Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Life in Bugs, Part One: The Early Years

Reckoning my life in terms of the insects I have known may seem strange, but does it make any more sense to explain myself by the colleges I attended, the graduate school, the law school? By whether I wear Manolo Blahniks or Easy Spirits? By how many marriages, how many children, the number of cars in my garage?

Right now, due to a close encounter with some drain flies, I have bugs on the brain. So herewith, a brief exploration of my world according to the insects that have creeped, crawled and flown into my life. Maybe it will evoke memories of your own bug stories.

It was a warm summer day in Wantagh, New York. The year was 1957 and I was eight years old, playing in the back yard with my younger sisters, all three of us running in and out of the wading pool, splashing, abandoning ourselves to the warm air and cold water. Life was joyful as I raced one more time through the cool, green, clover-laden grass. Then one innocent misstep, a piercing pain—my first bee sting. Not only my big toe, but my spontaneity suffered injury. Never again would I step so lightly through blades of grass.

I was a hypersensitive child, bothered by loud noises and strong smells, and keenly affected by slights, real or imagined. But I was also anxious to prove myself brave and resilient, so at age ten I persuaded my parents to send me to Camp Tamarac, an overnight camp in the Berkshires. After a few weeks of bunk living, my group embarked on a “camping” trip, which consisted of hiking past the mess hall, beyond the boys bunks, and over a hummock to our campground. There, we watched our counselors pitch tents, then played tag while waiting for them to cook our dinner over an open fire.

Enter the no-see-ums. The DDT that had been sprayed liberally over the entire camp during our first week had apparently not penetrated beyond the hummock. Swarms of gnats swirled around our heads. I felt a slight prick in one eyelid, then the other. Moments later, I couldn't see at all. My lids had reacted so strongly to the bites that they were swollen completely shut. I briefly enjoyed the notoriety my overly-sensitive skin had brought me, until discomfort and anxiety set in (would I ever see again?). And the longer-term lesson was not so pleasant, either—a measly little gnat had the power to ruin my day. This experience reinforced my already risk-averse nature. Even a pleasant walk in the woods of Massachusetts held unexpected dangers, I now realized. As I got older, I worried about all of them.

Still, during my pre-teen years I led a pretty bug-free existence. Sure, I enjoyed chasing the lightening bugs that were plentiful on Long Island during summer evenings. I had fun collecting the Japanese beetles that threatened to decimate the rose bushes in my neighborhood. And I thrilled to the ladybugs that occasionally landed on my shoulder. I even witnessed neighborhood boys torturing exquisite praying mantises and felt the helplessness of my gender—I never dared to protest, lest the boys torture me instead. But inside my house, I rarely saw spiders, mosquitos, flies, or even ants. It was only after I found my way to the tropics that I began to understand what I was up against when it came to insects.

In 1963, when I was fourteen, my parents arranged for me to spend the summer with a family in El Salvador that my father knew through his job as a coffee buyer. The Bonillas, part of the small, wealthy elite of that country, lived in a lovely house in Los Planes, a suburb of San Salvador. The climate was delightful—temperatures in the seventies during the day, with rain falling predictably in the late afternoon. The Bonillas' home was beautiful and unusual, based on my limited experience. The house was perched on a hillside, open to the tropical breezes, with no glass in the windows, much less screens. So insects were free to enter and leave at will.

Antonio and his wife, Yolanda, were wonderful hosts, a loving and happy couple who made me feel quickly at home among their children, their live-in gardener, their cook, and several servants. Their daughters, Norma and Evelyn, took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. Fortunately, they spoke English, since my Spanish was still rudimentary.

First among my lessons was how to handle beetles. The beetles I encountered in El Salvador were nothing like the plentiful but small Japanese beetles or the even smaller lady bugs (also a species of beetle) with which I was familiar. These Salvadoran versions were giants—colorful, gorgeous, and fearsome. They probably would have been best left alone to proceed in their stately fashion across the tiled floors back to nature through the open windows. But there was always the risk that one would suddenly take flight, putting us right in the path of their hard exoskeletons. Not a fate to be desired, according to both sisters. I heartily agreed.

So, I watched attentively as Evelyn demonstrated the technique for killing a scarab beetle. Stepping on it wouldn't work, she said—its hard outer shell would compress and the insect would probably survive. Instead, shock treatment was called for. Evelyn carefully lifted the poor creature up with her thumb and index finger, its little legs flailing wildly, then threw it hard against the tile floor. I saw her do this again and again over the course of my stay and never saw a beetle walk away. I was loathe to try the technique myself, however. I wish I could say my reluctance came from sympathy for the plight of a living being that meant us no harm. But, in reality, I was too grossed out to even touch one of the beetles, let alone hurl it through the air.

Salvadoran beetles, huge though they were, were nothing compared to the spiders and insects that came out at night. The Bonillas' living room had a soffit around its perimeter from within which lights were directed at the ceiling. Given the open-air environment, that was a good plan. The bugs were attracted to the brightly-lit ceiling, where they congregated in alarming numbers, rather than to the seating area where we often sat. I've never seen such a collection of enormous long-legged spiders, moths, and creepy-crawly things. The Bonillas, adults and children alike, appeared totally oblivious, so I feigned nonchalance. I have no idea if there were poisonous spiders or lethal centipedes among the vast array, but thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.

I've always been fascinated by insects. I like seeing pictures of bugs and watching exotic species on nature programs. But polite distance is one thing, up close and personal is quite another. While I hoped that my experience in El Salvador would toughen me up for insect encounters to come, that didn't exactly come to pass. Rather, for me insects came to represent the ultimate example of otherness--mysterious, repulsive, gorgeous, and downright scary.