Two months ago, I told a friend of mine that I’d help out as a cook at a summer camp. I had no real reason to say no and a suspicion—as did my friend, she later told me—that it would be “good” for me in the way that potentially energy-sapping activities are. I’m a dab hand in a kitchen, in any case and so I signed on for a five-day stint, cooking at a camp located in the heart of the Mendocino Woodlands.
“Are the mosquitoes bad there? You know…in the summertime?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
Her face lit up with wonder. “Oh, my god,” she said. “They’re really bad.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a problem with mosquitoes. They love me, people say, and I’ll think yeah maybe, but they love me a lot more. This is, by the way, the dumb conversation people always have about mosquitoes— people claiming that no, mosquitoes love them best, with counter-claim upon-counter claim piling up until finally you’re squabbling over which one the mosquito loves best. He loves me! No, he loves me more! Guess what: mosquitoes don’t love you, they need you (an ex-boyfriend once explained the difference to me) except the person who really doesn’t get bitten, which makes me think they have some non-diagnosed blood disease that nobody but the mosquito knows about.
Mosquitoes, my husband told me, live for about two weeks, and have a limited number of bites-sucks available to them. Also- and maybe you know this- only the female bites. She uses human blood to produce mosquito eggs. Weird, and sort of moving, but true. The female has to feed before laying her eggs.
“Mosquitoes have an average bite ratio of seven bites to one person,” Jay informed me.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I heard it on NPR,” he replied.
NPR was wrong, it turns out, and spreading bad science. Some female adults from the species of Aedes —the most common genus of mosquito that we have in California—can live for several months, as long as there’s something to feed on. In fact, everything I read about them made it clear that they don’t have a defined expiration date. I think in Jay’s mind, the fact that they lead shorter lives of naked desperation was supposed to make me feel sorry for them, but it doesn’t appease me at all. I hate being woken up by them and I hate being bitten. It’s my blood, not theirs. I hate the itchy bump that appears anywhere—and I mean anywhere; they just love juicy mucosal tissue. I hate the high-pitched whine of the female trying desperately to reproduce. I feel like shaking her and telling her there’s more to life than being a mom, and that the whole biological clock thing was invented by a patriarchal society that’s trying to trap her in an outdated gender role that benefits, you know, patriarchy. They’re like little annoying vampires, the pathetic, parasitic kind, like Max Schreck’s Nosferatu (not the handsome ones that Joss Whedon likes).
I called my sister Emily, who knows mosquitoes. “Dude, just get a bug jacket,” she said. She and I were once driven out of Desolation Wilderness by swarms of newly hatched mosquitoes. She followed up on that epic experience by moving back to Alaska and working as an environmental scientist which means, in part, that she sometimes works outside in Alaska’s incredibly untamed hinterlands, which are famous for hosting outlandishly large mosquitoes. She once sent me a article written by a walking guide who conducts backpacking enthusiasts through Alaska’s Brooks Range. The article included a picture of the guide’s bare feet with hundreds—HUNDREDS—of mosquitoes clustered around his toes. I can’t even, I thought, shuddering. Also, scientists working in the Arctic noted that a swarm of mosquitoes can drain a full-grown caribou of its blood in a matter of minutes, not to mention their calves, which are born in the same season as the newly hatched mosquito. It’s really not funny, all this blood letting, this gruesome reproductive ritual. It’s a deeply serious business.
I called Cyrus Kroninger, the Park Operation manager for the Mendocino Woodlands.
“How …bad are the mosquitoes?” I asked him, hoping against hope for some good news.
“Oh, my god, they’re the worst they’ve ever been!” he said enthusiastically. (People seemed to be really enthralled by how bad the mosquitoes were.) “We had a ton of rain, although not an abnormal amount. But I think they’re hatching earlier and lasting longer. They’re nuts this year.” He’d gotten swarmed, he told me, that very morning taking out the trash. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. In fact, it would be odd, maybe even a sign of the end times if in June in a mature woodland, there were no mosquitoes, but still.
“What kind of mosquito are they?”
“A special kind,” he said. “They’re called the Western Treehole mosquito.”
The Western Treehole mosquito—the mosquito with a species name that sounds like an epithet—doesn’t need standing water to hatch, Cyrus told me. They make do with the minuscule pools of water found in the cavities of old trees or in leaf litter. There’s no way to abate their habitat without ripping down the entire woodland, which even I can see would be a gross overreaction.
“They’re a miserable bug,” he said, which was refreshing, coming from a environmentalist. They usually try to put a positive spin on the animal kingdom and its horrifying feeding and reproductive strategies, but not Cyrus. He’d obviously had a tough spring.
“But they don’t carry disease,” he assured me. “Well, not for humans, anyway. They do carry heartworm. But that only affects the deer, here.” (Heartworm is disgusting, by the way. Don’t make my mistake and go looking for pictures of it.)
“What am I going to do?” I wailed, adding, “Mosquitoes love me!”
“Well, you could pitch your tent inside the tent cabin,” said Cyrus. “That’s what some people do.” The tent cabins of Camp Three are charming but battered: the canvas that’s stretched over the frame, and the netting that covers the entrance of the cabin are perforated from years of use, and really just there to “hold space”, in pagan parlance, for something that’s actually intact. There would be no protection from the mozzies, unless I brought my tent. So that’s what I did. I brought all my weapons to the fight: my tent, a head net, my bug jacket, which looked like it had been designed by Issey Miyake, the Japanese avant-garde designer, my insect repellent and an extra mosquito net.
I talked about the mosquitoes as soon as I got to camp: I was like a hyper kid on the first day of school with something to show and tell. “Have you heard about the mosquitoes?” was my opening gambit. “They’re terrible this year.” I didn’t have to bother telling anyone; it was obvious as soon as we arrived, at 4 pm. They had been out all day, waiting for us, a voice hissed in my head. I immediately gave away the extra mosquito net to one camper; we hung it from the rafters of her cabin, and draped it around her sleeping cot. Another friend of mine borrowed the bug jacket and tried to get her daughter to wear it, with no success. My friend Tarin laughed when I told her this. “You gave all your mosquito protection away!” she said, which wasn’t totally true: I still had my head net and, importantly, my two-person tent, which I pitched inside the tent cabin and slid into every night, feeling intense gratitude, safe as I was from the flying vampires of the Mendocino Woodland. (“They don’t like the sun,” remarked Cyrus. More proof.)
I watched the other campers becoming aware of the five day blood-letting that awaited them. They walked around waving their hands around their face, and slapping themselves, looking at the bloody smear smashed on their hand in astonishment. This was a pagan camp for families, where people often wave their arms and hands in ritual space to bring up some energy. How will I know the difference? I wondered, watching them windmill their arms frantically around their body. I watched the kids, some no more than a few months old, play in the space under the tree or nap in the open, and tried not to think about the Caribou calves.
Up north, by which I mean the Arctic Circle, scientists have discovered that climate change is producing bigger, more durable swarms. The mosquito population is hatching sooner, and living longer, potentially threatening the reproductive success of the Caribou herds which will sooner run from the huge swarms of enormous mozzies, than eat, even pregnant female caribou, which are low-hanging fruit to the maddened female mosquito. (I guess feminist intersectionality doesn’t exist in nature.) There are pictures of caribou herds huddled together pathetically on ice floes, trying to avoid these monster mosquitoes. If the temperature of the Arctic increases by more than 2%, the mosquito’s chances of living longer goes up by more than fifty percent. The future belongs to them, the little fascists.
I mean, what are the alternatives? I used DEET a few times. It worked, but I didn’t like using it. Widespread use of pesticides is an ecologically disastrous idea, and the more recent notion, in the wake of the Zika disaster, of creating and releasing genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes to lessen the baby boom makes my hair stand on end. So what about predation, nature’s bloody birth control? Something’s gotta eat these little fuckers, I reasoned. What are the salmon doing? Don’t they eat insects? Haven’t the woodland animals come up with a plan? I envisioned an Orwellian hierarchy among the woodland wildlife, with mosquitoes, tiny but mighty at the top of the hierarchy, biting and eating and depositing heart-worms into the bodies of helpless deer with no one putting up any organized resistance. It turns out that bats eat them. Cyrus said “There’s a lot of bats here in the Woodland. We actually created houses for them, but I don’t think we needed to. They’re all over the place.” How ironic, I thought, that the very symbol of vampiric glamour is just the thing for fighting the real vampires. The salmon, as it turns out, have other priorities. “When salmon re-enter the river, as adults, they don’t eat at all. They’re only interested in reproduction,” said Cyrus.
And that’s it. What interests nature is reproduction and the grounds of the Mendocino Woodlands in the summer are a concupiscent den of iniquity. The mammals—deer, bear and human alike— are fair game for the “hungry, opportunistic females”, who had our blood from breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the five days I was there. Legions of mosquitoes were made during those five days, with the very stuff of our bodies. From my veins to the mosquito’s ovaries shall come generations and mighty shall be their work.
At the beginning of camp, the skin of the human children was perfect: unmarred and glowing with health. By the last day of camp, their faces were riddled with mosquito bites. A little brown-eyed girl that ran around in a blue Princess Elsa dress had at least 15 bites on her forehead and cheeks and another 100 on her back. Another boy had a bite on the side of his head that was so huge, it looked like he was about to sprout a horn from it. I wore my head net religiously, walking around camp, looking weirdly Gothic—“What are you wearing?” the startled children would ask when they saw me—and covered myself in long-sleeved shirts, pants and shoes. I got bitten ten times on my body and twice in quick succession on my face. I spent most of my time in the kitchen alternately cooking and slapping my hands in front of the startled faces of my fellow cooks, trying to kill the mozzies hovering in the air, attempting to feed on them. “You go, Elizabeth,” one of them said. I think it was understood that I was a bit obsessed, a bit traumatized, a bit exhausted.
We did nothing but feed: ourselves and others. We made food for five days straight for more than 70 people, all of whom ate voraciously. On the last night, Henry, a little boy with a delicately shaped head and large, dark blue eyes hung out in the kitchen, wheedling food from us and showing signs of camp burnout (too many children, too many mosquitoes, too much in general). The head cook put him to work and pretty soon he was sautéing things and helping her taste the cornbread she’d made for dinner. I left the kitchen and sat down to read, tired from waking up everyday at seven a.m. and slightly bilious from snacking constantly and eating three squares a day. Henry walked out to me holding a hunk of cornbread in his hand.
“Here,” he said. “You have to eat this and tell me what you think.”
I shoved it in my mouth. “It’s good,” I said. “I think people will like it.” He left and came back a minute with a second piece, equally big, which he pushed in my hand.
“I can’t. I can’t eat that. I’m stuffed,” I whined.
“Yes you can. You have to eat. You have to,” he said. I ate it.