strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Oneness with Nature

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2012

Over the weekend, I commented on Facebook about how Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder suffers from her ludicrous 1930s horror movie notion of the rain forest: “The scientists all agreed that they had never been deep into the jungle for more than eight minutes without thinking they would give everything they owned to be led safely out.”  I’ve spent a lot of time in rain forests, and it has often been wonderful–hunting for frogs or katydids by headlamp, watching the graceful gliding movement of tree snakes, seeing a school of parrots go brawling past at sunset on an Amazon tributary, or having a river dolphin come looming up beside me as I swam. 

But then I also recalled something I wrote in my book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, and in the interest of fairness and balance, I am reprinting that here for your pleasure.  Just try to remember, it’s not all like this:

It is mosquito season again, time for entertaining unwholesome thoughts about nature. Just now, as it happens, I was reading one of my old journals from a trip somewhere in South America, when I turned the page. There, flattened next to the binding, was the dark smudge of a mosquito and, on the opposite page, its Rorschach image in dried blood, probably my own.

All the unheralded charms of the rain forest came rushing back: the way my clothes were always caked and sodden with mud, the way the howler monkeys roared their jocund welcome and flung excrement at my head, the feeling of sliding down wet clay trails and shuffling cautiously over a wobbly one-log bridge at midnight in the endless rain, with a dehydration headache welling up behind my dripping brow. But above all, I recalled the relief of finally making it back to camp, to sleep and to give sustenance to mosquitoes.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing this almost sacramental moment of union with Gaia, here is what it feels like. You drop your clothes in a clay-heavy heap, leaving your puckered flesh bare just long enough for the mosquitoes to roar in like Sooners at a land rush. This causes you to dive into your individual cocoon of netting drapery, and of course the mosquitoes follow. You spend the next ten minutes slapping and spattering winged droplets of your own blood all over the netting and the sheets. Then, having killed the last mosquito, you recollect that you have forgotten to pee, climb back out (after longing, in vain, for a catheter), and do it all over again.

According to my journal for that night, the sound of slapping finally died away, and there was a brief period during which the hostility and bone weariness of the day succumbed at long last to peace. Across the way, one of my travel companions looked up disconsolately at his white shroud and remarked: “I feel like a pupa.”

“I was beginning to think of you as a maggot,” the tough guy in the group replied. (Did I mention that I was traveling with field researchers who learned their manners largely from insects, and not social insects either?)

“I’ve got a tear in my mosquito net,” someone else said, as he started slapping again.

The tough guy immediately began speculating on whether it would be possible for mosquitoes to drain enough blood to kill a person and how long it might take. (The tough guy had apparently learned his manners largely from the botfly, a type of insect that gets its eggs under your skin, where the developing larvae wriggle and otherwise annoy you for weeks on end.)

“A mosquito only takes a millionth of a gallon per bite,” said the pupa. He was a decent guy who liked to smooth things over. “It couldn’t happen.”

“Brazoria, Texas, 1980,” said the tough guy. “There were so many mosquitoes they killed the cattle. Autopsies said half the blood in their bodies was missing . . .” He enjoyed trying to keep us awake at night with entomological horror stories.

“I wish I was home,” sobbed the guy with the torn netting.

“Home!” sneered the tough guy. I believe he would have spat to emphasize his contempt, were it not for his own mosquito netting.

Then, as if this were the one thing that might be better, he said, “We could be in the Arctic tundra.”

He proceeded to explain that spring in the tundra is so short and sudden that the snowmelt hatches all the dormant mosquito eggs virtually at the same instant. The entire population of mosquitoes then has about 20 minutes to mate, find a victim, get a blood meal, and lay a new batch of eggs before winter sets in again.

Some Canadian researchers once forced themselves to sit still in such a swarm long enough to report that they suffered 9,000 bites a minute.

“Those Canadians know how to have fun,” said the pupa.

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