Monday, January 28, 2008


A Life Without Insects

I've been thinking a lot lately about our relationship to bugs. I remember when a college friend from NYC came to visit me in California during the summer with the warning: "I don't know if I can deal with bugs." Apparently she equated life outside of the city with insects.

This is no longer true, of course. If you've read any of the harrowing accounts of bed bug infestations in New York, Washington and Philadelphia, then you know that the bugs are very much back and with us. (Note to friends on an apartment search: please ask about a building's bed bug history).

Here is what the experts say. Once upon a time, we had bed bugs. Hence the "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" ditty. We used DDT, the bugs were mostly eradicated, and then we discovered that DDT was bad for the California condor. So, we stopped using DDT and the bedbugs regrouped and plotted and planned to come back. At the same time--travelers from Asia and the MidEast--areas which never bombed the bedbugs back to the stone age--started coming to the US, bringing bed bugs with them. Now no one is safe! No one at all! You may very well wake up at 3 AM terrified that you are about to be bitten. You will look at your bedroom wall and sure enough, there will be a small black dot--a bed bug advancing toward your face or your shoulder. It doesn't matter if you have gone to sleep in sweats, and a turtleneck with your hands inside socks. The bed bugs will find some part of your body to bite. In the morning, you'll have red welts.

It's scary and it's gross. These little tiny creatures can just insert themselves into your imagination, working away at your more rational impulses to make you . . . paranoid. They are the very essence of the crazy, itchy, uncomfortable unconscious at work.

I thought about all the fairy tales and myths in which heroes (usually girls) are aided by insects. My favorite of these is the story of Psyche, which I've turned to over the past 15 years whenever something has confused me, ever since my father gave me Erich Neumann's analysis.

Psyche is given 4 tasks by the goddess Venus.

First, Venus took some tiny seeds of wheat, poppy, and millet, mixed them, and dropped them in a single pile. She gave Psyche until nightfall to separate the seeds. Psyche despaired, but a colony of ants, showing compassion, sorted them for her. Venus returned, and seeing what had happened, became even angrier.

Of this, Neumann says:

Psyche counters Aphrodite’s promiscuity with an instinctual ordering principle. While Aphrodite holds fast to the fertility of the swamp stage ..... Psyche possesses within her an unconscious principle which enables her to select, sift, correlate, and evaluate, and so find her way amid the confusion of the masculine. In opposition to the matriarchal position of Aphrodite, for whom the masculine is anonymous . . . Psyche, even in her first labor, has reached the stage of selectivity.

Robert Johnson puts this more succinctly.

The ant-nature is not of the intellect; it does not give us rules to follow; it is a primitive, instinctive, and quiet quality, legitimately available to women. Each woman has her own proficiency in this sorting attribute. Tasks can be done in a kind of geomoetric way, the nearest one first, or the one closest to a felling value first. In this simple, early way you can break the impasse of too-muchness.

I realize all this may sound hopelessly new-agey to you. But you'll have to cut me some slack. I did grow up in Northern California.

Here's a more cynical and rationalist take; we don't live with bugs anymore. As in, we mostly don't have to deal with them at all. When I found weevils in my flour one day, my father said to me: "Oh, just sift them out. They are harmless." I threw the flour away instead. But from his point of view, this was silly. He grew up on a farm during the DDT years when weevils were a part of life, and he developed a shoulder-shrugging-nonplussed attitude toward them. He is sorry about the return of bed bugs, but not all that surprised. He figures we'll just "deal."

I am from a spoiled generation that isn't used to bugs. I'm thinking maybe I should work on this. (The next time I saw weevils in my flour, I sifted them out.)

I find it no small coincidence that one of the most often repeated pieces of advice for dealing with bedbugs is: Eliminate clutter. That to me sounds like something straight out of Psyche's labors.

Continuing on the subject of bugs, I'm always slightly disturbed but fascinated by the Tamamushi shrine in Nara; originally it was decorated with the iridescent wings of the Tamamushi beetle.

Given that there weren't really any synthetic fabrics in 7th century Japan, you can't blame artists for wanting to use the unique qualities of the Tamamushi beetle to make something beautiful (in this case, scenes from the Buddha's past lives). Iridescence was relatively rare--something gods wore and that humans couldn't easily replicate. How did that make people feel about the Tamamushi beetle, I wonder? Did they get excited every time they saw one? Were they annoyed every time a beetle ended up inside their house?

One year when I went to look at the shrine, a priest had captured one of these beetles and had it in a plastic bag. And every time a visitor came by, he would show us the live beetle and ask us to re-imagine the shrine as it would have looked with fresh wings. He was a grown man, but his enthusiasm was like that of a child.

I wondered what life was like for that priest. Did he try to catch a Tamamushi every year? Did he think about the shrine every time he saw one of those beetles? Certainly a walk in the woods was for him a different thing than it was for me--definitely different than it would have been for my friend from NYC who announced that she hated all bugs. What would she have made of the shrine?

Finally, before you ask, I do not have bedbugs. Yet.

A great site on the life of the bedbugs and how to get rid of bedbugs
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