Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

As one of my duties as a Harlem City Councilperson, I serve on the Unified Disposal Board. Every fall this board meets at the Landfill rather than in our usual meeting room at the Court House. This fall, we met at the new Landfill. After the meeting, while we were putting away chairs and wandering around admiring the pristine new facility, occupied with chit chat and discussion of the football season, Clay Vincent spotted a cricket skittering across the sparkling new floor, deliberately stepped on it and smashed it dead. I have no problem with that; I probably would have done the same had I seen the cricket first.

I have a quasi-Buddhist attitude toward animal life. I suppose all might have purpose. I try to be respectful. One of my fondest memories is of a bee which landed on my forearm when I was sitting on my deck, watching the hummingbirds dart about the flowers. The honey bee, attracted by the same flowers, was momentarily distracted, sniffed and began licking my arm. For several minutes it wandered across my arm licking the sweat off my skin. As the bee’s admiring hostess, I found great beauty in those precious moments.

I will cheerfully pick up Madame Spider and escort her outdoors and send her on her way with good wishes for a long and felicitous life. On the other hand I just as cheerfully swat flies and mosquitoes into kingdom come. I do not tolerate ants in my kitchen. Nor do I easily accept the harmless box elder bugs, though there seems to be little I can do about them.

Moments after the death of the cricket, Clay dropped to his hands and knees, excitedly exclaiming, “Would you look at this. I’ve always wanted one of these.” From the look on his face you’d have thought it was Christmas. “One of these” was a wriggling, looping, swirling life-form emerging from the rear end of the squashed cricket.

We three women emitted an appropriate, “Ewww! What is that?”

“It’s a horsehair worm,” Clay explained as he searched for a pencil with which to pick up the creature, thin as a hair from a horse’s tail and just as long. He inserted the pencil through one of its loops, raised it off the floor and deposited it into a styrofoam cup. “It’s a harmless parasite. Crickets are often the host and when one dies, the worm emerges. They live in grasshoppers, too. I’m going to put it in a bottle and display it on my desk. Which one of you ladies wants to hold the cup on the way back to town?” As a unit, we clasped put our hands behind our backs and convinced Clay to put the cup in a box and lock it in the trunk of the car.

And that should have been the end of the story. Except for one word that Clay uttered: grasshoppers. My yard, and probably yours too, has been full of grasshoppers since mid-summer, chomp-chomping away at the most tender greenery. Since the horsehair incident, I feel as if I have been suddenly cursed with X-Ray Vision. Inside each grasshopper stomach, just waiting for me to step on the grasshopper and liberate it, lies a long thin horsehair worm, curled in a ball, eating away at its host. Difficult as it has been, I have gone out of my way to avoid squishing grasshoppers.

Last night at dusk I stepped outside to cut a spray of tarragon to dry for my larder. When I came inside and closed the door, I noticed a super-sized grasshopper clinging to my shirt sleeve. Before I could ensnare the creature, it jumped off and away. Search as I might, I could not find it. I tried to reason with myself. Now, really, what are the chances this one grasshopper is host to a harmless, emphasis on harmless, little horsehair worm. And so what if it’s crunchy stomach is a worm hotel? It cannot hurt me.

After a restless night, I wandered through my house sloshing my first cup of coffee, when I spotted the fiend beneath a table. I gingerly enclosed it in a Kleenex, and feeling less than virtuous, escorted it and whatever parasites it might host, back into the great outdoors, perhaps to live, perhaps to die, but not in my back room.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 29, 2011

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