One night I pulled into our local Pilot station to fill up our Prius with gas. To my surprise, as I stepped out of the car there were hundreds of Mayflies dancing in the overhead lights and alighting on my windshield, hood and top of the car. I am used to seeing Mayflies near rivers as they are aquatic insects whose life cycle is one that fisher folk follow closely since these delicate flying insects are a major food source for trout. I was unaware that the Pilot station was located anywhere near water but it must have been because the air was thick with Pale Evening Duns, the light yellow Mayflies that hatch in the spring and summer.
The young man who fills the tanks stepped over and I offered my credit card and asked him to fill it up with regular. He began swatting the air grumbling, “I hate bugs! They’re everywhere.”
His comment took me aback. Mosquitos, sure, I hate those, too. But Mayflies? As I stood there with the gas meter ticking in the background I realized how one is enculturated to hate some things and accept others. How we are taught to get the heebee-jeebees about certain things and how we learn to take others in stride. And often how, once we learn to “hate” something, we hate it forever without really taking another look.
As a country girl, growing up in Oregon, we didn’t have the video games and other diversions that kids have nowadays so when my sisters and I played outside we invented games with leaves and insects, salamanders and mice. Being toted up the hill on the back of a tricycle cost a handful of leaves. Soup served in the playhouse consisted of wild peppermint in water. Little field mice were trapped under up-side-down berry cartons and inspected at our leisure through the green plastic mesh. And grasshoppers were caught at Grandma’s house. We could be heard shrieking and squealing our childish delight as their feet tickled our hands and as they bounded away in unpredictable trajectories.
My grandfather had also taken me fishing in my youth, to a little river just below Mt. Hood. The Zig Zag River was a source of wonder and he introduced me to “Periwinkles”. These creatures hung onto the underside of rocks in the river, their shells a cocoon of tiny pebbles. We would peel them and use the “worm” inside to bait our hooks to catch hungry trout. I now know that Periwinkles were just a name my Grandpa made up and that these bugs are actually the larval stage of a Caddis Fly, also a favorite of trout. But when I was a child I knew nothing of bug magic. Periwinkles were just one of the small details of daily living taken for granted and filed away in the recesses of one’s childhood memories, seldom dusted off or reexamined in later life.
As my husband Shya and I became more interested in the art of fly fishing, particularly on rivers, we were introduced to entomology, the science of bugs. I learned that Mayflies, for instance, mate in the air and the female lays her fertilized eggs on the water, which then float down to the riverbed where they gestate and turn into the larval stage. Eventually the larva swim to the top of the water column, where they shed their case and emerge to fly away and start the cycle once again. That’s why trout will eat the larva, the immerging flies as they swim toward the sky or the flies as they dance on top of the water, dropping their eggs. They will also key in on the spinners, spent bugs who have mated and fall back to the surface to be eaten or reabsorbed into the river itself.
There have been days on the river when I have seen a patchy fog of gnats, a smoky winged haze as millions undulate millimeters above the water’s surface skin as far as the eye can see. At times there are Trico spinners masquerading as gossamer tree fluff floating weightlessly down toward the water’s slick surface. It is easy to watch their effortless descent only to be surprised as they abruptly change direction and dance skyward on translucent white wings.
As I stood by my car, I watched the buttery colored Mayflies, dainty ballerinas, wings erect, waiting to make their entrance on a watery stage. I did so with a sense of wonder, of childlike innocence.
When my tank was full and the pump clicked off, the attendant returned. “Damned bugs,” he said as he removed the nozzle, replaced my fuel cap and closed the fuel door. No, I thought. It’s magic. Bug Magic.