For the Love of Scorpions

July 4, 2019

The heat of summer is full upon us, excruciating in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and this makes me think of scorpions. It’s a reminiscence, not a vigilance, because I now live far enough north that I don’t have to check my shoes every time I put them on. No wonder people in Arizona like sandals!

Selket greets the deceased as a woman with a scorpion on her head. Egypt, 1100 bce.

Scorpions are fascinating, multi-faceted creatures. They embody mystery, in the sense that they become more intriguing the more you learn about their secret world. They embody boundaries, in the sense that much larger creatures are respectful of them and their venom. They embody transformation, in the sense that their venom has huge effects on the human body.

Scorpions are dangerous and live in a dangerous world, hunted continually by birds. Even mating is dangerous. Summer is scorpion courtship season, involving a dance pincer-to-pincer under the starry sky. That sounds sweet, but since both parties are heavily armed it can involve stinging. Some scorpions reproduce parthenogenetically, which seems like a better idea.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter on scorpions in Divining with Animal Guides:

The Egyptians had a scorpion goddess, Selket, who was called upon for protection against—you guessed it—scorpions. Selket was one of the guardians of the “canopic jars,” the containers holding the pickled remains of four vital organs of the deceased: liver, intestines, lungs, and stomach. The heart, the all-important anchor of the soul within the body, was preserved, wrapped, and returned to the body cavity. The brain was thrown in the trash. Each of the four organs was guarded by a specific deity, and Selket protected the intestines. The guardian deity was depicted on the outside of the jar along with hieroglyphic prayers to invoke that deity’s protection. This label also helped the expired prince remember which jars housed his various organs. Labeling funerary objects was an important precaution: not only did the rich take a lot of stuff with them, the world beyond had so many people—as many people as had ever trod the earth—that mixups were a potential complication. Thus everything was tagged, and clothing and bedding contained laundry marks. This consistent attention to organizational detail in preparation for the final voyage may strike some people as absurd, but think about it: would you want to root around in someone else’s canopic jar by mistake? Selket was entrusted with an important responsibility.

Selket’s other major role was helping the deceased draw their first breath in the afterlife. Most “death goddesses” are really death-and-birth goddesses, and breath is the fundamental connection to life. Selket initiated breathing in both worlds. To emphasize this nurturing aspect of Selket’s character, she was sometimes depicted without a stinger or as a stingless Water Scorpion. The Water Scorpion is not an arachnid but an insect in a family biologists call the “true bugs.” Water Scorpions are true bugs and fake scorpions, and most of them don’t even faintly resemble scorpions, but there are a few with pincer-like front legs and long tails that look vaguely reminiscent. The “tail” is actually a breathing tube that sticks out of the shallow water. The Nile species depicted in art has a double-breasted air tube.

Here is an excerpt from a longer article on scorpions in the anthology, iPagan:

Renaissance scorpion magic was unequivocally combative, used surreptitiously for destroying personal enemies. Outside of hot climates a scorpion would have been a scarce commodity, all the more so because there was no use for the creature which enjoyed public approbation, and this must have heightened the allure for those dedicated to intrigue. Picture a man in tights with a ridiculously large shirt collar gazing down at a desiccated scorpion while rubbing his hands together and saying “Hahahahaha.”

The Black Fly Returns

June 28, 2019

Black Fly season is in full swing where I live, and I wanted to pen a tribute to these little monsters.

For those who don’t know what Black Flies are, they’re little bugs the size of a gnat that swarm in the early summer and BITE. Each bite swells up and itches. They hang around hikers in deciduous forests on long days when the weather is nice, getting in eyes, noses, and mouths. My first summer in the Adirondacks, I got a few dozen bites around my calves and ankles during a hike, and I was woozy for a couple days from the poisons. For the next ten years, a rash where I was bitten would reappear every time my legs got warm.

Female Black Flies bite mammals after mating to get a bit of blood for their eggs. They lay their eggs in cold moving water, and after the water reaches seventy degrees Fahrenheit, the eggs hatch. The larvae attach themselves to rocks and debris as they cannot swim. There are many larval stages. Eventually the larvae spin cocoons, and about a week later the young flies emerge. In my experience, it’s usually about a week after they begin swarming before they start biting. The life cycle repeats throughout the season, but the large swarms are usually gone by early July, depending on temperature and rainfall. As the weather grows warmer, the small streams harboring the larvae dry up. As the weather cools, larval development enters a stasis until the next spring.

Think of the Black Flies as the admission price for this.

Black Flies play an important role in the ecosystem at each stage in their development. Fish eat the eggs and the larvae. The larvae eat organic vegetable debris, breaking it down and filtering it for other organisms. Once the adults emerge, they become food for fish, birds, toads, bats, and other insects. The late spring swarms emerge at a particularly opportune time for nesting birds. Black Flies feed on plant nectar and are important for pollination.

While Black Flies make it unpleasant to be in the woods, they also creep into the villages, albeit in smaller numbers, and make it impossible to work in the garden (for me anyway). Most town districts use a pesticide to reduce the population of Black Flies. In early spring a chemical is released in streams that prevents Black Fly larvae from maturing. While this chemical is highly selective, affecting only one other (non-endangered) species, I don’t agree with this practice, since Black Flies are a critical foundation to the overall ecology. Fortunately Black Fly control is a daunting task in a place with as much water as the Adirondacks, and control efforts are always incomplete.

Bug repellants don’t work well against Black Flies. DEET supposedly works somewhat, but I wouldn’t know about that since I won’t use it. My strategies for hiking in Black Fly season are 1) to walk quickly and stay ahead of them, stopping only on open ledges where a breeze keeps them away; 2) to hike midday when there are fewer swarming; and 3) to wear long pants, pack a lightweight long-sleeve shirt, and bring a head net. A head net is a piece of nylon netting worn over a ballcap and cinched at the bottom. It interferes slightly with vision, but when the bugs are at their worst it’s worth the nuisance. I was once with a group on Nun-da-ga-o Ridge where the Black Flies were so bad we had to eat our sandwiches under our head nets.

Despite the consensus that Black Flies are a nuisance, many people respect these creatures for their fierceness and tenacity. A local softball team calls itself The Black Flies. A grueling mountain bike race calls itself The Black Fly Challenge. A local nursery calls itself Black Fly Organics. Many residents are proud of their ability to live with the Black Flies, viewing it as a badge of toughness.

Black flies are picky about where they lay their eggs, so the best thing about the early summer onslaught is what it tells us about the ecosystem we share with them: that water is plentiful and very very clean.

100% Secure

June 7, 2019

A few glitches with my website last week, but everything’s fixed. I moved from one SSL provider (the thing that puts the “s” in https://) to another, and I expected some issues to arise, but they were thornier than predicted. The site was never compromised (and I’m not selling anything through this site anyway), but web browsers, especially Google, like to flag things.

Bugs have started coming out, so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be taking pictures. These are from three separate hikes this past week.

Mossy Cascade
Giant from Snow Mountain
Deer Brook
Hammond Pond

Animals and Music

May 24, 2019

I remember my mother one day giving me this very typical (for her) advice: “Be sure to wash your celery good. I was reading the other day that celery is extremely dirty and people should be more careful.”

To which I had to reply: “Where do you read these things?”

Well, I was reading the other day that termites like heavy metal music. Yes, I read it on the Internet, but there’s so much stuff on the Internet that you have to know what to look for.

Scott Bauer/USFWS

The article didn’t say whether termites show taste in heavy metal – whether they like Queen and Jethro Tull but hate KISS – but researches inferred that termites prefer this music since they chew faster when they hear it. According to Erlich Pest Control Blog, rock is ideal work music for termites due to “the frequency of 2.5KHz outputs for bass and electric guitars, which are distinctive of the rock genre.”

Mammals can have idiosyncratic tastes in music. Dolphins purportedly love Radiohead. In Tracking and the Art of Seeing, Paul Rezendes describes a raccoon who “would often come in when the man was playing Bach on his stereo. As soon as the record was over, the raccoon would leave.”

I used to have a cat who liked loud classical music, the kind with lots of horns and cymbals. She would lay next to a boombox playing Wagner or The William Tell Overture and cry if it was turned off. She’s dead now, but in Misha’s memory I would like to share this rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, her favorite.

At Crown Point

May 16, 2019

Trees are starting to bud where I live, and the birds have arrived. I went to Crown Point this week to watch the birds being banded. I’ve driven over the Crown Point Bridge hundreds of times but have never stopped here.

Banding a Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Birds are measured, then sex and age is recorded.

Savannah Sparrow.

It had rained early in the morning, and the cloud shapes were interesting.

After the long winters here, even dandelions are beautiful.

I liked this tree. Spring is unrolling slowly this year.

Crown Point Bridge from New York to Vermont.