Making Peace With A Pesky New Neighbor
IT was 80 degrees and very humid, and I was mowing the lawn in a long-sleeved shirt, heavy pants, high boots, and gloves. I was hot and uncomfortable, and could barely see through the fine mesh netting that covered my face. It was black-fly season in New Hampshire.
My Pennsylvania girlhood was spent among the oak, the elm, the humble shrub, and the hedge. Often, we would sit out on the open porch late into the evening, attracting the attention of little more than the curious mosquito.
Every kid in Pennsylvania could count on a couple of summer nights when the natives were biting, but most insects were of a genteel breed. The monarch, the praying mantis, the bumblebee, and the firefly were like ice- cream cones and swimming pools and other fun things that stood for summer itself.
When I moved to Massachusetts and encountered mosquitoes with the appetites of car engines, I realized I'd voyaged to a new land. I became used to dousing myself with repellent before any outdoor activity, even lathering my hair. The setting sun was the bugle call to head indoors for the night and stay there until the light of day drove the pests back. Still, I attributed the overabundance of insects to the fact that we lived in a swampy area with a bug lake nearby. It was a condition peculiar to the ge ography, I thought, and something we could leave behind by moving out of state.
I'd heard about the black fly and its toothsome bite, but I thought the species belonged solely to Vermont and the backwoods of Maine.
Certainly not to the hills and mountains of New Hampshire, which was our destination.
Sometime after my husband and I had settled into our new basement apartment, the spring weather drew us out for a friendly game of catch. After five minutes of batting our arms trying to cut a swath through the thick fog of gnats and mosquitoes, we threw down our mitts and ran for shelter, where we remained for the next few weeks until we moved into our first home.
Even when we toured our property in May (still wearing hip-length, mesh bug suits) I felt certain that the dark haze of bugs would be long gone by the time we officially moved in at the beginning of July. Visions of barbecues in our tree-lined backyard and afternoons spent reading on a garden bench crowded my head.
Boldly attired in shorts and no socks on a hot July day, I set out to dig for some basil. Twenty minutes of swatting, batting, and scratching later, I admitted defeat and meekly donned thick socks, hiking pants, and two long-sleeved shirts to complete my task. The mesh head net I never took off.
Somehow, the garden got planted, even though the black flies bit through my clothing. While I grumbled and gardened, I noticed the old salts, the life- long residents of New Hampshire, didn't flinch. They didn't bat, swat, or flail their arms wildly in the air. They simply knew that, soon enough, summer would be over and now was the time to enjoy it. Their poise, their faith, and their tolerance of fellow inhabitants, pesky as they might be, was a beacon of light. I tried to stop longing for a bleak, gr ay winter day with a foot of snow and ice and no bugs. I wore my mesh net proudly.
On a trip to Oregon during one of the peak New Hampshire bug seasons of late August, I carried secret mental baggage. I knew in my heart how we lived our lives -- covered, never out after dark, afraid to read a book outside, seemingly ruled by things the size of a needle's head or an eyelash for five months out of the year. I wanted to barbecue, wear shorts at night, and walk in the woods during a time that wasn't winter. I wanted to live without bugs.
The first night after my arrival, I phoned my husband. ''I'm standing outside at 8 o'clock in the evening and I'm eating something,'' I said. ''And nothing is biting me.''
In sheer disbelief, I indulged every bug-free fantasy I had. I lounged on the deck with a book, I talked into the night with my cousin while the porch light was on, we barbecued, we grilled, we walked in the woods. Strangely, after I'd had a week's worth of bugless revelry, I was ready to return, face net and all, with long pants and long sleeves. I was being called back to the warm buggy days of the New England fall, and I didn't want to miss any of it. I'd become an old salt.