Saturday, December 31, 2011


            Last December, it was David Sedaris I couldn’t get enough of. This year, it’s Julian Barnes.

         A quote from Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, taped to my laptop, says: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” During my recent inertial paralysis, I dove into the novel from which this chastening bon mot comes, stopping only long enough to rummage in the nightstand for a hi-liter. By the time I finished the book—which I’d intended to pass on as a Christmas gift to my equally bibliophilic sister, Donna—it had become a broken-spined, dog-eared, yellow-smeared, margin-noted mess I didn’t want to part with. When ordering another copy for Donna, I stoked my latest literary addiction with Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes’ musings on facing up to one’s own mortality.

As 2011 goes gently (I hope) into its good night, I thought a short meditation on the subject, as one that concerns us all, would be appropriate.

Barnes makes a nice distinction between those who are afraid of death and those who are afraid of dying; i.e., between those who fear the end of their existence (“Who will remember I was here?”) and those who fear protracted and undignified ends (“But I don’t want all those tubes or to poo in a pan!”).  I fall in with the second lot: the thought of being dead doesn’t bother me—it’s really just the ultimate nap, isn’t it?—but the path I’ll have to travel to get there is worrying. Still, I don’t believe in the existence of either postmortem heaven or hell, so that helps in the sang-froid department.

Why I admire Bertrand Russell
Interestingly, Barnes, a lifelong atheist, claims membership in the first group. He admits to a certain queasiness about the cold finality resulting from his convictions as he gets older and closer to his own denouement. There’s a wistful tone to the story he tells of Bertrand Russell’s response to the question What If You're Wrong? “What if the pearly gates were neither a metaphor nor a fantasy, and he [Russell] found himself faced by a deity he had always denied? ‘Well,’ Russell used to reply, ‘I would go up to Him, and I would say, “You didn’t give us enough evidence.” ’ ”

             A third way of dealing with death arises, peopled by those who have convinced themselves they’re exempt, of which my friend Min was a founding member. About midway through what would turn out to be her last illness, her daughter asked about her funerary preferences. Min refused to take the bait. She looked Judi right in the eye and said, “I’m not going.”

One of many horticultural experiments
gone horribly wrong 
              Gardeners don’t have the luxury of not believing in death. We face it, if not all the time, then often enough. Tim and I always mention the hundreds of plants we’ve dispatched over the years due to ignorance and/or arrogance by way of credentialing ourselves. The list of my bellied-up horticultural experiments would fill a volume the size of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. (I could be exaggerating just a little, but it sure feels that way.) 

            Death and decay serve vital functions in the garden. That annual vinca that “comes back” every year isn’t the self-same plant, back from its roots after a refreshing winter’s sleep: it’s progeny, from a seed produced from a now-dead parent. Despite the name, perennials have life-spans, as do all shrubs and trees. Expect your ‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susans to gradually decrease flowering over three to five seasons before they peter out all together; redbuds decline after an average of 40 years. Nor does an “evergreen” label confer immortality—leaf loss is merely more subtle than that of deciduous trees. 

Upon reflection, most of us would agree this life / death cycle is a good thing. And we can take comfort from physics’ dictum “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.” Death recycles into new life. Besides, who’d really want to trade places with Dorian Gray? Barnes quotes the French writer Jules Renard—“Imagine life without death. Every day you’d want to kill yourself from despair.”

            This brings to our second topic of the day, fungus gnats.

A female black fungus gnat
Fungus gnats, members of the Bradysia and Lycoriella genera, are actually pretty benign, as plant pests go. Indeed, they are classified as nuisances. Adults lay their eggs in damp soils. Eggs hatch and larvae feed in the top half-inch of your pots’ media, rarely observed. The gregarious grown-ups, however, are all too visible.

Larvae eat fungi present in potting mixes. Damp soil increases fungal growth, in turn supporting larger populations of baby fungus gnats. If you tend to water your houseplants too much and/or too often (like I do, even though I know better), you’re going to have a host of tiny fliers.

Hard to believe you'd mistake
a fruit fly for a fungus gnat
Mature fungus gnats look like, well, gnats, and often get mistaken for fruit flies. (If you let your bananas and Christmas citrus gifts sit around too long while you overwater the houseplants, you’ll end up with both.) The good news is that individual adults only live for three to five days. The bad news is that each female lays several strings or clusters of eggs during her short lifespan. The egg-larva-pupa-adult transformation takes two to three weeks, so newly minted reproducers step up to the pot pretty regularly.  

Tim and I have a bumper crop of fungus gnats this year, active earlier and more vigorously than in the past. Early in the Fitzgerald houseplant season (see “Bringing In the Plants II,” Nov. 1), we found adult gnats drowned by the dozen in any liquid left out for any length of time. This saddened me, so I looked for a way to “decrease the surplus population,” as the unreformed Scrooge would say, that was less… visible.

Gardens Alive! catalog offered a soil drench named Knock Out Gnats containing a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis that attacks the (unseen) larvae. As the USDA has decided that corn genetically modified with Bt (as it’s known in the trade) is okay for humans to eat (!), I figured collateral damage to the mammal residents of our tightly constructed house would be minimal: at least it would prove less harmful than spraying Raid 15 times a day.

One week and 30 bucks later, I possessed four ounces of granules that resemble coffee grounds. All I had to do was let the plants dry out enough to use it, at the rate of a quarter-teaspoon per gallon of water. After one dose all around, our gnat population did seem shrunken. Of course, letting the soil in the pots dry out helped too.

Glass chips on the soil's surface
deter cats and egg-laden fungus gnats
Another avoidance strategy involves covering the surface of the soil. Anything that keeps the cats from digging in your pots works to thwart fungus gnats as well.

I must admit I’ve gotten rather fond of our tiny guys. They seem very curious about the things humans do. We find at least one dancing attendance as we wash dishes or our faces, clean the bathtub, feed the cats, work on the computer, load the washer, fold the laundry, read in bed. (They don’t seem at all interested in watching TV, which speaks to me of a high level of intelligence.) Except for an unfortunate propensity to blunder into our noses, ears and mouths from time to time, we coexist quite well. They don't bite or sting, and if they tickle when perambulating our epidermis, well, it's not their fault we're hairy creatures, is it? I've taken to chatting with them as we go about the mundanities of life. Strictly speaking, of course, I do all the talking: but they do seem interested in the commentary.

English poet John Donne
            My saintly husband just rolls his eyes. It’s the same look I get when I chase down and escort earwigs, spiders and roaches back outside. My nature expands John Donne's aphorism: each creature’s death diminishes me, because I am part of creature-kind.

            Or perhaps it’s just aversion to being death’s instrument any more often than is absolutely necessary.

            Happy Christian New Year to all who celebrate it, despite the arbitrariness.

            Thanks for dropping by.