a whole range of them. There are even adjustable ones that dial down to the amount of light required to read the footnotes in the Mansfield-Tarcov translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses. A Petzl is better than those reading lamps that clip onto the book, in every way except one: If you turn to admire the beauty of your wife as she sleeps, the floodlight on her face will cause her to wake thinking it’s 1934 in Leningrad and the police are at the door. The other drawback is that, should you wander into the yard at 3 a.m. for a breath of fresh air, any neighbor seeing your bobbing Petzl will suspect a break-in and the police will be at your door.
This week there was little chance of that. I was in Massachusetts, worried less about the police than about the bugs. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote somewhere—possibly in his magnificent Maritime History of Massachusetts—that Massachusetts had, in every age, produced the country’s greatest men. Some might question the assertion, but I buy it. It meets what those of us who grew up in Massachusetts were taught was the most rigorous standard of proof—it was said by someone from Massachusetts. It is beyond question, however, that Massachusetts has, in every age, produced the country’s greatest bugs.
What a profusion of insect life the Bay State has! Earwigs, silverfish, king beetles, clover mites, ticks large and small. In the woods in May, the tiny black flies swarm so thick that your throat numbs from breathing them. On the beaches in summer there are squadrons of fluorescent greenheads, which bite like horseflies and attack like kamikazes. Between dusk and dawn the air is ruled by the mighty New England mosquito. These don’t bite you so much as transfuse you—if you ever see one flying off after having bit somebody, note how it wobbles and struggles like a pregnant blue heron or an overloaded C-130. Try to clap it dead and the thing will explode in your palms like a blueberry. They are prodigious, the Mosquitoes of Massachusetts. They deserve their own calendar, like, say, The Women of the Big Ten.
The early settlers of Massachusetts brought a helpful aster plant called tansy. It is a natural insecticide, a smelly, yellow-flowering weed that still grows in the woods. There are also effective and great-smelling natural bug sprays that various companies make from castor oil, rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, citronella, clove, and geranium. I recommend the one made by the hippie corporation Burt’s Bees, even if a more appropriate brand name might be “Arm and Leg.”
A lot of locals slick themselves down with Deet-based bug spray. I wouldn’t. “Deet” is the shorthand for diethyl-something-or-other. While the Deet lobby claims the product is safe for humans, it is not safe for plastic, polypropylene shirts, and iPhone cases, all of which it melts. Do you want that stuff dripping with your sweat onto the corn-on-the-cob you’re eating at a clambake? It would keep me up at night.