“It was slow work grubbing them up amid the sand,”Henry David Thoreau said of digging lily-roots in The Maine Woods, “and the mosquitoes were all the while feasting on me.”I can’t help but imagine the walker of Walden Pond slapping and cursing and fleeing. “Mosquitoes, black flies, etc., pursued us in mid-channel,” he continues, “and we were glad sometimes to get into violent rapids, for then we escaped them.” The writing is typical Thoreau even if the response is not; the sentence itself is performative, as those pesky bugs drive Thoreau away from his primary topic, never to return to it.
“How can flies bite?” asks my younger son Aidan. His older brother Micah and I have returned from a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, where the mosquitoes are bad, but the biting flies are worse.
We’d gone to the BWCA not just for fishing but for something more. I’ve decided that part of my job in educating my children is pointing out beauty. But even in the BWCA, that endeavor is not simple. By taking Micah into wilderness I was putting something at risk. It is possible to miss the forest’s beauty — the sublimity of rocks and trees, water and sky in concert with each other — for the mosquitoes. True to my fears, the black flies never went away during the day and the mosquitoes settled in at dusk.
A few sentences after Thoreau’s rather uncharacteristic reaction to mosquitoes, the man composed himself: “I noticed . . . that there was a lull among the mosquitoes about midnight,”he writes, “and that they began again in the morning.” He can’t seem to help but devotionalize this moment: “Nature is thus merciful.”
I’m not buying it. There may be a sensibility that comes from meditating on mosquitoes and black flies, but it’s more complex and nuanced than what Thoreau gives us, a sensibility found more readily in G.M. Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” or in Annie Dillard’s “Fecundity.” Or maybe I just like the almost comic might of the mosquito, able to drive off the imperturbable Thoreau with its tiny mighty powers.
Despite the black flies and mosquitoes, Micah seemed to have no problem appreciating the glory in the boundary waters, apparent when he pointed our camera at a chipmunk, at the skyline at dusk, at a pine tree that pointed spire-like to the sky.
I’m not so sure Aidan, who by nature, no pun intended, gets more easily distracted and discouraged by things like biting flies, will have the same reaction. Next summer, I’ve promised him his own trip to the BWCA, and my work will be cut out for me in the teaching-to-see beauty department. For now, his brother starts the lesson on my behalf.
“How can flies bite?” Aidan asks in disbelief.
“Just you wait,” says Micah.