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ON MOSQUITOS, BLACK FLIES AND OTHER PESTS (1922)

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Cover illustration, The Laurentians - The Hills of the Habitant, 1922.The following passage, by naturalist and travelogue writer T. Morris Longstreet, was written long before the days of modern insect repellents and nylon tents with ultra-fine mesh.It contains valuable information and advicefor campers venturing deep into the Laurentian woods in the month of June.Matthew Farfan, Editor

“The truth about the flies in the Canadian woods is this: During June and July, with possibly parts of May and August, according to the warmth and wetness of the season, there are flies in the bush. The man who blinks this fact and goes unprepared is destined for inevitable woe. But he who arms himself wisely can endure them with ease, if not with enthusiasm...It was an ingenious devil that worked out the flies’ daily calendar for them – ingenious and economical. There isn’t an hour of the twenty-four which hasn’t been allotted to one of the five species rampant. During the midday heat the sand-fly and deer-fly are the pests in evidence. The others are resting. If patience be a virtue then the deer-fly is more virtuous than many Christians I have known. He will come at you time and again with the sort of swoop that makes you shudder. He looks big enough to bruise you; and the powerful insect can saw out a piece of flesh if you let him. But he doesn’t come in swarms, nor after dark. I can’t love the deer-fly, but I can accept him as a sporting proposition. Not so the mean but variable little sand-fly. He’s a nuisance, but not prevalent everywhere.

About mid-afternoon the black fly arrives. His trick is to alight on your neck, run up to your cap or behind your ear, and suck till full. When he goes he leaves the spigot running. A man looks like a striped tiger, after an afternoon of them, from the streams of dried blood across his countenance. But the black fly doesn’t bicker or hum and might have his bit of blood and no questions asked if he didn’t come in such numbers. On the bad days, however, a man is submerged in a ferment of flying, alighting, crawling, biting, bleeding bugs; and it is too much. The citronella-castor fails; head nets stifle you; life darkens and – but with dusk they are gone.

By then, the no-see-em, called by the Canuck “brule,” is a-wing. This bird, which is invisible, is the demon’s last word in efficiency. It can penetrate the meshes of one’s socks, bite until one’s flesh rises in angry mounds, pepper one’s scalp with fire, and strike terror into the hardiest soul. If all this can be done by a creature, crowds of whom could revel on the point of a needle, what might not a herd of, say, bat-sized brules accomplish. No, Nature has treated us indulgently; and it is not fair to criticize such foibles as her no-see-ems. Besides, by dark they too have given place to the mosquito. Frontispiece illustration.Since the days when Cleopatra employed a special slave to brush mosquitos from her shapely ankles, vocabularies have been ransacked for words stinging and venomous enough to call the thing. No one has found the word. There is a curious relief in definitely terming something you dislike something else; call a man a pig, and your exasperation is mollified. But call a mosquito by whatever epithet you choose and your sense of injury remains unassuaged. People with unpracticable tempers should not visit the woods in mosquito-time, for there are few places whose beauty or restfulness is not tempered by this creature’s presence. By day it is merely a more or less persistent pest; but at night it becomes a portent whose buzz is so infinitely worse than its bite that one lies in a simmer of continuous apprehension and prays to be bitten and have it over with. At intervals, timed just to prevent one from falling into total unconsciousness, the appointed insect soars from the blackness, swoops in a crescendo of rueful music, eddies about your head, and then is off again. “Next time will do,” he says. If the night be warm the procession is fairly continuous, and the dark magnifies the noise into a nocturnal uproar. But at dawn, that is by 3 a.m., the real agony begins. By then the mosquitos have enflamed themselves into a frenzy of activity, the no-see-ems re-awake, the black-flies return, and the period designed for repose is devoted to an eccentric contest between a sleep-sodden man and a cloud of enthusiastic insects. The alternatives are either smothering in a blanket or slapping out of it. At such a time a man can do horrible violence to the noble qualities he has been storing up since childhood.The above is an unexaggerated picture, but a picture of one who has renounced all preparations. Had he built a smudge on either side of him to light at dawn, had he spent three dollars on a cheese-cloth tent, the scene would have been this: you are engaged in a restful slumber on a bed of balsam. Above you, a cloud of cheese-cloth, and not of mosquitos, is waving in the light air. Outside, to be sure, they are still conscientiously trying the surface of the structure, snapping at it now and then in famished desperation, but in vain. The breeze as it comes through is automatically filtered of all flies. And if you chance to open your eyes, it is only to drop off again to slumber in that deepest of all satisfactions, peace in the very jaws of danger.”

Source:T. Morris Longstreth, The Laurentians: The Hills of the Habitant, 1922, 108-114.