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The Politics of Nature

Sanford nature writer Bill Belleville's latest book of bittersweet essays wins National Outdoor Book Award

Photo: Bill Belleville, License: N/A

Bill Belleville

The strange part was when a truck equipped to spray insecticides drove up on the lawn next to the screened porch and started gassing us. They were actually trying to gas the midges, little fly-type insects that breed as larvae in the giant body of water outside, and then, as adults, swarm in and engulf whatever is moving. They don’t bite, but since they multiply in the millions like some sort of Biblical plague, they pile up in great numbers and are slippery as hell when you step on them.

The midges, also called “blind mosquitoes,” are hardy enough to survive in the sluggish, nutrient-enriched eutrophic waters. So the wise, long-term solution is to clean up this sluggish dilation in the St. Johns River, known as a lake. A healthy river bottom would simply support a larger equation of aquatic insects and predators, and the midge larva that live down there would find it harder to compete for space and food. That approach, of course, would take some long-term thought and planning. It seems so much better to default to the old Dow Chemical slogan: “Better Living Through Chemistry.” So instead of ecological restoration, we resort to great plumes of pesticides since it seems so much more ... dramatic. Those evil midges want to harass us, unleashing an insect jihad on our shores? Blow the suckers off the face of the earth.

I asked the waitress why the truck was gassing us, when clearly, we ought not to be gassed. Her answer was classic: “It’s the city ... or county spraying.” Which sort of means, it’s OK, because they know what they’re doing. Or if they don’t, we can’t do anything about it, anyways. Once my friend Colin, who is a physician, figured out what was happening, we all took our food and beverages and moved inside. But by then, we had a patina of pesticide about us. I also tried to study why another half dozen people continued to sit outside and feed while they were also being sprayed. Perhaps they already knew the city or county had approved it.

Sanford has tried to get rid of its midge problem for years now, doing everything under the sun except trying to clean up the lake. In 1977, the Greater Sanford Chamber commissioned a study on the midge affliction and found that it resulted in a loss of $3 to $4 million a year in business. While the midges might be tiny, this wasn’t small change. About a decade ago, the city spent about $100,000 to equip a large barge that would sort of suck all the midges to their teensy little bug deaths. But a storm came and washed it ashore. Later, the midge season didn’t arrive on time, and the barge sat there forlorn, bereft of midges. By the time they did come, everyone had lost hope and the midge barge had lost funding. Now there are three small midge barges, which function like giant bug lights. Photovoltaics energize the lights by day; by night, the soft glow draws the midges like entomological sirens to their inglorious dissolution. Sort of like little singles bars for insects.

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