INTRODUCTION Georgia on My Mind
It wasn’t that it hurt all that much. In fact, most of the time I didn’t feel anything at all. But once in a while I’d get a sharp pinch, almost like someone was pressing the edge of a spoon into the top of my head. I didn’t feel sick, and I knew this thing wasn’t going to do any permanent damage, but it was driving me nuts: a small, white, pasty maggot with rings of black bristles around its body was lodged firmly into the top of my head. For all my squeezing, I hadn’t been able to pop it out. It was only a few millimeters long now, but it was eating my flesh, and I knew it would get much, much bigger in the next few weeks. For the life of me, I had no idea how I was going to get it out.
I’d gotten it by accident (obviously) a few weeks prior, working in Belize as part of a team studying bats there. Bats are my thing. I’ve always loved bats and by studying them I’ve been able to travel all over the world: I’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, South Africa, Costa Rica, all over North America, and even to the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, all just to see bats. The excursion to Belize was early in my career, before most of those other trips, and looking back, I see now that I still had a lot to learn about the natural world.
Belize is a small Central American country, about the size of New Jersey, but whereas New Jersey has nine species of bats, Belize has fifty. That’s why I was there. It was 1998, and I was in the first year of graduate school. Our team wanted to find out where some of those Belizean bats hide during the day, and it was a great opportunity for me to get some experience identifying species I’d never seen. After reading countless books and papers about bats, this was my chance to get out and meet some of them.
The place where we worked in Belize is called Lamanai. It’s famous for its ancient Mayan ruins, but we were there for the lush rainforest those ruins are buried beneath. The wildlife in Lamanai blew my mind. There were big, colorful toucans, six-foot crocodiles, brightly colored venomous snakes, howler monkeys, about a zillion kinds of gorgeous insects, and of course, bats! Fishing bats, vampire bats, yellow-shouldered fruit bats, sac-winged bats, sword-nosed bats, frog-eating bats . . . Trust me, if you’ve got even a passing curiosity about bats, Belize is heaven.I
It was a two-week trip, and we were pretty much constantly bushwhacking, so it’s impossible to guess exactly when I got the botfly. Each night we’d set up nets to catch bats; then we’d put radio transmitters on some of them. A transmitter is about the size of a coffee bean with a five-inch antenna hanging from it. You glue it to the fur on a bat’s back, then let the bat go. The transmitter emits a beeping noise on a specific radio frequency, and you can tune in with a radio receiver to find out where the bat is hiding.
Once a radio-tagged bat is released, you can only pick up its signal if you’re near the bat, or if you have a clear line of sight between the hidden bat and the antenna in your hand. So each day, we’d climb to the top of an ancient Mayan ruin and scan for bats above the forest canopy. Once we got a signal, a beeping from the north, for example, we went out with a machete and cut a trail northward until we picked up the signal again from within the forest. Then we hacked away through branches and vines, following the signal as it got stronger, until we could finally see our bat roosting on a branch, or at least figure out which tree hole our bat was hiding in. It was tricky because we needed to cut a path in front of ourselves with machetes, but we had to be quiet so as not to scare the bats off as we approached. It was also tricky because most of the vegetation we were hacking through was full of nasty things like scorpions, thorny acacia plants covered in ants, and venomous snakes. But, man, I have never had so much fun in my life. By the end of the trip, I was feeling pure bliss. I was sunburnt and covered in bug bites, but I’d found a career path that excited me, and I was starting to imagine filling the rest of my life with adventures like this one. Unfortunately, in all the excitement I just failed to notice that one of my insect bites had a maggot in it.
The human botfly looks like a normal housefly, but it is far more stomach-churning than the thing that keeps landing on your salad.1 An adult female botfly zips around in the rainforest, then catches a mosquito in the air, lays an egg on her abdomen, and lets her go. Later, the mosquito bites a mammal (a monkey, a jaguar, or a bat biologist, for example), and while that mosquito feeds, the botfly’s egg falls off the mosquito and onto that mammal. The egg hatches into a maggot, which makes its way into the hole created by the mosquito and then settles in to feed and grow. The maggot starts out just a few millimeters long but grows steadily, until after a month and a half or so, when the maggot—now about an inch long—eats its way back out of the skin, falls to the ground, molts into an adult fly, and then flies away.
It’s actually a pretty smart strategy by the botfly. The adult is big enough that if I’d seen one land on me, I’d have slapped it silly. But the adult never came anywhere near me. It used a mosquito as its courier service, so I didn’t even notice. In fact, I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I was home a few weeks later.
The maggot was firmly lodged at the top of the back of my head, just on the right side. At first it was like any mosquito bite, but a bump started forming around the bite, and that bump was steadily growing. That spot is a very hard place to look at closely on your own head. I tried with two mirrors and a flashlight, but I just couldn’t get a good look—it was too hard to part my hair and squeeze with all that stuff in my hands. All I could see was a swollen red area about the size of a dime. In the center of the red zone was a tiny hole, and sometimes other people would tell me they could see a little white snorkel come poking out of that hole. That was how I knew for sure what I had, because that snorkel is how botfly maggots get their oxygen.
I’d never had a botfly before and didn’t really know how to remove one properly, so I just kept trying to squeeze it like a zit.II This did not impress my friends in the slightest. They made me wear a hat, and if I so much as scratched my face, they’d immediately make me go wash my hands. I tried to explain to them that they couldn’t catch a botfly from me, but that didn’t seem to matter. As far as they were concerned, I had cooties.
After a couple of days, they felt comfortable enough to start making fun of me, but they still wouldn’t come very close. Their jokes were marvelous. They told me the whole botfly thing was just in my head. They told me they knew it was tough but that I shouldn’t let the botfly get under my skin. And they also wanted to know if I could claim my botfly as a dependent on my taxes. They even gave her a name.
So it went, for about a week. I went about my business, with Georgia on my mind, squeezing to try to get her out now and then but mostly just hoping she’d somehow go away. Botflies are hard to squeeze out because they have sharp backward-pointing bristles around their bodies that brace them firmly in the flesh. If they’re lodged somewhere like your arm or chest, you can squeeze enough skin to get behind them and pop them out of that breathing hole, but other parts of the body don’t let you get underneath it. On my head, I just couldn’t get the leverage I needed, so I’d end up squeezing Georgia on the sides, and then she would just hurt more. I hoped that once she got bigger, I’d be able to get my fingers underneath her to squeeze her out, but that strategy never seemed to work.
Maybe if I’d waited longer, I would have been able to dislodge her with my fingers, but I reached my emotional breaking point long before that. About two weeks after coming home from Belize, I snapped. I was in my car, driving to the grocery store, when that spoon-edge-into-my-head pain suddenly started up again. It was in that moment that I immediately decided that Georgia was coming out. I hoped a doctor would agree to do it, because I didn’t want to have to ask a friend. I drove right past the grocery store, made a right, and headed to the hospital.
It’s not easy to gross out a nurse. They see vomit and feces all the time. But it turns out (at least in Canada), that telling a nurse you have a maggot lodged in your head will do the trick. That made me weirdly popular in the ER, so despite a pretty busy waiting room, it didn’t take long for me to see a doctor.
He came in, looked at my chart, then looked me right in the eye and told me he didn’t know what a botfly was. I have this weird paranoia that doctors don’t take me seriously to start with, so I tried to sound as knowledgeable as possible. I told him all about the breathing hole and the bristles and the life cycle with the mosquito, but it was hurting as I talked, so I was kind of hunched over and wincing while I explained. That made me worry he would think I was nuts, and that made me talk even faster. It wasn’t going well.
He looked me straight in the eye again and said nothing for several seconds. Then he took a deep, disappointed breath and asked to have a look at my head.
He put on some latex gloves as I lay chest-down on the table. I put my chin on my crossed arms and he started poking around at the top of my head with his fingers.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Right here.” I poked it.
“That? There’s nothing there,” he said. “It maybe looks like an ingrown hair.”
“No, no. It’s a botfly. See the hole?”
He kept poking. Then he sighed again. He was right on the fence. Either he believed me and I’d be getting rid of this thing right now, or he was going to send me home, and I was going to have to talk one of my friends into cutting my head open.
Finally, after a long pause, he asked me how deep he would need to cut.
“I don’t know. Cut as deep as you want. There’s skull between you and my brain, so you can’t possibly do too much damage.” I was only sort of joking.
I heard him take another breath, followed by a long pause. Then I felt the prick of a needle, freezing the area. Soon I felt a little tug, and then blood started pouring down my forehead in the front, and down onto my neck in the back.
He passed me a towel and I put it across my forehead. In just a few more seconds this thing would be out of me. I couldn’t wait.
But then the doctor said, “I still don’t see anything.”
If the doctor couldn’t get it out, my plan B wasn’t going to work either. Now I had a big cut in my head. Were my friends going to have to dig around it? Reopen it? Maybe I was imagining things. What if it wasn’t a botfly? Then what was it?
I didn’t respond. He kept tugging or cutting (they felt the same at that stage) for what seemed like several minutes, and then he made a quiet, surprised gasping noise.
I didn’t feel anything at all. I didn’t want to turn my head to see what he was doing because I had the towel on my head just right to soak up all the blood.
“Did you get it?”
He rolled his chair around in front of me so I could see him, and presented me with a small urine-sample container full of alcohol. Near its surface, Georgia floated lifelessly.
I was finally free.
Today Georgia sits in that same urine-sample container, on a shelf next to my desk at work. She’s only a few millimeters long, disappointingly small compared to the other botflies I’ve seen on the Internet. Apparently, a lot of people don’t know about botflies, so when they get them, they just let the mystery sore grow for six weeks or so until, to their total surprise, a maggot writhes out of it. Georgia was removed long before that stage, but even though she’s smaller than some of the others, she’s mine. I earned her. I’m proud of her. Ask me if I’ve ever felt like I was “at one with nature,” and I can hold her up and show her to you. She’s like a medal.
I went to Belize as a scientist, to study how biological organisms live in nature, and instead I experienced nature as a biological organism. That really influenced how I perceive the natural world. To me, nature’s not just a pretty photograph of a rainforest. It’s constantly changing, twisting in a dynamic life-and-death drama driven entirely by a battle for energy—energy that flows from host to parasite, from prey to predator, and from rotting carcass to scavenger, in a never-ending battle among all creatures to persist and pass on DNA. Belize reminded me that I’m part of that epic system. We all are. My botfly fed on me to get energy, and I spent energy trying to get rid of it. That’s what nature is—a place where animals selfishly try to survive and make babies by getting the upper hand on one another.
When you think about nature that way, it becomes strange that lately everyone and their dog seems to be telling us we should be living more naturally. We’re surrounded by advice on diet, exercise, medicine, and lifestyle, all championing some version of a “natural” way to live. Since humans evolved as part of nature, we’re told that escape from our modern problems is as simple as getting back to our roots, by moving/eating/behaving the way humans did millennia ago.
The main flaw with that kind of advice, of course, is that it ignores the basic fact that a few thousand years ago people typically only lived into their thirties. There are predators, parasites, and decomposers everywhere, ready to break us down for food at the first opportunity. Living in a modern, Westernized society, we’ve done such a good job of keeping most of those threats at bay that those “natural” advice givers can act as though things like botflies, rattlesnakes, and malaria don’t even exist. But believe me, they do.
If anything, Mother Nature is trying to kill you.
My perspective on nature is a little bit different from the way nature is typically portrayed, but that’s often because advertisers and marketers are using the word nature to sell you something. In their world, nature’s a benevolent bounty of well-being that can always make you healthier and would never, ever hurt you. It’s all honey and no stingers. Nature gives us fruits, vegetables, and shade-grown coffee beans, but not the mold around the bathtub or ants or tapeworms. Advertisers would like us to think those things aren’t really part of the green world. Instead, they’re somehow invaders of it.
Think of a typical shampoo commercial with scenes of soft meadows and waterfall-fed pools, where beautiful models frolic and no two strands of hair ever cling together. There are plants and maybe butterflies, or even horses, but there are never any hornets, scorpions, or leeches. Icky animals hurt sales, so the image of nature has to be left half-finished.
With that utopian version of pseudonature established, companies can then boost sales by making you associate their products with that friendly world. I was at the grocery store recently and saw a cleaning solution that said “nontoxic,” “organic,” and “green” on the label. It also said, right on the front of the package, that it kills mold, mildew, and bacteria. One wipe of that cleaner across the kitchen counter can snuff out millions of lives, but they call the product eco-friendly, as though somehow bacteria don’t count as part of “eco” (whatever that is). I’m not arguing against using green products—in fact, I encourage it—but look at the irony of the labeling. I mean, the organic apples and oranges you buy aren’t grown in nature, they’re grown on farms. How are they more natural than the mold in your home that came in through the window?
Because magazine editors, TV executives, and advertisers don’t like to acknowledge the dark side of nature, we don’t see the whole picture and we end up with a warped perspective.
When I was an undergrad, I worked in a restaurant with someone who once told me that she would never do any drugs made in a lab but that “if nature made it, it’s okay to take it.” When she said that, I remember thinking it sounded like it might be logical, but that turned out to be one of those statements you just have to think about carefully for a minute or two before you realize it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I think she was talking about marijuana and magic mushrooms, but heroin, crack cocaine, and cigarettes all start as plants too. Whether you’re talking about recreational drugs, food, or anything else, pretending that nature is 100 percent benign requires either ignorance or willful disbelief.
Let me put this another way: From the window seat of an airplane, the skyline of New York City stands enormous, majestic, and silent. But when you visit Midtown, it’s a totally different ball of wax. What looked like faceless rectangular buildings from the air turn out to be beautifully decorated, with stone and brick patterns that make each of them unique. Standing on the ground, you can hear honking cars, people shouting into their phones as they walk, and trucks rattling by as they roar over filthy potholes. You can smell garbage and urine, but you can also smell hot dogs and pretzels. You can get a bite to eat, go see a show, take the subway, or just sit down on a bench to take it all in.
New York’s skyline is beautiful, but it leaves a lot out. In fact, I’d argue it leaves out all the best parts of New York.
To see nature as an endless bounty of health is as incomplete as describing New York by her skyline alone. It’s true that nature has produced many, many things that are good for us, but nature has also created jellyfish, fire ants, and cyanide. We can celebrate the healthy parts, but when we take a look at the creepier side of nature too, the whole picture gets richer. In fact, I’d take it one step further: I think the disgusting, immoral, and violent side of nature, the side that the grocery stores and shampoo commercials leave out, contains its most awe-inspiring and beautiful parts.
Walking along a trail in Belize looking at birds through binoculars was like seeing the skyline of New York, but my botfly experience took me down to street level. It changed my relationship with nature by getting me outside my comfort zone. And a couple of years later I embarked on another up-close-and-personal experience with the natural world—one that would last much longer than my adventure with Georgia. I thought getting a maggot lodged in my head was life-changing, but it turns out that’s nothing compared to having a baby.
In August 2011, my wife and I welcomed our first child, Sam, into the world. Since that day, I see everything differently. I used to weigh myself every single day just because I loved collecting the data, but now I’m simply not that interested. I used to fill my calendar with trips all over the world to see as many bats as I could, but now I would rather stay home with Sam than spend a month catching bats in Africa without him. It’s not just that I care more about this little kid than I’ve ever cared about anything before (and I do), but Sam’s birth also changed how I feel about everything else—including myself. You’ve probably heard someone else say this before, and if you’re a parent you might have even said it yourself. It changes you. And you’re changed because you feel something that you don’t feel from any other experience. Most people would call that feeling “goodness” or “pure love”—but in truth, I’m not so sure that’s really what it is.
Here’s why I hesitate to use that language: you can’t say that botflies are “evil,” since they’re just doing their best to survive and ensure their own DNA’s survival to the next generation. It makes no sense to talk about a botfly’s behavior in terms of “good” or “evil,” and the same holds true for any animal in nature.
Since the feelings I have about Sam very clearly come from my own biological drive to survive and protect my own DNA, I don’t see why the concepts of good or evil should apply there either. What feels like fatherly love is really just my body’s way of protecting its own DNA in the next generation. If the botfly’s behavior isn’t “evil,” why should I call my feelings about Sam “pure” or “good”? Yes, I experience something that feels wonderful, but that’s just what my DNA tricks my brain into believing. Is there anything real behind those illusions?
I wrote this book in part because I’m passionate about the ugly, heinous natural world and want to take you on a tour to see that. But I also wrote this book as part of a personal journey of my own. I need to figure out whether the love I feel for my son is real.
So let’s begin. In order to avoid getting lost, I’ve organized our tour around a list of evils in the world that were outlined by the Catholic Church about 1,400 years ago as vices that could bring out the very worst in humans. You’ve heard of them, I’m sure. They’re called the seven deadly sins: greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath, and pride. Of course, there’s nothing biological about sins—the whole idea of morality is a human one. But I think it’s going to be a fun challenge to ask whether Mother Nature might in fact perform each of those seven sins with even more flair than humans do. Along the way, either the roots of fatherly love will be found in the jungle of selfishness, or I’ll know for certain that the love I feel for my son doesn’t really exist.
So let’s start searching.
I. I participated in a couple of studies that documented which bats live at Lamanai (Fenton et al. 2000, 2001), but even more species have been identified there since we wrote those papers.
By the way, you’ll see footnotes like this one throughout this book. They’re intended to provide added context to the stories you’re reading. Anytime you want to dig even deeper, just follow the little numbered endnotes to the Notes section at the back of the book.
II. Some people recommend you lure botflies out by covering their air holes with pork fat. It’s not the smell of food that draws them out, though, it’s the lack of air. That’s why surgeons in one study were able to draw a botfly out by covering its breathing hole with Vaseline, which blocked the maggot’s access to air (Liebert and Madden 2004).
A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World
Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You
A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World
Using the seven deadly sins as a road map, Riskin offers dozens of jaw-dropping examples that illuminate how brutal nature can truly be. From slothful worms that hide in your body for up to thirty years to wrathful snails with poisonous harpoons that can kill you in less than five minutes to lustful ducks that have orgasms faster than you can blink, these fascinating accounts reveal the candid truth about “gentle” Mother Nature’s true colors.
Riskin’s passion for the strange and his enthusiastic expertise bring Earth’s most fascinating flora and fauna into vivid focus. Through his adventures— which include sliding on his back through a thick soup of bat guano just to get face-to-face with a vampire bat, befriending a parasitic maggot that has taken root on his head, and coming to grips with having offspring of his own—Riskin makes unexpected discoveries not just about the world all around us but also about the ways this brutal world has shaped us as humans and what our responsibilities are to this terrible, wonderful planet we call home.