A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, June 16, 2011


“How come it’s okay to kill mosquitoes, Mommy?”
“Because I enjoy it.” 

That was not the answer I actually gave to my five-year-old interrogator; I pleaded self-defense.  But it was, I hate to admit, the first reply that sprang to mind.  I like to think I am reasonably compassionate.  At the very least, I’ve always assumed that I’m not a degenerate reprobate who gets a thrill from slaughter.  But when it comes to members of the Aedes genus, my self-image is on shaky ground.  Sure, I may be able to justify all my swatting with the popular “I don’t like being eaten alive” plea – especially given my immense personal magnetism to small creatures who think of me as dinner.  What I can’t justify is the gratification that accompanies each crushed corpse.  

But they’re just insects you protest. Where’s the dilemma?  Granted, my little “hobby” doesn’t place me in the league of The Silence of the Lambs.  But as my kids like to remind me -- with the kind of moral authority that only the Christopher Robin age group can muster -- it’s not ok to mistreat any creature, regardless of its humble phylum, class, or order.  Molly and Lizzy’s preschool has a terrarium full of stick-insects carefully fed on lettuce leaves. A child caught tearing the wings off butterflies or crushing ladybugs is likely to be given a stern lecture, or even professional counseling.  

“Mosquitoes are important because they pollinate the blueberries,” Lizzy tells me, “and they’re food for dragonflies and spiders.”  

Maybe I shouldn’t have read them Charlotte’s Web.  Nonetheless, I abet the educational experience, and tell the kids that only the girl mosquitoes bite.  (The boys sip nectar, presumably while singing kumbaya). A quick Google search reveals that those hungry Aedes ladies can find us by following our CO2 upstream from 100 feet away.  Once they get close, they are also attracted to body heat and body scent.  My scent in particular, apparently. Since I doubt that I am a particularly heavy breather, I have to assume that I excel in the other two categories. I am indeed a very warm person.  This is handy in Alaska in January, but not so handy in June.  All that hot blood rushing around in my surface capillaries, coupled with my apparently irremovable Nancy-human-stink, makes me irresistible.  While they are the insect world’s forsaken, I am their goddess.  The biting-insect handbook has my scent-print on the cover. While others are idly chatting at barbecues, I am swatting.

Still, shouldn’t I be able to employ a mode of defense other than killing? 

I’ve tried.  I really have.  Raw cloves of garlic didn’t help me much, but gave me a fascinating coating on my tongue.  What about limiting how much carbon dioxide I release?  For brief stops such as shoe-tying or peeing, waiting to exhale really does seem to help – or maybe it’s just that the lack of oxygen makes me delusional. Have you ever tried to change a bike tire while holding your breath and trying not to sweat?  Desperate people do desperate things.  I’ve used every possible type of repellant, including DEET, even though it’s a neurotoxin that eats holes in clothes.  The relatively new Picaridin earned a somewhat better toxicity rating from the EPA.  It doesn’t smell, and seems to work pretty well, so I squirt it with a liberal hand, but I’m still not exactly thrilled. How does “Toxicity Category III for acute oral, acute dermal and primary eye irritation” translate to my own personal equation: two kids who like to be outside as much as possible, and who have a 110% likelihood of touching their treated skin and then picking up a sandwich?  But the only other option seems to be kids covered in red welts.  My children, alas, seem to have inherited my tastiness.  This afternoon, at the dentist, Lizzy cheerfully told two hygienists, “You know, I have really a lot of mosquito bites on my buttocks.” 

One of my preferred ways of avoiding mosquitoes and black flies is movement.  In mid-summer in the Arctic, tiny, whining, swarming creatures can drive whole herds of caribou to galloping, thundering, near-insanity. The caribou are right: run!  Run like hell! 

“How fast can mosquitoes, fly, exactly?” I mused to a friend a few days ago.  We were idling at a playground, leaning on the primary-colored tubes and bars. 

“One and a half miles per hour.”  The answer came, instantaneously and unexpectedly, not from my fellow-adult, but from a snub-nosed child who had just popped his head out of a plastic tunnel.  He looked about eight.  He didn’t wait for confirmation or thanks before disappearing down the slide, his face earnest, his hair sticking up from static electricity.  I liked his answer.  It set the bar easily within reach.  Even preschoolers ought to be able to move that fast.

Not that I was able to keep up the pace when I was the age the twins are now.  One of my first memories of back-woods hiking was climbing a mountain called Ampersand, a nice rocky little peak whose only drawback was a rather boggy stretch near the trailhead.  Given that it was 1977, I believe I was wearing plaid bell-bottoms, meaning that my legs, thankfully, were covered.  However, my hair was pulled up into two crooked pigtails.  By that evening, the welts were so thick on my neck that I looked as if I had a combination of mumps and goiter.  I couldn’t move my head in any direction.  My mother, consumed by parental guilt that I only now understand, insisted that on subsequent hikes that summer I wear a peculiar headdress made from an old t-shirt soaked in citronella.  In retrospect, I think it was then -- perhaps befuddled by the intense, pseudo-lemony fumes, perhaps slightly derailed by the unfairness of seeing the rest of the family breeze along with only a few nibbles – that my mosquito-squashing began to take on a darker edge. 

Weirdly, though, I decided that I liked hiking.  I was thrilled by hiking.  It was just the biting insects I despised.  Over the next dozen years, I begged to hike more peaks, in Maine, Vermont, upstate New York, and other vermin-infested locales.  By the time I reached college, I was well seasoned in the woods.  I was also already a bit too avid in my “self-defense.”  On a hike with my friend Steve, an idealistic 18-year-old vegetarian and pacifist like myself, the inevitable whining buzz surrounded me within minutes.  “Gotcha!” I crowed, grabbing the air one-handed and opening my palm to reveal the millimeter-wide carnage.  Steve stared at me in consternation.  

“What do you mean, you don’t kill mosquitoes?”  My rant was defensive and slightly hysterical. “Everybody does it,” I argued.  Mosquitoes whine in your ears, swarm your exposed flesh, and sink their greedy proboscises deep into your skin in order to drink your blood.  

Steve shrugged.  “They don’t really bite me,” he said.

I watched him, eagle-eyed and incredulous.  It was true.  While there was a dense swarm of hungry blood-suckers around me at all times, the only ones around him seemed to be strays from my clan.  They didn’t bother to land on him. Such people exist.  They really do.  And they make me somewhat wild-eyed and twitchy, even if they happen to me among my bestest friends.

For reasons that seem to defy logic, that summer I eagerly signed up to earn minimum wage hauling rocks and logs around in the swamps of the Adirondacks. These splendid old Eastern mountains boast bumper crops of not just one genus of biting insects, but several. The Simulium -- also known as black flies or white socks – have the charming habit of amassing by the thousands and going for eyes, ears, and nostrils.  Horse flies, the Tabanidae, sound like little jets around your ears and bite like actual horses.  Ceratopogonidae, a.k.a. no-see-ums… well, the name says it all.  Every single species in each genus loves me. 

By definition, trail crew involved spending long hours in some of the muddiest sections of swamp.  We wore head nets, long sleeves, and long pants.  Black flies crept in around the neck-cinches.  They swarmed as at lunch time, to the point where we’d duck back under our nets between bites.  We were all roughly 17-22 years old, and prone to bravado and basic idiocy.  It was with this crowd that insect-killing crept beyond the realm of satisfying necessity and became a cross between an episode of Survivor and a team sport.  Can’t make a peanut butter sandwich without accidentally including flies?  Why not embrace it by waving the sticky bread in the air a few times, to garner a more generous layer of little black dots?  Is a horsefly driving you over the brink?  Try lassoing it to keep as a pet.  This latter task was done by a guy called Jim, using strands of my very long hair, carefully tied into a tiny slipknot at the end.  I want to say I wasn’t amused by the results -- but I’d be lying.
One of the most memorable nights of my life – because my perverse brain clings more tightly to the abhorrent than to the merely pleasant – was spent with six or eight trail crew friends.  We were young, we were stupidish, and we thought it would be a fine idea to go camping on a hot clear night without a tent.  It wasn’t just a bad idea – it was a Very Bad Idea.  In this case, although I might have been the most popular target, I was certainly not the only one to suffer.  We were besieged. We were mobbed.  We were reduced to swollen, pestilent, sniveling insomnia in the unforgiving dark of 3 a.m.  It was much too warm to zip our sleeping bags over our heads, and it was much too buggy to do anything else.  We sweated, we scratched, we swore, and some point in the predawn hours, rising above the constant buzzing whine in my ears, I heard a 19-year-old man, completely without irony or sarcasm, sobbing for his mother.

It occurs to me that all these memories may explain a lot.  Mosquitoes drive caribou mad… and they drive humans to infantile blubbering… and they have been waging a personal vendetta against me in a variety of scenic, damp locales for the better part of four decades.  When an insect-magnet such as myself lives in a cabin nestled in an idyllic 80 acres of festering bog in the heart of Alaska, is it so surprising that something might end up a little off-kilter, psychologically?  Something like taking visceral pleasure from crushing the tiny defenseless bodies of mosquitoes?

“How come it’s okay to kill mosquitoes, Mommy?”

Sure, I can fall back on self-defense as my plea before the jury.  This excuse seems to pass muster with most people.  But just in case, maybe I should also give an insanity plea a try. I’ll plea-bargain, too:  If I can retain my less-than-savory proclivities toward joyful mosquito carnage, I promise I will never fry ants with a magnifying glass.  I won’t revive the horsefly lassoing tradition. I’ll be willing and even eager to let caterpillars crawl up my arms while my offspring admire their fuzziness.  And I will never, ever eat any more peanut-butter-and-black-fly sandwiches.  Not even one.

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