Of midges & men

The High Doganate has been under midge attack these last few days, though I think we will survive. They mount two or three offensives each year, and the first is a mark of spring. The first spiders of spring, emerging on my balconata, weave glistening webs to welcome them. Few of these tiny upwinged dragons make it through my window screens, but if one in a thousand succeeds, there are further swarms around the lights inside. The life of a midge or mayfly is short, even without guns; Pliny gives them about five minutes, I think, after their elaborate double moult. They must swarm, for in this brief period each male must find a female, mate then perish. (A much longer and duller nymph stage precedes.)

Well, there are many kinds, with considerable differences in habits and size. I am, quite frankly, no midge expert, and stand to be embarrassed by some knowing reader. My numerous visitors would seem to be chironomids or “muffleheads,” common enough around these Great Lakes, in hundreds of subtly differentiated species. Under a glass, one may appreciate the male plumeux, the feathery antennae. It is said they don’t eat, in the adult stage, but a congregation around a tiny blob of honey that fell on my counter during yesterday’s coffee-making gave the lie to this. With such a “breakfast of champions” I wager that a midge might be fortified for a long day.

It happens I was reading, on my cot last night, while the midges buzzed about my ears, Fabius Planciades Fulgentius — possibly fifth-century bishop of Ruspe (in what is now Tunisia), and possibly not. His own editor says he is “decadent, involved, littered with wasteful connectives and rhetorical extravagances, pompous, inflated, pretentious, prolix, infested with Asiatic exaggeration”; that as a thinker he is “muddleheaded, dubious, graceless”; as a researcher, “suspect and second-hand”; that his “enormous sentences confront lucidity like barbed-wire entanglements.”

Darling of the intellectuals in the later Middle Ages and through the Renaissance. Author of five surviving treatises, including an exposition of Virgil, and an overview of the Ages and Man. Utterly forgotten by the smart set, today.

In short, my kind of guy.

Fulgentius looked interesting. I am no Latinist, either, but suspect from what I see that he is actually rather droll and ironical; that he is composing these grand rolling sentences while giggling and drinking way too much calda and mulsum. He seems to know Greek, unlike his North African contemporaries; and he takes us on tour of the back alleys, through that fascinating late-late classical, pre-Islamic place. He is Catholic Christian, with a love-hate thing for the pagan Romans, and no romantic illusions about Vandals; capable, I suspect, of some very sick humour, of the underground Christian sort, and their God-damn-them-all attitude towards the world. A Latinist ought to thrill at his witty etymologies, and revivals of defunct vocabulary. It is his editor and translator from Ohio or wherever who would appear to be the dry stick.

Which brings me to one more complaint about modern academics. They simply assume their own subjects are a waste of time. There is a mayfly (“ephemeropteran,” a Fulgentius might say) smallness about all but a few of them. They reach every conclusion before they start, and may be swept away after a day or two.


My Chief Grand River Correspondent writes:

“Inspired by your post, I drop you a note this fine Spring morning in Western Michigan, to let you know that I, too, am enthralled by mayflies, and celebrate their emergence, and deaths, with fly rod in hand. Midges, at least in Northern Michigan, emerge somewhat late in the Winter, prior to the official start of Spring, calendar wise at least, and rarely bring trout to the surface in our locales. Currently, flyfishers in our Great Lakes state are keeping their eyes peeled for the Ephemerella rotunda, or Hendrickson, affectionately referred to as the ‘Hennie’ in polite fly fisher company, along with the Baetis tricaudatus, or Blue Wing Olive, colloquially referred to as the ‘BWO’, and the Brachycentrus americanus, which technically is not a mayfly, but a caddis fly, the ‘Little Black Caddis’.

“For a flyfisher, such as myself, who is passionately addicted to the pastime, mayflies are of intense interest. I maintain little preserved specimens of them, in small glass vials, and retain photos of them in various stages, from nymphal, to adult, along with a few photos of the mayfly itself emerging from its nymphal shuck in the surface film of a little crick I am intimately familiar with after twenty-three years of intercourse.

“I often think of the beautiful brevity of mayfly lives while sitting streamside, wondering at the majesty of El Shaddai’s minute tweaking of these wonderful bugs, whose lives reward not only hungry trout, but men such as those who are called to fish for trout. There is a magic to taking feathers and fur and tying them to a hook to imitate some mayfly, and then floating it over a rising trout and being electrified when it takes the fly. …

“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! And be very thankful for mayflies.”