Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Thoughts on Flies and Death

Last night at chorus practice a fellow tenor and I got to discussing flies and death. The conversation started off normally enough, with her asking me how the flies were in Newcomb. I allowed as how the blackflies were still around, but not terribly problematic, the mosquitoes were quite numerous and taking over my house, and the deerflies were holding their own. Mostly, however, I told her of how the large black “house” flies were filling up my kitchen window and buzzing around the house until all hours of the night.

From here the conversation turned to her childhood. She told me of how her father had deer hanging in the cellar at all times of the year so the family could eat. Sometimes in summer the meat would start to get rather ripe. And then the flies arrived: they would line the doors, crawl on the tables. For a small child, they could be quite terrifying.

This got me thinking of how, in the summer, the flies in my kitchen can also be rather revolting, for I’ve seen their presence marked not only by their large furry bodies buzzing in windows, around lamps, and against the ceiling, but also in the eggs they lay on the cat’s uneaten wet food, and even in the container of kitchen scraps that haven’t made it out to the compost pile.

Flies, especially certain species, have a phenomenal talent for finding rotting flesh (be it cat food, roadkill, or a person who has slipped silently into that still night after turning in the evening before). And it doesn’t take long. A couple years ago another friend brought me a “freshly dead” young mink she had found by the lake. “It’s only been dead for a few hours,” she said, so I took it to prepare as a study skin. I was leery of doing so, for the idea of cutting into a body filled with maggots was not appealing. From the outside, the animal seemed to be as “clean” as she stated, but once I got to work, I discovered the mouth and anus filled with eggs – the flies had already descended.

For over 2000 years the idea of spontaneous generation held sway in the world. This theory was based on the apparent fact that life could suddenly occur where previously it was absent. For example, a dirty shirt wadded up in a corner with some grains would suddenly produce mice. Likewise, meat left out on a table would one day be full of maggots. It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that an Italian scientist, Francesco Redi, questioned this concept. Using the scientific method, he began testing his new theory, that flies sprang from eggs laid by other flies, rather than just instantaneously appearing in decaying meat.

Today, of course, we are all familiar with the idea of flies invading the deceased. This is why in modern society most of us have our bodies pumped full of preservatives (three to four gallons) before we are placed in our hermetically sealed subterranean vaults for all eternity. The idea of the worms (maggots) crawling in and out (whether to play pinochle or not) is bound to give the still-living the creeps. Still, it is a natural process and one for which we should all be grateful, for if it weren’t for the free janitorial services of various flies and beetles, not to mention carrion eaters like vultures, ravens and eagles, our world would be a much smellier and more-disease ridden place.

Flies are attracted to the gasses that are created when decomposition begins, which can sometimes be within seconds of death. The first to arrive are often blow flies, which have been known to descend even before death takes place. It was in the late-1800s that Jean Pierre Megnin began to determine a “post-mortem clock” based on which insects (their eggs and/or larvae) were present on a corpse. He spent the next 30 years studying what has now become the science of forensic entomology, a topic with which many of us are now familiar thanks to television series such as CSI.

I, for one, am grateful that these flies (and other carrion eaters) are around. Without their services, we’d be buried to our eyebrows in the bodies of every living thing that ever inhabited this planet, from dinosaurs to daisies. Well, in truth, if decomposers didn’t exist, I doubt life would have continued on this planet, for soon all the resources would’ve been consumed and nothing would have replaced them.

Recycling, that’s really what it’s all about. I used to make this speech to school groups back in the ‘90s when recycling was big. I don’t know how much impact it made on the minds of all the second and fourth graders who heard it, but to me it made quite an image for my imagination. I wanted to stress to the kids that recycling was important, whether it was cans and bottles in their homes, or the bodies of animals and plants in the woods. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In the end, we must all return to the earth. This planet only has a finite amount of material upon it, and if things are not recycled, returned to their basic components to be reused in the future, well, life simply won’t be able to continue.

When the times comes for me to shuffle off this mortal coil, I hope to have what is now called a “green burial.” There are only a few places that have been legally approved for this, but I think it is well worth considering. Our bodies are wrapped in a natural fiber cloth, maybe placed in a simple wooden box, and then placed directly in the ground. No embalming, no $10,000 casket made of mahogany or some other valuable wood, no metal vault. Just slip me into the earth and plant a tree above me. My body will then nourish the earth, and provide life to other living things. This way we can continue to “live,” rather than being suspended in an artificial limbo. I cannot think of any greater tribute for a life well spent.

In the meantime, while I still find them highly annoying, I am willing to give flies a little more leeway in my life. Sure, I will swat those that insist on being pests, but in their rightful places, flies are important and I’m grateful they are there. That said, I do monitor the cat’s food a little more diligently – a plate full of writhing maggots is enough to turn the appetite of even the piggiest of cats.

Photo: A carrion beetle burying a dead mole. Ellen Rathbone.

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.


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