Sunday, May 22, 2011

In praise of blackflies

One of my favourite pieces of writing about the environment is a 1999 essay by Bill McKibben entitled "Consuming Nature". In it, McKibben talks at length about the blackflies that plague his Adirondack home each spring, and how newcomers to the valley try to rally support for treating area stream and rivers with larvicides to reduce the blackfly population. McKibben's not a big fan of the idea, and sees it as just one more way how many people say they like nature, but only certain aspects of it. Like poison ivy, skunks and lightning strikes, blackflies are a part of nature most of us would happily do without. But instead of fly-free springtime, McKibben says he's willing to consume nature just as it is, and put up with a couple weeks of bites and bugnets.

It's the May long weekend here in Canada. The TV beer ads celebrate it as the first holiday weekend of the summer, but in practice, it's the peak of blackfly season. Not that so many Canadians actually notice anymore. Despite the popular mythology of pond hockey and beavers peddled by the makers of fizzy beer and doughnuts, most Canadians live in cities and suburbs. And relatively few participate in outdoor recreation activities beyond the city limits for any length of time.

The blackfly is not an urban creature. Blackflies reproduce in cold, clear running water. Sediment-laden streams, stormwater retention ponds. clogged eavestroughs and other common urban water bodies make ideal mosquito habitat, but not for blackflies. Blackflies also don't like hot weather; the first good hot spell in late May ends their reproductive cycle for another year. Urban areas with their minimal forest canopies and extensive blacktop roads and tar-shingle roofs heat up quickly in the spring, further turning cities into blackfly deserts. There are many advantages to urban living; freedom from blackflies is one we tend not to be conscious of, but it's certainly one.

I'm scratching a blackfly bite on my ankle as I write this. I don't take much inspirational value from blackflies the way McKibben does, but I do see the blackfly's practicalities. We went out for a hike yesterday in Gatineau Park. One of the joys of living in downtown Ottawa is to have such a beautiful forest park minutes from home. When we arrived at the trailhead, we were welcomed by a joyous, buzzing crowd of little biters. We were prepared for them physically, having liberally doused ourselves in citronella. Even so, it takes a few minutes of walking to settle in psychologically: you can't help but wave your hands at them and slap at them as they seek out the inevitable creases in your citronella armour. But after a couple bites, you settle into your gait, and turn your attention to the white of the trilliums, the red columbines, and the translucent emerald of the early-season leaves. You also get the trail and the view from the lookout pretty much to yourself (or at least, free from other humans), something you don't get once the blackflies have retired for the summer.

So, while this holiday weekend was officially created to celebrate Queen Victoria (in Quebec they celebrate patriotes), I'm celebrating the humble, hungry blackfly (and the fact that when I next go out in the woods, it'll be gone). Happy long weekend!

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