Caroline Kirkland

Insect life

The day had been sultry, and, spite of the woods, our horses began to look fagged and weary before we reached the place where we intended to pass the night. The sun was in mighty power, as if he had forgotten it was four hours after noon, but certain attendant clouds had already begun to “lay their golden cushions down” in preparation for his coucher. The land now lay low and level, much intersected by small streams, and covered with the long grass of our rich savannahs. On these wide, grassy plains, great herds of cattle were feeding, or lying stretched in luxurious idleness under the scattered trees. We might have been surprised, such was the solitariness of the region, to find such numbers of these domestic animals; but we have not lived so long in the wilds without having discovered that a herd of cattle, with its tinkling bells, is not to be considered a sign of close vicinity to the abodes of men. When cattle feed in wild an unfenced pastures, the soon exhaust or spoil those nearest home; and even without this excuse, they will often wander at their “own sweet will,” till the chase after them at milking-time becomes no small part of the day’s business.

“Hunting cattle is a dreadful chore!” remarked one of our neighbors, with piteous emphasis, after threading the country for three weeks in search of his best ox.

This is one of the characteristic troubles of new-country life. In vain is the far-sounding bell strapped round the neck of the master ox or cow, (for we say master-cow by catachresis, I suppose.) A good bell may be heard by practised ears four miles, if a valley or lake aid the transportation of sound; and a horse that has been accustomed to this species of coursing will prick up his ears and turn his head toward the sound of a well-known bell, thus serving as a guide to the gudeman if he chance to be slow of hearing. Yet the herd will not always keep within bell sound. In vain too do we employ very ingenious artifice of temptation—supplying our “salting-place” with the great delicacy of the grazing people, and devoting the bran of each grist to the purpose of an extra feast, in the hope that the propensity to good feeding may overrule the national taste for unbounded liberty. “Home-bred memories” seem to have no place in the ruminations of the gregarious tribes. These expedients, which are resorted to only by the more provident, have indeed some efficacy, but they do not remedy the evil. It is sometimes mitigated by accidental causes.

When the flies become troublesome on the wide marshes, the whole herd, as if by previous agreement, will make for some well-known shade, near or distant, as the case may be, and there pass the sultry hours, only changing their positions gradually, as the sun throws the coveted shade eastward. And at the time of year when insects are most tormenting, the farmers make huge smokes in convenient spots near home, certain that to these all the cattle in the neighborhood will flock instinctively,—smoke being the best of all preventatives against flies and mosquitoes. So that, in the six weeks of mosquito-time, cattle-hunting becomes a less formidable “chore,” and thus good comes out of evil. Evil! ay, the term is none to strong! I appeal to those who have travelled in the timbered land in July or August, I will not say to those who live in those regions, for I would fain hope their skin is hardened or armed in some way, as the fur of the ermine thickens and turns white in preparation for a Siberian winter.

One may observe, en passant, that ours is a rare region for the study of entomology. Those virtuosi who expend their amiable propensities in transfixing butterflies and impaling gnats would here find ample employment from May until November. Indeed they might at times encounter more specimens than they could manage comfortably and without undue precipitation. First, in early April, appear, few and far between, the huge blue-bottle flies, slow-motioned and buzzy, as if they felt the dignity of their position as ancestors. Next in order, if I forget not, come the most minute of midges, silent and stealthy, pretending insignificance in order that they may sting the more securely. These seem to be ephemera, and fortunately the race soon runs out, at least they trouble us but for a short time.

Flies proper—honest, sincere flies—come on so gradually that we can hardly date their advent; but it is when the sultry weather first begins, when the loaded clouds and the lambent lightning foretell the warm shower, that twitchings are seen,—and quick slaps are heard,—and these, with the addition of something very like muttered anathemas, announce the much-dreaded mosquito. Then come evenings—fortunately not long ones,—passed in the dark, lest the light should encourage the intruders. Moonlight is praised; and even this must be admired through closed sashes, unless we can contrive by the aid of closely-fitted gauze blinds to turn the house into a great safety-lamp—we burning within its sultry precincts. Then are white walls spotted with human blood, like the den of some horrible ogre. Then “smudges” are in vogue,—heaps of damp combustibles placed on the windward side of the house and partially ignited, that their inky steams may smother the mosquitoes while we take our chance. I have had a “smudge” made in a chafing-dish at my bedside, after a serious deliberation between choking and being devoured at small mouthfuls, and I conscientiously recommend choking, or running the risk of it, at least.

If one wished to make a collection for a museum, nothing more would be necessary than to light a few candles on any hot night in August, especially when the weather is loud, and the open windows would be filed at once with a current of insect life, comprising all the varieties of coleoptera and their many-named kinsfolk; from the “shard-borne beetle with his drowsy wing,” that goes knocking on his back with unflinching pertinacity against every inch of the ceiling, to the “darning-needle,” said to be an implement of Pluto himself, darting in all directions a body as long, and to all appearances as useless, as the sittings of our legislature.

We must not however claim preëminence for our dear Michigan in this particular point. The gallinippers of Florida are said to have aided the Seminoles in appalling our armies, and we have of late heard of a prodigious number of bites in all parts of the Union. And do we not know from unquestionable historic authority, namely, that of a British tourist in America, that a presumptious proboscis once dared to penetrate even George Washington’s boots, as he rode through Newark marshes?

Our butterflies are nothing to boast of, and there are few of them with which one would be willing to change costumes, even to be “born in a bower.” I have fancied that yellow predominates more than usual among them, and I have been tempted to believe they are bilious, like the rest of us. At any rate, the true ethereal and brilliant Psyche is but faintly represented by any specimen I have yet seen.

Mosquito-time, as before hinted, lasts, in its fury, but about six weeks, but flies are in season all summer. In the months of August and September particularly, black is the prevailing color of ceilings, looking-glasses and pictures, not to mention edibles of all classes. Much ingenuity is displayed in contriving what, in the paraphrastic tone of the day, we are bound to denominate destructive allurements for these intrusive and inconsiderate insects,—we used to call them fly-traps. These consist—in the more refined situations—of paper globes and draperies, delicately cut, so as to present externally an endless variety of cells and hiding-places, and these are well furnished within with poisoned sweets. Less fanciful people, frugal housewives and hard-hearted old bachelors,—place a large tumbler, partly filled with molasses, and covered with a piece of innocent-looking pasteboard having in the centre a hole large enough for a blue-bottle to enter tout déployée, but affording a poor chance for escape after he has clogged his feet and wings in the too eager pursuit of pleasure—a melancholy (and quite new) warning illustration of the fascilis descensus. And again those of us who may by some chance have attended a course of chemistry show our superior advantages by using a little water impregnated with cobalt, which carries swift destruction in every sip; and having at least the recommendation of not being sticky, answers a very good purpose, unless the children happen to drink it.

Yet this ingenious variety of deaths makes no perceptible diminution in the number of our tormentors, and I have heard a good old lady exclaim against such contrivances altogether, saying that if you kill one fly, ten will be sure to come to his funeral.

Yet we must not be persuaded to fancy ourselves worse off than other people in this particular either. I remember well—and perhaps you too, reader—the appearance of an elegant array of confectionary displayed in a verandah which hung over a lovely moonlit lake in a region where flies and midges had been for many years under the civilizing influences of good society. A blaze of light illumined the flower-wreathed pillars, and the gay crowd were ushered from the ball-room to the delicately furnished table, when lo! every article in sight appeared as if covered with black pepper; and the purest white and the most brilliant rainbow tints of creams and ices presented by one sad suit of iron gray. The very lights waxed dim in the saddened eyes of the gazers, for whole colonies of hapless gnats had found ruin in too warm a reception, and were revenging themselves by extinguishing their destroyers.

But return we to our herds feeding beside the still waters.

(1839)

MLA Citation

Kirkland, Caroline. “Insect life.” 1839. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 1 Jun 2008. 28 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/kirkland/insect_life/>.

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