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State bird

The not-so-merry month of May

October 1st, 2013

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

In New Hampshire, May ought to be the best month of the year. October is exhilarating, certainly, with the maples dressed in their glorious colors and the temperature brisk and bracing, but the color and the temperature are reminders that winter is just around the corner. And winter lasts forever, or seems to, in the Live, Freeze, and Die State. November’s a bleak misery, the landscape reduced to grays and browns and the cold rains soon giving way to sleet and snow. December, January, and February are all deep freeze. March is aptly known as mud-time, with thaws producing slush and sticky muck, until the temperature plummets, the mud freezes again, and a blizzard or an ice storm sets in. April’s a mocker: the sun warms a little, peepers pipe up in the trees, and the migratory birds wing in from the south, singing of spring. But the promise in their song is empty, for there’s usually sleet or even snow before the month is out.

And then, at last, comes lovely May in all her lush and tender beauty, warm and sweet, with flowers in her hair. The ground is soft, the garden’s ready for planting, the shaggy green lawn needs mowing, and winter-deferred projects around the house and grounds are all planned out and ready to go.

blackflyUnfortunately, in New England May is a queen held hostage by cruel savages, very small but implacably bloodthirsty, whose tribal name is Simuliidae culicomorpha. They’re common all over North America, known by various names, buffalo gnat and turkey gnat for two. In New Hampshire we just call them black flies, and some people consider them the real state bird, despite the purple finch’s official status. (I can’t remember ever seeing a purple finch in the twenty-six years my wife have had our New Hampshire house, except in a bird book.)


The females need a blood meal in order to breed, and they pursue it relentlessly. Unlike mosquitoes’ wings, those of black flies don’t whine as they fly past your ears, so you can’t hear them coming. They don’t attack open areas of your bare skin, where they might get noticed and squashed, but tend to alight just under your hairline, or on the back of your neck, where they are partly hidden. Or they creep down under the neck of your shirt, where they can take their meals in even better concealment.

And they don’t have mosquitoes’ syringe-like proboscises to suck up your blood. Instead, they bite — or rather, chew — through your skin. Their mouths secrete an anticoagulant to assist them in their blood feasts, and in part it’s what causes the painful itching and swelling they leave behind, along with an open wound that scabs over and itches even worse. Scratching the scabs (which is almost irresistible) reopens them and leaves you more vulnerable to the various germs and viruses the horrible little monsters carry. They may not be disease vectors as dangerous as Lyme ticks, but people have been known to die of infected black fly bites. And the relatives of our pests in the southern hemisphere cause river blindness, among even worse, often fatal, diseases.

The usual deet-based insect repellents do not impress them in the slightest. An Avon lotion called Skin-So-Soft, which reeks of really cheap perfume, actually works, a little. So men who have to work outdoors in May — farmers, timber-cutters, carpenters, and so on — clomp around in their Timberlands and Carhartts smelling like cut-rate hookers. It’s a little embarrassing for them, and women who work outdoors don’t like smelling of the stuff, either. I suspect even the Avon Ladies had to breathe through their mouths while they were touting it to their customers in its original role as an emollient; it really does suggest the morning-after sheets of a room in the No-Tell Motel. But once word got out that black flies don’t like it either, Skin-So-Soft got a new lease on life as anti-bug juice, another ironic instance of serendipity in the history of marketing.

But Skin-So-Soft doesn’t deter all the black flies, especially right after they hatch, at the beginning of the not-so-merry month of May, when the males swarm in huge clouds, frantically looking for females who are prime for breeding, thanks to the blood they’ve sucked out of you. The males don’t bite, but they get in your hair and mouth and eyes and up your nose, and they make being outdoors almost as unpleasant as the females do.

The locals ignore black flies, or try to, or just say they do to out-of-staters who complain about them. But then the locals claim they don’t mind March, because it’s “unlocking time,” the period when the ice in the rivers and streams begins to break up. I admit that sounds a lot more positive than mud time, but Robert Frost, a native of Vermont (whose climate is identical to New Hampshire’s), called March mud time, and that’s good enough for me. To my knowledge, Frost wrote no poems that mention black flies, though his work celebrates and deplores every other aspect of life and death in northern New England. Perhaps he thought they were just too irritating to deserve mention.

However, according to Wikipedia, a Canadian named Wade Hemsworth did write about them, in “The Black Fly Song,” which came to him while he was being eaten alive on a job in the woods of north Ontario. The chorus runs, in part,

And the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go.
I’ll die with the black fly a-pickin’ my bones….

Another Canadian, Christopher Hinton, even made a short animated film about the little buggers, called Blackfly. It’s won awards, but I have no desire to see it. Nor do I want to hear Wade Hemsworth or anyone else sing the song. When it’s black fly season,

I just want them to go away.

And they finally do, toward the beginning of June, all at once. They like warm days and cool nights, and the morning after the first hot night, the tiny monsters are all gone — until next year, for they breed before they die off, and lay the eggs that will become another generation of wee vampires. The welcome void they leave behind is filled immediately by mosquitoes, but skeeters at least have the courtesy to let you know they’re about to stab you, so they’re easier to slap. And they use syringes instead of teeth, which is downright doctorly of them.

One does get used to black flies. It helps to keep moving. A friend who worked as a logger for a while called them “the boss’s friends,” because they closed in on him the moment he sat down for a rest. And if your work requires sitting, or kneeling, as my wife’s does each May when she plants her garden, wear a beekeeper’s hat with a fine-mesh veil. But make sure to wear a turtleneck shirt under it, or you’ll wind up with a necklace of black fly bites.

There’s really not a damn thing you can do to avoid black flies entirely, unless you stay indoors and miss the prettiest time of year in New Hampshire. I try to put up with the “state bird” in the same way as I endure other unpleasant things my town inflicts on its residents, such as outrageously high property taxes. Black fly bites are a tax on enjoying fine weather and beautiful scenery, but at least I pay it to nature, not to the grumpy clerk in the town finance office. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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