Southern Life

You’ve heard the bit of wisdom that goes a cold winter is good because it kills a lot of insect pests. I don’t believe that for a moment. We had a cold winter but it’s summertime and insects buzz around grills, pools, ball fields, patios, and decks. On the highway they turn my windshield into a greasy, smeary mess.

Bugs buzz, bite, amuse, pollinate, sting, glow, annoy, destroy, and make summer days and evenings more interesting. I ask you what would the South be without its bugs?

Alaska and the North Woods have their black flies, but we have a rich array of insects. Staggering heat and moisture in our subtropical climate create bug nirvana. Thus it is that bugs enrich our Southern lives with mayhem, moments, and memories.

(Photo by thig84)

Many of my childhood memories involve insects. Most days when I wandered the woods and fields, a bug of some type made for a companion or a competitor. Evenings I’d catch lightning bugs and summer days I’d go into combat against bugs. I’ve written before about knocking down wasp nests, a summer campaign with real consequences when the enemy prevailed. And I’ve written, too, what fun it was to tie sewing thread to a June bug so the critter could fly around my head like a battery-powered toy airplane.

Bugs and I have a storied history. The first magazine feature I wrote was “Mysteries of the Firefly’s Light.” To this day I get a thrill watching those gleaming gold emissaries of the night do their thing.
Bugs can be Heaven; bugs can be Hell.

I recall standing over a yellowjacket nest once. You’d have thought I was jumping rope with a 220-volt wire. For sure I have fears when it comes to insects. I can’t stand walking into a spider web, and before donning a pair of old shoes too long in the closet I look inside for spiders. I nonetheless assert that if you are a true Southerner you take bugs in stride. Bugs just shouldn’t bug you. Not so a lot of interlopers.

Back in the 1980s, two women from Winnipeg, Manitoba, came to visit me. They hadn’t even walked into my courtyard when one let out a bloodcurdling scream. A Carolina grasshopper had fluttered by, scaring one girl so much you’d have thought she was witnessing the other girl’s murder. If a pterodactyl fresh from Jurassic Park had descended on her with claws extended it would have been no more terrifying. The rest of the visit they spent as much time indoors as possible. The heat and humidity got to them but their fear of bugs bordered on lunacy.

You see we live in insect heaven and we get used to all these critters. When I was a boy, before so many battery-powered toys and amusements came along, I played outdoors all the time. Bugs came with the privilege of being outdoors. That’s not to say I didn’t see bugs inside, especially flies. No visit to my grandmothers’ home was complete without seeing these Southern ladies reach for an old-fashioned screen wire flyswatter. Both grandmothers were superb marksman. They had radar.
They would be looking at me, talking, and swat a fly 90 degrees to the right or left without so much as a glance. A flick of the wrist and a squished fly was stuck to the screen wire. A bloody stain marked the spot of the fly’s demise.

And then plastic swatters came along. (Why in blue blazes does everything have to be made of plastic!) Plastic flyswatters aren’t worth a hoot. The air doesn’t sift through a plastic swatter like it does screen wire no matter how many holes perforate the plastic.

Plastic swatters seem slower and no doubt they send a shockwave towards the fly, who thinks wind shear is coming his way. The result is predictable: the fly launches into the air (laughing manically) and lives to drop his specks again. Another good thing about screen flyswatters was the vanquished fly stuck to the screen where a shake over a trashcan or toilet bowl took care of the matter. When a plastic swatter scores a kill over what is obviously a slow, dimwitted fly, the fly remains right where it was, albeit wider, thinner, and bloodier. Now you have to scrape up the rascal.

The truth is I don’t see that many flyswatters at all anymore. Seems air conditioning and closed windows swatted the flyswatter but alas gnats seem indestructible. How many times as a boy did my long eyelashes sweep a gnat into my eye, where it burned and caused consternation. I’ve seen no abatement in gnats. Now and then when I am running and biking, I’ll go through a cloud of them, getting some unexpected protein and hacking and coughing like someone just hit me with a burst of pepper spray.

Gnats and yellowjackets aside, for the most part, I just don’t see insects like I used to. As a kid I remember seeing sulfur butterflies and pale blue butterflies around the edges of rain puddles in our driveway. When asphalt came along, the butterflies disappeared.

I don’t see honeybees like I used to either. The honeybee is Georgia’s official state insect, and that’s a good choice. So good, in fact, sixteen other states tout the honeybee as their “state insect.” Why don’t I see honeybees anymore? Hard to say. Some folks say pollution is the culprit. I say bees don’t like the city though I know a woman who peddles honey from hives in a bee yard smack in the middle of downtown Columbia.

I see plenty of yellowjackets though, especially on my hummingbird feeder where a quick pop of a well-aimed rubber band sends the intruder to yellowjacket purgatory. It’s an environmentally friendly way to dispatch the ferocious bugs. Takes courage, though, and when I miss, well, let’s just say I can move when I need to.

Bugs have long been part of my life. What kid of the 1950s hasn’t crawled under a house to look for doodlebugs. “Doodlebug, doodlebug, come out of your hole; your house is on fire and your children will burn.” I’m sure many of you recall when houses’ crawlspaces weren’t all enclosed but today most are and access to doodlebugs dwindles, not that today’s kids mind. They’re too busy playing video games, using computers, watching television, eating fast food, and growing fat.

I’ve doodled. Bet some of you have too. We can read an old classic to rediscover the joy of doodlebug pursuits. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer recounts a passage where Tom’s trying to find some lost marbles. He tries a magic spell that fails to turn up all his lost marbles and suspects interference of the worst kind. He seeks counsel with a doodlebug to learn what came of his spell.

“He laid himself down and put his mouth close to this depression and called—

‘Doodlebug, doodlebug, tell me what I want to know! Doodlebug, doodlebug, tell me what I want to know!’

The sand began to work, and presently a small black bug appeared for a second and then darted under again in a fright.

‘He dasn’t tell! So it was a witch that done it. I just knowed it.’ ”

Good old Mark Twain, hard to beat him.

(Photo by Curnen on Flickr)

Now dragonflies are one of our more beautiful insects. Grandmother Poland called them “snake doctors,” a name from Southern folklore that claims dragonflies follow snakes around healing them when injured. Dragonflies remind me of World War One biplanes with their double sets of wings. I saw one yesterday on my deck. It had twin Petty blue stripes down its sides and four wings that glistened like crystal.

My grandmother told me that if a dragonfly lit on your cork, it meant good luck and a bite for sure. When I was fishing the ponds down on the farm in Lincoln County’s Double Branches community, I got excited when an electric blue or neon green dragonfly landed on my red-and-white cork.

Dragonflies, by the way, are some of the fastest insects in the world and they do a lot of good eating mosquitoes, flies, and ants. Other insects are destructive. They are chaos and mayhem incarnate. Carpenter bees drill into the eaves of homes and wooden patio furniture. Fire ants bedevil the land with their messy mounds to say nothing of their bites. Fleas and ticks bedevil pets. Boll weevils, that Mexican migrant “just lookin’ for a home,” devastated the South in the 1920s.

Cut worms, cabbageworms, nightcrawlers, centipedes, millipedes, and all sorts of creepy crawlies are out there but my city ways isolate me from them, or so it seems. It wasn’t that long ago that I spotted a big hairy spider in my hall. Out came a broom and one whack dispatched the spider. About two million baby spiders swarmed out from under the broom. Out came the Raid. Out came the vacuum cleaner.

Pine beetles, praying mantises, cockroaches, moths, termites, the list could go on forever. I’ve been stung, bitten, swallowed bugs by accident and provided many a mosquito a meal but I’ve yet to be bitten by a snake, one record I hope stays intact.

“I don’t like spiders and snakes and that’s not what it takes if you want to love me” goes the song by Jim Stafford. For the most part, I agree. Though I don’t care for snakes I don’t kill everyone I see as many folks do, though I’ll clobber a wasp, spider, or fire ant mound with no dent in my conscience.

Stafford and Bobbie Gentry of “Ode To Billie Joe” fame were married briefly. She didn’t throw Stafford off the Tallahatchie Bridge down Money, Mississippi way, but had they stirred up a big wasp nest I’m sure both would have jumped into the Tallahatchie. Bugs don’t respect celebrities. They are everyman’s tormentor. None of us ever know when we’ll encounter a bunch of bugs out to show us who the boss really is. Be vigilant and be grateful. Bugs are also everyman’s blessing. If you have some red clay in you, if you like sipping sweet tea and watching fireflies punctuate the evening, you’re in the right land. The Southland.

As Munson would say, “get the picture now.” It’s dusk. (The literary word “gloaming” seems to fit here.) Cicadas are singing a song of the South. Their “in-and-out responding silence of noise” rises and falls, the breathing of a Georgia or Carolina night. Joined by a nighttime chorus of frogs and tree frogs, the evening turns magical.

As the chorale builds, as cicadas and frogs sing in unison, lights glimmer along a distant edge of woods. A light show sparkles and gains strength, coalescing into a luminous spectacle. The evening turns sublime.

Your mind drifts to childhood. It’s a bit past suppertime. You’re in the front yard, a Mason jar with a perforated lid in hand. Close by, a lightning bug fires off that soft gold-green-yellow pulse. You ease up and scoop the bug into the jar. That was so long ago …

You come back to the present. The memory and the moment make the mosquitoes whining around your ear an easily tolerated nuisance. For one magical instant you were a kid again with grass beneath your feet and a feeling of elation that only a Southern child could summon up right about lightning bug time.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].