Epic tales of mosquitoes (Walden 53)

“Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

I think Henry must’ve set some sort of record here for his ability to find the beautiful and the epic in the most unlikely aspects of nature. He’s writing about a mosquito! Is he being entirely serious, or is this a bit of sly humor? Or perhaps an acknowledgment that as we comprehend nature’s beauty and grandeur, we realize that it isn’t all about us.

I was about to write that, in Henry’s defense, it’s easier to wax eloquent about one mosquito than a whole swarm of them. But then I remembered a pioneer diary that I used when writing my book, A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha. For your amusement, here’s another example of nineteenth century eloquence about the mosquito, courtesy of Erastus Beadle, describing a night in a cabin near Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1857:

“During the night, we had a constant serenade, so that we could not sleep. The numbers of the troop were countless. Their music was very romantic and extremely fine-toned, but the multitude of the performers made the whole air vocal for miles around. At first we were delighted with such sweet music to sleep by, and all would have passed off pleasantly had not our serenade troop become too affectionate, and were determined every one of them to salute us with a kiss before they would allow us to go to sleep. We allowed a few to try it by way of experiment, but they kissed so warmly, the effect was painful for a half hour after, and we determined to fight them off, which could only be done by ‘smoking them out,’ and it was near daylight in the morning before we could sleep at all.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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