Bluets can be lovely to look at, but on Dana Wilde’s property ​they inevitably must be mowed down, a casualty of the strife between people and nature. In the grasses where the bluets thrive, Wilde writes, are things that are trying to eat us. Photo by Dana Wilde

“Why is Dad mowing down flowers?” Jack asked while I was cutting the grass one warm May day years ago. He might have been about 17, the age when some people are first struck like a thunderclap by the recognition that the world is beautiful, but before the recognition that it’s deadly.

It was the bluets he was concerned about. In May every year they blossom in pools and sprays among the dog violets. They’re never unsightly, like the unkempt hatcheted dandelion leaves that can make a junkyard out of the lawn. It would be much better for all concerned if their joyful little lavender-blue beauty could be preserved forever. Or at least through the best part of summer.

But it can’t. They are an unfortunate casualty of the strife between us and the woods. For living in the grass where the bluets thrive are things that are trying to eat us.

In mid-May, black flies arise like mini-demons from the flowing brook. They subside exactly on May 31, and the next day mosquitoes appear. Mosquitoes spawn in standing water, which in normal springtime is abundant during May around our ledge-based yard. They sleep in the firewood lining the garage walls. But mostly, they live in the grass. The more grass, the better the mosquito lodging. Walk through the blades and they — the females at least — rise in clouds, out for blood.

Everyone knows how nasty mosquito bites can be. A fellow backyard naturalist once told me that in the upper reaches of Ontario, the summer mosquitoes are so thick they can kill a human being. He said the indigenous people smeared bear grease on their bodies against the bites, which were to be feared. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but it seems believable, given what they do to us just in our yard, if I let them.

Although I have to say, the worst mosquitoes I’ve encountered were not in Maine or Canada, but in China. Here, it’s the swarm that gets you. But in China, the individual is savage. In our Shanghai apartment, fat mosquito thugs lumbered through the air with tweezy dangling appendages, ready to stick anything that sweated. They looked lethargic but had escape velocities like lightning compared to the dolts from Maine’s wetlands. When one stuck you, you knew it. One bite injected enough poison into the joint of my thumb to swell it so hard I could not bend it for two days. The itch was more painful than any black fly gash. We slept with the windows shut and sheets over our heads.

It’s really a case of us or them. I have to cut the grass, or we literally get eaten. In parts of the yard I put off mowing as long as possible because we like the bluets, but at some point, they and the violets and the wild strawberry blossoms have to be cut with the grass.

One way of thinking about nature emphasizes the flagrant destruction humans have visited on it in the past 300 years. It wants to leave the bluets and everything else in its innocent state even if it means mosquitoes and ticks inject you with diseases. As dutiful followers of Thoreau, we should love the natural world and integrate ourselves and our fundamental human moral vision into nature: Live and let live.

But you know, although Thoreau loved nature, he also had no delusion about it being benign. One of his many neglected points is that people must carve a middle ground between the enlivening aspects of civilization and the fatal wilderness. Human life is lived between these two worlds, where we make clearings — physical, aesthetic and moral.

I love the bluets and the tall timothy and rye grasses. But if I don’t make it hard for the mosquitoes, they will innocently do their best to kill me.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” will be available soon from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.