Lately my home life has felt like a camping trip. I have been waking at 3 a.m. or so and staring. Stirring at night is one thing—rolling over, drifting into semi-consciousness, having a stray thought or two either to be remembered or not remembered in the morning—but staring is quite another. In the weeks since May, when my father died, those stray thoughts have been vivid enough to seize my attention. Then they bring with them other thoughts, practical and metaphysical. After a few minutes, I’m wide awake.
Reading is the obvious remedy. I grope till I get hold of my Petzl, wrap it around my head, and activate it. Petzl is a French headlamp company. Its basic product, which now sits on my bedside table, is a variant on the gigantic flashbulb-attached-to-a-sweatband that doctors sport to such ridiculous effect, along with clipboards and stethoscopes and knee-length white smocks, in 1930s movies and episodes of The Three Stooges. In the 1970s, Petzl miniaturized this contraption down to something walnut-sized and powerful. Emanating from the middle of your forehead, its downward-sloping beam illuminates the ground in front of you like the infield at a night baseball game.
These little headlamps have revolutionized hiking. If you have a Petzl (or better, if you have two, following the woodsman’s safety rule “Two is one and one is none”), being on the trail towards dusk is no longer an act of folly. They have also revolutionized biking. You cannot outrun light, of course, but you can outrun your mind’s ability to process objects illuminated in front of you. Bikers’ and hikers’ headlamps must light not just the terrain they are crossing at any given moment but the terrain they will cross in a few seconds’ time.
The things are so useful that Petzl now makes 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.