All the Rage

Virginia’s gnats spark murderous thoughts.

Illustration by Hal Mayforth

“I want them all dead,” I said when Catherine Mendoza, a licensed professional counselor in Woodstock, picked up the phone. “I can hear the frustration in your voice,” she responded. “It’s more of a rage,” I suggested. “A murderous rage.” 

She talked me back from the ledge with one of the teachings of the Zen masters (and a few bestselling self-help authors, too): First, you must accept everything. Yes, I live where there are gnats. Yes, they are annoying. Yes, I will make the best of it. 

“The process helps your brain to accept the things you can’t change,” she said. Ah, I hear the Serenity Prayer roll tape in my brain: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“There you have it,” Mendoza assured me. 

“But I’ve never had the wisdom to know the difference,” I told her.

“It’s especially tough with the whole gnat issue,” she agreed. 

Some background: When I lived in the Midwest and West, we had bugs. Big, bad, biting bugs. In Arizona, all life was engineered to stab you. But we didn’t have many fungus gnats. Now, at our house in Loudoun County, our backyard backs up to a forest and is infested with the things. 

Swarms, or “ghosts,” of gnats hover every few feet above our half-acre. They fill my eyes and ears. They blind me as my boys throw baseballs to me (a gnat was an accessory to the bruise on my shin). They seem to hitchhike with my face as I mow. I swat, I flail, I swear, I have childlike tantrums. I’m being physically and emotionally abused, and it’s diminishing my quality of life, much of which depends on the quality of my outdoor life.

So I wear sunglasses. I wear a hat. I spray DEET on my cap and shirt and face in volumes that must cause brain damage, but at this point, I’d rather poison myself than give the gnats a free pass to my eyeballs.

Okay, so Mendoza calmed me down. Acceptance. I tried it. It helped. After talking with her, I went out and worked in our garden. “You’re just part of nature,” I said to the gnats. I’ll be one with nature. O-o-o-m. We are friends, grasshopper—er, fungus gnat. Our souls are one in the Universal One. Can’t we all just get along?

Same old song, I think. War and Peace. Peace and War. If I understand Mendoza correctly, I need to seek peace—acceptance—but that doesn’t mean I have to give up completely, right? I can try to change things, too.

So, I called Jim Hilleary, director of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office in Loudoun County. I figured everybody in the county had called him asking how to kill gnats, so he’d know immediately how to kill all the gnats in my life. “We actually don’t get many calls at all about gnats,” Hilleary said. “People generally call us about the insects that are actually doing harm or damage.” So now I’m a wimp.

Hilleary is a born and bred Virginian. He played outside all day as a kid and spends much of his adult life outside too. To him, gnats (at least the non-biting gnats we were discussing) are just part of life.  

“In Arlington in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “part of growing up was learning how to deal with bullies and gnats. You just wave your hand in front of your face constantly.”

“So for real Virginians, your hand is kind of like a horse’s tail,” I suggested. 

“Sort of an unconscious thing you just do.”

“Something like that,” he responded.

What I mainly heard from Hilleary is what I mainly heard from Mendoza—beyond some obvious counter-measures, the best weapon is tolerance. No! I said to myself. This must be something I can change! 

So I called veteran broadcaster Steve Clark, host of “What’s Bugging You” on WCVE Richmond Public Radio, a segment in which he discusses all things entomology with noted entomologist Dr. Art Evans. Clark suggested the hat, the glasses and the natural repellents, though he couldn’t offer the magic bullet I’d been seeking. But he did offer me a cigar.

While hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, Clark told me that he came upon a group of retirement-age female trail maintainers just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They were smoking cigars. The gnats were thick and aggressive in the area, but the women were mostly spared thanks to the smoke shrouding them.

“It was quite a scene,” he said.

Clark was not as imperturbable as Hilleary, though. He feels he is fighting back with his apparel and spray defenses. But, he said, “I’m not angry. I’m defiant. There’s a difference.”

So, I’m going to try some of his defiance mixed with some of Mendoza’s acceptance along with a concerted effort to mimic Hilleary’s ability to autonomically brush gnats away and, of course, the cigars. 

I’m also going to buy this expensive chemical spray I just found online that claims to neuter the gnat larva and effectively wipe out future generations of the gnat communities living in my yard. And I’m also picking up some more traditional pesticide that just straight up kills the existing gnats. 

So, I’m editing the Serenity Prayer a bit when it comes to our gnats: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the gnats I cannot kill; the courage to kill the gnats I can; and the wisdom to know the difference between the chemicals that don’t kill every gnat and those that do.” 

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