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The Good, The Bad and the Bugly

It’s out there somewhere with my name on it, cavorting in a vernal pool: the larva of the first mosquito that will bite me this year. Back off, semantics police. I know it’s not a bite, and it’s not a sting. It’s a probe, but I’d rather not go there. Vernal pools are fascinating places: temporary collections of water that form from snowmelt in the spring, play a dizzyingly complicated role in the chain of life, and then dry up. Salamanders couldn’t exist without them. You can discuss amongst yourselves how badly we need salamanders, but I’m going back to the mosquito.) Mosquitoes are disgusting. Are we clear on that? They spread disease, and ruin camping trips, and if there’s a more dreadful sound by which to be awakened than that high, creepy whine in a dark tent, I hope I never hear it. I also know mosquitoes are marvels of design and engineering, as are all creatures great and small (except maybe the amoeba, which needs work). You could round up the greatest scientists on earth, lock them in a lab filled with doughnuts, fresh coffee and grant money, and in ten years they couldn’t come up with anything that approached the sophistication of the mosquito. That’s probably just as well, but you get my point. Or maybe you don’t, because I haven’t made my point yet. Here’s my point: Yes, nature designs on a level that doesn’t even slow down at amazing as it soars toward the utterly mystical. And what do we get out of it? Mosquitoes. We get maple syrup, chocolate and ourselves, too. But we also get yellow jackets, rats and bubonic plague, all of which may be beautiful examples of design on some level, but why should we have to put up with them? If nature had taken half the energy that went into working the kinks out of the banana slug, and had put that energy into developing an insect that could whip up a decent souffle, we’d really have something. I hear you: honeybees, orchids, achingly gorgeous sunsets. They’re magnificent. No argument there. But imagine how much more magnificence there’d be if nature hadn’t come up with the bright idea of the cockroach. Why, nature? Why, why, why? Because the universe doesn’t belong to us. One can argue convincingly that the earth is an organism, and that the human race is a parasitic pathogen well into the process of killing its host. Joseph Jenkins argues just that, in his powerful book Balance Point, published by Jenkins Publishing and distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing. Read it. It may change your life. The true story of a series of preposterous leaps of faith that Jenkins — motivated by financial enticements in the will of an deceased, eccentric aunt he barely knew — undertook to carry out her wishes, Balance Point takes the author (kicking and screaming most of the way, metaphorically speaking) from his Pennsylvania home to North Dakota to Newfoundland to the jungles of Peru, never quite sure what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s just following clues as they pop up, and some of them are ludicrous. Slowly, along the way, he figures out what his aunt was up to: a desperate quest to head off global economic catastrophe. She knew that someday, inevitably, the curve of demand for resources, going up, will meet the curve of supply, going down. Their paths will cross, and the results will not be pretty. You’ll learn what a “robbing frenzy” is — a common if destructive phenomenon among honeybees — and that very disconcerting parallels can be drawn between damaged planets and damaged beehives. You’ll learn what a Peruvian shaman named Eduardo means when he talks about people who build houses without windows and fill them up with mirrors, and why that’s more than a clever turn of phrase: It’s a recipe for the ignorance and self-absorption that seems to guarantee disaster. You’ll learn what a “balance point” is, of course (if you suspect you know, I suspect you’re wrong), and that you need to figure out how close you are to yours. So where do the mosquitoes come in? They just do, and always have, and always will. We slather on the bug repellent — but bug repellent is about mirrors, not windows. This all makes sense. Trust me. Commercial insect repellents are witches’ brews of exotic molecules that do God knows what to us as they seep into our pores. The active ingredient in most such brews is called DEET. I did some Web surfing on DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) and learned it was invented shortly after World War II by the U.S. Army, which has been using it ever since “with no harmful side effects.” Of course, this is the same U.S. Army that gave a bunch of soldiers front-row seats at the first atomic-bomb tests (they were issued sunglasses, I believe), so what constitutes a harmful side effect may depend on one’s point of view. The general consensus among civilian scientists is that DEET is safe when used as directed. They part company with the Army on side effects, however, noting the risk of rashes, hives, muscle spasms, headache, irritability, confusion, nausea, seizures (seizures???), encephalopathy, and even (when applied in high concentrations) death. Death will always be a harmful side effect to me. The label on a can of Off! Deep Woods Formula includes the words “Do not” seven times, by the way. Aren’t you just dying to spray that on your salad? Never mind; the grower probably already has. Can you imagine how many mosquitoes there are in a Peruvian jungle? Eduardo lives there by choice, doesn’t use Off! Deep Woods Formula, and is doing fine. He’s found his balance point. Yes, mosquitoes are disgusting, but everything we do to repel them (except rubbing ourselves with citronella leaves, which works for Eduardo but hasn’t caught on in my neighborhood) is worse. Remember DDT, and how it was going to make all the bad bugs go away? Remember how the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon almost went away, too? Hmmm? So what’s the answer? Surely not living in harmony and balance with nature. Oh, God — not that. Yes, that. The mosquito is here to stay. If we want to stay, too, we’d best learn to live with it. Nature wasn’t thinking of us as it perfected the mosquito, any more than it was thinking of us when it created the Orion Nebula. Nature was just doing what it does. If I were the planet Earth, I might well ask what nature was thinking when it allowed homo sapiens to plop out of the trees. But plop we did, and as long as we’re here, we’d better get used to mosquitoes. Or nature may come up with a better idea than us. What a balance point that would be.

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