Tolstoy’s Love Affair with Mosquitoes

Mosquito swarms in Belarus


We will be attending our triennial “Bates Bash” next week in our Maine cottage, built by my great grandmother over 100 years ago atop the Ricker Hill apple orchards, which my cousins still operate. We will renew connections, walk among the trees, eat a lobster dinner, and generally make merry. We will also battle mosquitoes.

Although I find mosquitoes intolerable, Tolstoy offers another perspective on them in his novel The Cossacks, which I’m currently reading. I share it here in case there are any readers out there interested in adopting this perspective. I know that my farmer cousins are far less bothered by mosquitoes that I am, so perhaps Olenin, a young Russian soldier who has become enchanted with the Caucuses, is on to something:

The day was perfectly clear, calm, and hot. The morning moisture had dried up even in the forest, and myriads of mosquitoes literally covered his face, his back, and his arms. His dog had turned from black to grey, its back being covered with mosquitoes, and so had Olenin’s coat through which the insects thrust their stings. Olenin was ready to run away from them and it seemed to him that it was impossible to live in this country in the summer. He was about to go home,  but remembering that other people managed to endure such pain he resolved to bear it and gave himself up to be devoured. And strange to say, by noontime the feeling became actually pleasant. He even felt that without this mosquito-filled atmosphere around him, and that mosquito-paste mingled with perspiration which his hand smeared over his face, and that unceasing irritation all over his body, the forest would lose for him some of its character and charm. These myriads of insects were so well suited to that monstrously lavish wild vegetation, these multitudes of birds and beasts which filled the forest, this dark foliage, this hot scented air, these runlets filled with turbid water which everywhere soaked through from the Terek and gurgled here and there under the overhanging leaves, that the very thing which had at first seemed to him dreadful and intolerable now seemed pleasant.

Olenin even finds a way of turning mosquitoes into an occasion for philosophical reflection. Each mosquito is an individual and he, in turn, is part of a larger whole:

He felt cool and comfortable and did not think of or wish for anything. And suddenly he was overcome by such a strange feeling of causeless joy and of love for everything, that from an old habit of his childhood he began crossing himself and thanking someone. Suddenly, with extraordinary clearness, he thought: ‘Here am I, Dmitri Olenin, a being quite distinct from every other being, now lying all alone Heaven only knows where—where a stag used to live—an old stag, a beautiful stag who perhaps had never seen a man, and in a place where no human being has ever sat or thought these thoughts. Here I sit, and around me stand old and young trees, one of them festooned with wild grape vines, and pheasants are fluttering, driving one another about and perhaps scenting their murdered brothers.’ He felt his pheasants, examined them, and wiped the warm blood off his hand onto his coat. ‘Perhaps the jackals scent them and with dissatisfied faces go off in another direction: above me, flying in among the leaves which to them seem enormous islands, mosquitoes hang in the air and buzz: one, two, three, four, a hundred, a thousand, a million mosquitoes, and all of them buzz something or other and each one of them is separate from all else and is just such a separate Dmitri Olenin as I am myself.’ He vividly imagined what the mosquitoes buzzed: ‘This way, this way, lads! Here’s some one we can eat!’ They buzzed and stuck to him. And it was clear to him that he was not a Russian nobleman, a member of Moscow society, the friend and relation of so-and-so and so-and-so, but just such a mosquito, or pheasant, or deer, as those that were now living all around him.

Still not convinced to live and let live? Still not ready to embrace mosquito-paste? Me neither.

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Thieving Raccoons


Sunday night, before going to bed, I filled our hummingbird feeders, which are located outside our breakfast nook. When I got up the following morning, the entire feeder was missing, even though it hung from an overhanging eave and required a step stool to refill. It was a mystery.

I immediately suspected racoons since they had invaded our home once before. Years ago, when my parents kept bird seed in a large garbage bin on the screened-in back porch, raccoons cut through the screen, worked their way through the thick bungee cord holding the lid down, and dived in. Because the theft opened up a second front in a war on my parents’ attempt to feed the birds—flying squirrels were already cleaning out our offerings—my parents gave up.

My suspicions about the recent theft proved correct as we finally found the stolen feeder on the porch roof. The raccoons had come down from above, reaching over the eave and unhooking the feeder before absconding with it. Then they bit out the bee guards and drank the sugared water.

I found a wonderful Kathryn Nuernberger poem about racoons working their way into our dark imaginations. The speaker recalls witnessing a night time coon hunt that traumatized her as a child. If a parent must abandon you in the dark to grapple with raccoon enemies, then a child can only conclude the worst. “Now you are ours,” her fears tell her.

You Are Afraid of the Dark

By Kathryn Nuernberger

You are afraid of the dark,
for which you blame the raccoons,
or more to the point, your father,
who took you and your mother
into the night with a flashlight
and shotgun, then left
with both, while you held
her shaking hand. You
would follow your father
to the end of the world,
those distant birch woods
where raccoons rustle
and flash their green eyes.
His gun was firing
into the persimmon trees
and the rain of leaves and ripe fruit
fell farther and farther,
until only the crackle
of his shots and the distant baying
of the hounds could be heard.
The raccoons came then
to hiss all around:
he left you, he left you,
and now you are ours.

Think of the children whom ICE is separating from their immigrant parents. What nightmares will hiss around them?

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A Poem To Console the Losers

Croatia’s Modric won the Golden Ball but his team lost


Having seen my team win the World Cup, I can afford to be magnanimous and compliment Croatia for their remarkable courage. Time after time they threw themselves at the superior French team, leaving open huge swathes of space behind them. In the end, it cost them.

To cushion myself against defeat—I was prepared for France to lose as it had lost to Italy in the 2006 finals—I already had a French consolation poem picked out. I offer it to Croatia.

As if it weren’t bad enough to lose, the Croats had to receive their medals in the rain, which makes Jules Laforgue’s “Triste, Triste” (“Sad, Sad”) apropos. Let’s just say that it is very French in its existential ennui.

Sad, Sad

By Jules Laforgue

I contemplate my fire. I stifle a yawn.
The wind weeps. The rain streams against my window.
Next door a piano plays a ritornello.
How sad is life and how slowly it flows.

I sing to our earth, atom of a moment,
In the infinite screen of eternal stars,
To the few that have deciphered our feeble eyes,
To all that is inexorably closed to us.

And our type! Always the same comedy,
Vices, griefs, melancholy, sickness,
And then we make lovely golden dandelions blossom.

The universe reclaims us, nothing of ours endures,
Nevertheless let everything down here continue again.
How alone we are! How sad is life!

Not that life flowed slowly in yesterday’s contest, which was remarkable for its scoring and its high energy.

When we win, everything feels infused with meaning, at least for a while. When we lose, “how sad is life!”

Here’s the poem in French:

Je contemple mon feu. J’étouffe un bâillement. 
Le vent pleure. La pluie à ma vitre ruisselle. 
Un piano voisin joue une ritournelle. 
Comme la vie est triste et coule lentement.

Je songe à notre Terre, atome d’un moment, 
Dans l’infini criblé d’étoiles éternelles, 
Au peu qu’ont déchiffré nos débiles prunelles, 
Au Tout qui nous est clos inexorablement.

Et notre sort! toujours la même comédie, 
Des vices, des chagrins, le spleen, la maladie, 
Puis nous allons fleurir les beaux pissenlits d’or.

L’Univers nous reprend, rien de nous ne subsiste, 
Cependant qu’ici-bas tout continue encor. 
Comme nous sommes seuls! Comme la vie est triste!

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Salomé, a Female Revenge Fantasy?

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, “Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist”

Spiritual Sunday

 The salacious story of Salomé (a.k.a. Herod and Herodias’s daughter) is today’s Gospel reading so here’s a strange and unsettling poem written by Anne Killigrew in the late 17th century. I can’t decide whether it is a feminist revenge fantasy or a drama of  sexual frustration. If John the Baptist has been admonishing Salomé, maybe Killigrew is letting men know women can push back. Maybe the poet is fantasizing the way that Bronte does in Jane Eyre, playing out a revenge fantasy against Rochester and then, when he has been brought low by alter ego Bertha Mason, nursing him in her arms .

Here’s Mark’s account:

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

And now for Killigrew:

Behold, dear Mother, who was late our dear,
Disarmed and harmless, I present you here;
The tongue tied up, that made all Jury [Jewry] quake,
And which so often did our greatness shake;
No terror sits upon his awful brow,
Where fierceness reigned, there calmness triumphs now;
As lovers use, he gazes on my face,
With eyes that languish, as they sued for grace;
Wholly subdued by my victorious charms,
See how his head reposes in my arms.
Come, join then with me in my just transport,
Who thus have brought the hermit to the Court.

Interpreted religiously, the poem shifts from inner turmoil to the peace that Jesus promised, and it even ends with an apparent reference to the pieta (Mary cradling the body of Jesus). It just does so through sadistic imagery. The poem is a puzzle.

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France vs. the Little Engine That Could



Seldom it is that one’s favorite team reaches the World Cup final, but that’s my enviable situation. (France’s success helps offset my grief over Roger Federer losing at Wimbledon.) Everyone is predicting a French win, which of course has me very nervous. I worry that Croatia is the little engine that could.

The 1930 story features a little blue engine that agrees to help a broken-down train when larger engines refuse. To add urgency to the mission, the train is “full of good things for boys and girls” on the other side of the mountain. Demonstrating both the value of believing in oneself and of helping others, the blue engine chants the well-known mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” as she strains to pull the train up the mountain. The onomatopoeic ending of the story is filled with self-satisfaction: “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”

When Croatia was in the midst of its third overtime game in a row, it must have felt like the little engine, convincing itself it could push the outer limits and succeed. In the game against Russia, the goalkeeper went down with a hamstring pull yet played on, making a critical save in the penalty shootout. Somehow the team kicked into a higher gear against England in extra time, scoring the game-winning goal to make it through to the final. An ESPN article explains the self- deception at the core of Croatia’s efforts:

[Winning is] about lies and deception. The lies you tell your body in an attempt to deceive it into thinking your hit points aren’t down to zero. And the lies you tell yourself when you convince yourself that, yes, you can reach that stray ball and, no, you won’t let that opponent pass. Most of all, it’s about believing that you can keep going through heavy legs, searing pain and shortness of breath.

The little blue engine analogy is even more appropriate given that Croatia, were it to win, would be the second smallest country ever to win the World Cup. (Uruguay takes top honors.) Usually large countries like Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina and Spain end up victorious.

So how can one find drama rooting for heavily-favored France, a team that has played 90 fewer minutes that Croatia (equal to a full game) and appears to be clicking on all cylinders? Who cheers for Goliath and might not we see a contest ending as that one did in Robert Graves’s version of what really happened?

Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh 
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff 
To rout: but David, calm and brave, 
Holds his ground, for God will save. 
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh! 
Shame for Beauty’s overthrow! 
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.) 
One cruel backhand sabre cut — 
‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries, 
Throws blindly forward, chokes . . . and dies. 
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim, 
Goliath straddles over him. 

Here’s one drama to hold on to if you’re for France. In the 2016 European finals, the heavily favored French team had its “Casey at the Bat” moment, losing to underdog Portugal. Surely two such moments would be too cruel.

Although most people don’t know about it, there is a sequel to Grantland Rice’s famous poem. Casey has paid for his hubris with public humiliation and is a shadow of his former self:

All his past fame was forgotten – he was now a hopeless “shine.”
They called him “Strike-Out Casey,” from the mayor down the line;
And as he came to bat each day his bosom heaved a sigh,
While a look of hopeless fury shone in mighty Casey’s eye.

He pondered in the days gone by that he had been their king,
That when he strolled up to the plate they made the welkin ring;
But now his nerve had vanished, for when he heard them hoot
He “fanned” or “popped out” daily, like some minor league recruit.

France too has been derided for the way it froze against Portugal. Can’t one root for a team that has fallen flat in the past. Oedipus gets a second shot at glory, and so does Casey:

The pitcher smiled and cut one loose – across the plate it sped;
Another hiss, another groan. “Strike one!” the umpire said.
Zip! Like a shot the second curve broke just below the knee.
“Strike two!” the umpire roared aloud; but Casey made no plea.

No roasting for the umpire now – his was an easy lot;
But here the pitcher whirled again – was that a rifle shot?
A whack, a crack, and out through the space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky, a speck against the blue.

Above the fence in center field in rapid whirling flight
The sphere sailed on – the blot grew dim and then was lost to sight.
Ten thousand hats were thrown in air, ten thousand threw a fit,
But no one ever found the ball that mighty Casey hit.

Sports is all about narrative, and neutral observers often choose the one that stirs their hearts the most. I understand those who will be supporting the little Balkan country that could, but biased as I am, I’m going with the redemption story.

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Fishing in the Mind

Winslow Homer, “Boy Fishing”


Can art be so vivid that it supersedes actual experience? Billy Collins makes such a claim in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where he conjures up images that may resonate with those who fish, even though Collins isn’t among them. His own experience, he freely admits, comes from museum paintings.

Art precedes life, I imagine Collins arguing. A brown hare he sees in a painting seems much more real than any actual hare.

If Collins enhances our own fishing expeditions or nature walks, however, perhaps actual experience doesn’t really matter. As Hamlet reflects upon an actor pouring out the Queen of Troy’s grief, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?” Perhaps artists don’t so much see as channel.

Or as Shakespeare puts it elsewhere,

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

By Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

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