My former neighbour named him after a flatmate who would go into people's houses and eat all their food. I waved a torch. Kevin wasn't there, but the clinking noises continued, like an ominous picnic. Slowly I gathered myself up and stood. There's something about the sensation of my bare feet on carpet at night that fills me with dread, like swimming too far out to sea.
The scraping sound stopped, which wasn't good. At least the scraping indicated that the thing – probably a ghost, I had to accept – was busy. Silence meant it was plotting something.
Then a creature leaped on to my ankle. It was like a gymnast executing a perfect dismount from the high bars. It stood there, waving its headgear around lustily. I felt such fright it was as if my whole body came away from its skeleton. The creature – I could tell from its eyes that it was smart – must have sensed my displeasure because it leaped away, then it ran, clunking like a heavily armoured horse, or like a Goth wearing steel-capped boots, into a pile of pine cones in the fireplace.
It's now 4a.m. I've been poised for a while with a pair of rubber gloves and a lunchbox. I keep getting flashbacks – the ancient waggling of antennae – and my blood chills. There's a species of mountain-dwelling wētā that can be frozen solid and come back to life when it defrosts. I envy that wētā. I will never sleep again or be warm again.
There's something backwards in the human psyche that means we can admire a certain thing but a close encounter with it causes us to dissolve in fear. I have this with sharks, eels, celebrities and wētā – a docile invertebrate with ears on its front legs. Aotearoa has up to 100 species of them, many of which are endangered, some critically, due to predation and habitat destruction. Their fossil record goes back 190 million years, and in that time they haven't changed much. They live in caves, on snowy hilltops, on bathroom towels. They are taonga. In the 1860s Walter Buller caught a pair of giant ones and stored them in his handkerchief, which he hung in a tree to collect later. "On coming back, however, I found that they had eaten their way out and made their escape." Wētā are so pure. They even like carrots. Why can't my appreciation for them make me glad to see them? But, like the Grandaddy song says, "Everything beautiful is far away." I can enjoy the wētā's rich life story and avant-garde good looks only from a distance.
In The Infested Mind, a book that explores why humans are repelled and fascinated by insects, entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood describes being buried alive by grasshoppers while on a field trip. "Grasshoppers boiled in every direction, ricocheting off my face and chest. … They worked their way into the gaps between shirt buttons, prickling my chest, sliding down my sweaty torso." The panic he experienced affected him for years, challenging his sense of himself as a dispassionate scientist and leading him towards art and philosophy. Even his deep appreciation for insects hadn't protected him from a fear response that stretches into our evolutionary past and that is perhaps more complex and ambiguous than science can help us understand – something that touches on the sublime.
The Infested Mind is an excellent read. I learn that Salvador Dali had an intense fear of insects. He once attacked a bug on his back with a razor, but it turned out the bug was just a pimple.
For me the wētā embodies two worlds, or two kinds of awareness – one of terror, one of enchantment. "In the grip of this feeling we are utterly transfixed," Lockwood writes, "even taken outside ourselves in a kind of terrible ecstasy." This, he suggests, is an opportunity to ask why we perceive things the way we do and to engage more meaningfully with nature.
I decide that for now I have engaged sufficiently meaningfully with the wētā. It is probably asleep. It must be tiring to incite terrible ecstasy in others all the time. I retreat to my burrow. Silence. The special, New Zealandy silence of a horse-sized insect hunkered somewhere in a dark room.
ASHLEIGH YOUNG'S COLUMN RUNS FORTNIGHTLY. NEXT WEEK: STEVE BRAUNIAS.