Almost everyone, city-dweller or rural resident or lifelong suburbanite, has met them, and has a name for them. Also known as the roly-poly, woodlouse, or doodle bug, the pillbug is perhaps the most innocuous non-mammal children encounter. Certainly it’s safer than the family dog or cat. It doesn’t bite or carry disease, and is left without any defense other than “conglobation” — doing that “armadillo thing” that gives it the first half of its scientific name.
So I’m still repeating “armadillidium vulgare” (ar-mah-dil-LID-ee-um vool-GAH-ray) to myself every hour or so, just for the pure fun of the name, since yesterday morning when I did some research to learn more about the little creatures. Why? That’s less interesting to me right now than the pillbug itself, but I’ll explain the reason in a bit. (If you’re just skimming, in a hurry, and want to arrive at what you imagine is the “Druidic payoff” straightaway, go the final section of this post.)
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A native European, the pillbug has spread to North America and the rest of the world, where it flourishes in damp and shady environments. If you’ve encountered them, you most likely did so when overturning a garden pot or stone or board in a woodpile. Pillbugs actually aren’t insects, but crustaceans, most closely related to crabs and crayfish. They breathe through gills, and unlike the vast majority of species with iron-based blood, pillbugs use copper — hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin, for the nerds among us — an ancient alternative oxygen-bearing respiration system, making them literal “blue-bloods”.
Pillbugs recycle body wastes, can absorb water at several locations along their body, and carry their young in a belly pouch called a marsupium — if that makes you think “marsupial”, like a kangaroo or possum, you’re not so far off track.
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Which brings me to “why the pillbug as a blogpost topic?”
Workshop 5 at the recent Gulf Coast Gathering in Mandeville, LA, focused on spirit and animal guides. Here’s Lorraine leading the workshop, her own cat guide prominent on the t-shirt she’s wearing:
As often happens during guided meditations and visualizations, I work on patience. Whether or not anything “comes through”, the practice itself has value. It builds energy and receptivity to things outside the “enchantment of the apparent world” as OBOD rituals put it. Lorraine asked us to travel with our guide to a clearing where we could encounter a new helper.
Nothing … nothing … nothing. My boar guide, happy to explore the Louisiana woods, kept away. Or at least I experienced no trace of him. Instead, inner mist, overcast gray, drowsiness … Then, almost at the end of the visualization: pillbug! I swallowed my laughter. My amused surprise at the unexpectedness of this particular animal guide disturbed its inner form not at all. I’m small, but like all things I have my dignity, I seemed to hear. Pay attention.
As I wrote here a little over a year ago,
When something like this grabs me, I start trying it out, trying it on for size. What does my spiritual path do with it? Does it stir me, even — or especially — if I resist it? (I’ve found that’s one good test for the value of my path, too.) Do I want its insight with me over the next meters and miles, minutes or months? Is there a place for it in my backpack or tool-kit? If so, what? If not, why not? … Why has it arrived on my doorstep at all? Has it come to me now, or in this particular form, because I’ve already rejected it at least once?! Will I at least remember to write it down in my journal, so when it knocks me upside the head again, sometime in the future, a review of what I write today will help the lesson sink deeper, enough that next time at least I’m able to act?
I’m a Druid so also I count the non-human world among my teachers. That doesn’t mean I have to stay in class, or stick with the same teacher. It means, if I need to, that I can learn and move on. It means — thank the gods! — I have many teachers. It may well mean, if I really need to learn something, that the classwork I don’t finish here may reappear somewhere else, in another class, on another arm of the spiral. But it also means I can call on teachers I adore and who support me to help me with teachers who challenge me, rub me the wrong way — teachers who don’t make it easy …
So what do I take away from this encounter, this new guide? Stay small and inconspicuous? Keep to the undersides of things? Protect my belly and curl my back against trouble?
Or maybe pay attention to things that may seem too small to deserve your notice. Disdain nothing that can teach you. (And what can’t teach me, after all? Only what I ignore …) Stay flexible enough to adapt, to bend. Keep in touch with the earth. Know that my dignity and worth don’t depend on anyone else. My value in a supersize culture has nothing to do with quantity but with quality. And, always, listen.
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