UR Here: Rethinking the gnat

Gnats, oh gnats
Those pesky clouds of airborne annoyance come around every spring, but they’ve been especially bad this year. — photo by Nate Grigg

“Gnats … gnats! … GNATS!! … Thousands … MILLIONS of them!”

Renfield’s lines from the rats scene in the Bela Lugosi Dracula has rattled through my brain incessantly this late spring and early summer in Iowa City. As I have stood still each morning at my neighborhood bus stop, the swarms of enraging insects have descended on me and my fellow commuters. We are a sight as we collectively flail our hands past our faces and around our heads as if chasing away tormenting spirits.

Those pesky clouds of airborne annoyance come around every spring, but they’ve been especially bad this year. Chalk it up to this year’s cool spring and heavy rains, says Patrick O’Malley from the Iowa State University Extension. Mother Nature’s vichyssoise stewed up an extra-heaping helping of the buggers, and then the sudden heat of late May shot them out of our backyard swamps, all at once, faster than you can say “Anton Arcane” (an arcane reference for the Swamp Thing fans out there).

First, let me say this unequivocally. I HATE THESE GNATS! Honest, pure, unadulterated hatred. “Get out of my face … and hair … and mouth … and life … or I’ll kill you!” kind of hatred.

OK, now I’m inoculated against accusations of being a “gnat lover.” So having gotten my visceral venom spewed, let me now say, “Embrace the gnats!”

Here’s what I mean. In a recent article in a local newspaper, an understandably frustrated citizen made a completely misguided response to our gnat invasion. Calling our pestilence “absurd,” this young man contacted our fair city administrator and suggested that our municipality send these little buggers back to the Stone Age (not his words) with a massive bombardment of pesticide. Here were my thoughts:

Point one: Well, that’s just not practical. As an ISU Extension entomologist replied to the suggestion in the article, our widespread gnat breeding would make targeted removal “difficult” (no duh!).

Point two: Despite their apocalyptic numbers and enraging behavior, the gnats are doing no harm, except to our blood pressure. They carry no disease, ravage no crops, destroy no human-made edifices.

Point three: Maybe the gnats have something to teach us. Since we can’t kill ’em (all), let’s sit at their wings and gain the wisdom they have to share with us.

Lesson one: humility

We live in a bounteous world of nature, beautiful in all its dimensions. A lot of it is annoying—and, face it, dangerous—to us humans. But we must realize we really don’t have dominion over it.

That lesson of humility is one we have failed to learn for centuries. Our ambitious young purveyor of gnatricide uncovers our weakness—and our mistake—in the face of a nature that can be inconvenient, and sometimes threatening, to human prospects and desires: We stubbornly seek unrelenting control over our environment.

We live in a world where outside is often (and usually) not fully to civilization’s liking—too hot, too cold, too smelly, too dry, too wet, too full of bugs. But rather than look past the annoyance to the beauty, and rather than take a stance of humility instead of hubris, we condition air, combust engines, spew pesticides, straighten streams, dam waters, pave prairies … and it all backfires on us, making that outside world even hotter, smellier, wetter than it ever was on its own. No doubt, the gnat has its ecological role in the circle of life. Yes, our arms will flail foolishly, but the gnats didn’t ask us to be here, either.

Lesson two: patience

When the winter winds bite our cheeks, we know that if we wait, spring’s breezes will eventually warm them. When we plant our tomato vines in the spring, summer’s hot winds will eventually bring forth their delicious fruits. When we breathe in buggy breakfast hors d’oeuvres at the bus stop, even though it can seem impossible at the time, we know that they’ll eventually go away.

Granted, “eventually” is taking a lot longer this year. As I write, the summer solstice is upon us. The swarm has abated some, but my bus stop community members continue to swat at their hair in the morning. Maybe as you read this around the Fourth of July, our beastie empire will have fallen. Or not. Just wait.

And lesson three: power

Just look at the knots these gnats have tied in our underwear! These tiny vermin raise our ire not by any one midge’s might, but rather in their massive collective aggravation.

Look past our annoyance and see how they demonstrate what many (many, many, many) can do where one would fail. They are the orchestra, the builders of the pyramids, the original crowdsourcers. They are Sidi Bouzid, Tahrir, São Paolo, Taksim, where objections to confiscation of a street vendor’s fruit, high bus fares and planned shopping malls can ignite a crown fire of revolution.

What change would you like to make in the world? Whatever it may be, perhaps look to the gnats for a handbook on how to get there.

Come Monday morning, as I once again join my fellow waving bus stop compatriots, I will have to say to them, “My friends, just remember: Through humility and patience comes power.” And then, no doubt, the swatting about their own heads will transform into slaps across mine.

Thomas Dean can’t wait until the mosquitoes show up!