adventures in dysthymia

Monday, September 12, 2016

The No-See-Um

The tiny biting pest known as the no-see-um is common in much of Florida, but especially close to the coasts. Like mosquitoes, they breed in standing water. There are many other names for the little insects, midges being one of the most common.

I am just far enough inland where I currently reside, in the Florida panhandle, to rarely see a no-see-um (that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?). Only when there is a strong southerly breeze carrying them up from the coast do they appear here. But I have had innumerable encounters and bites in other parts of the state.

Where I grew up on the south-western coast, in the town of Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, we called them sand flies. The variety there was particularly tiny and could pass through pretty much any normal screen. In the days before air conditioning was common, it could be pretty uncomfortable trying to sleep at night with those tiny monsters freely entering the house. Not to mention the fun I had running an early morning paper route with sand flies thick in the air. At least they made me forget about the mosquitoes!

Later, I moved quite a bit further up the Gulf coast to Steinhatchee. A larger species abounded there, known locally as sand gnats. The bite was, if anything, even worse, but the swarms weren’t quite so thick. Generally, the no-see-ums would be most active when it started to grow dark — they do not show up much in the sunshine.

I remember many encounters with the no-see-um on surf trips to the east coast. We would usually try to make it to the Atlantic before dawn — or would attempt some form of overnight camping — so the midges would be out in force. One had a choice of sweltering in the car with the windows closed or opening them and being eaten alive. Ah, they are almost as strong in my memories of Sebastian Inlet as the waves themselves.

The no-see-um is a part of Florida life, or used to be, as surely as anything else. But what brought them to my mind, today? A mention of them on Facebook, on a page dedicated to Flagler Beach, one of my favorite places and sorta-kinda the template for the fictional town of Cully Beach in my novel SHAPER (and the upcoming WAVES). I realized that putting a few words about the no-see-um into a fictional narrative is just the sort of detail that helps bring it to life, to make it more ‘real.’ So FB is occasionally good for something.

Of course, they can also be symbolic of something. What might a no-see-um signify? If nothing else, that even a seeming paradise may not be perfect. There is always the hidden problem. That little things matter. And so on.

I rarely put any direct, overt symbolism in my stories but I also recognize that everything in fiction is a metaphor, on some level. I know I put this sort of thing in without actually thinking about it, sometimes, and only recognize the symbolism, the implicit meaning to it, on rereading. Then I might change a few things to support it, but never to make it obvious. Indeed, I might try to make it less obvious.

In ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Tom Wolfe includes a painfully wordy scene in which a swarm of gnats become just such an overt symbol. Some readers (and critics) may find that sort of thing impressive but to me it is just bad writing. Why? Because it does not really serve the story. It is a flight of self-indulgence, of ‘aren’t I clever?’

Maybe a symbol should be like a no-see-um, something you don’t know is there until it bites you. Or buzzes in your ear. (Now I am the one trying to be clever, aren’t I?)

The no-see-um is a fact of life in Florida. It may not get the press of the mosquito, but it is every bit as common. Whether as a realistic detail, a metaphor, or a pest, I know I’ll be dealing with it from time to time.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

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