Marjorie Stewart’s Non-Fiction

Mar 8, 2017 by

Marjorie Stewart’s Non-Fiction

 

Stink: A Love Story

 
 
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly…
 
I like to be on the cutting edge of every fashion and fad, so naturally, I was the first on my block to have stink bugs. Brown marmorated stink bugs. Halyomorpha Halys. I know their scientific name now, but at the time, I had no clue what they were.

I thought nothing of the first bug. Then there were a few more. In next to no time, there were dozens—an entire extended family living in the small bathroom upstairs.

“What are these weird brown beetly things?” I asked my husband.

“What weird brown beetly things?” His eyes never left the television. Maybe if CNN did a story on the bugs, he’d be interested.

The cats weren’t interested either—apparently the stink bugs were too slow to be a challenge. Hannah sniffed and walked away, Arlo watched them from the corner of his eye, and Myrtle—the large lazy tortie we called a meat lump—didn’t even acknowledge them. They wanted nothing to do with these bugs who seemed—possibly—to be bigger slugs than the cats themselves.

I was happily squishing them (their blood is lime green, my favorite color) and flushing them. As many as three or four some days. This was in about 2002. I mentioned them to a friend. “Oh, they’re stink bugs,” she said.

But they didn’t stink. I know, because the next one I squished, I smelled. Nothing. I tried a few more times, but never registered any scent at all. The atmosphere in my marriage, though—that did stink.

***

One reason to be proud of my home state: According to both Farmers’ Almanac and the Penn State University Extension Service, these brown marmorated stink bugs were first introduced from Asia in Pennsylvania in the mid—to late—1990s. Penn State calls that introduction “accidental,” although they don’t say who was responsible for the accident.

***

I slowly learned more about the low—or no—stink stink bugs. They came into the house in the late fall when the nights got chilly. That explained their attraction to the back bathroom, a small space with an active radiator. Eventually, I gave up trying to rid the house of them. Like the old wives’ tale about grey hairs, for every one I plucked (or squished), seven grew in its place. Every squish and flush was followed by more and more of the little brown bugs. The Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California, Riverside, claims, “[the] brown marmorated stink bug is considered a significant nuisance pest because of its tendency to use homes as overwintering sites.” Some might consider this a classic example of understatement. But bugs will be bugs, and these bugs are annoying but not dangerous inside. I sighed and put up with them until, in the spring, my stink bugs flew off like baby birds from the nest to find crops to ravage.

***

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. Stink bugs like a tomato.

***

They particularly like tomatoes. My husband’s tomato patch is right behind the house.

He’d grown tomatoes every year of the 15 years we’d lived in the house. For years, I let him be the gardener; then I realized: I don’t like tomatoes that much. That’s when I started growing peppers and herbs.

The tomato vines climb up the screens on the kitchen window on a good year. Could that be why the stink bugs chose our house to grace with their early western Pennsylvania presence? And yet, we never saw any damage in the tomatoes. The bugs typically leave their mark—a discolored spot where they drink from the fruit. It makes the fruit unattractive at best, but can also contaminate it and cause unripe fruit to fall.

The U.S. Apple Association estimates that stink bugs caused an estimated $37 million in agricultural losses in 2010 in the Mid-Atlantic Region. In addition to tomatoes and apples, stink bugs love corn, soy beans, and peaches, but they’re not picky eaters. Any juicy fruit or vegetable will do.

That same year, there were 872,000 divorces in the United States, or 3.6 per 1000 people, while marriages rated 6.8 per thousand. There is no reported cause for either statistic, but it is the source for the frequent, dire prediction that one in two marriages will result in divorce.

I know now that we were lucky that our tomatoes and my peppers escaped. Maybe the stink bugs just came for that cozy bathroom after feeding all season in someone else’s garden.

In the summer, I sort of missed the little guys—I thought they were wishing me a good morning when they greeted me from the sink, windowsill, or toilet seat. My husband’s good morning was a quick peck on the cheek while I slept.

***

Conspiracy theorists believe that the federal government imported the brown marmorated stink bug to eat the Asian lady beetle, that evil orange twin of our beloved ladybug. Of course, conspiracy theorists also believe that the federal government hired Steven Spielberg to stage the moon landing in a desert in Nevada.

***

“Here’s an idea,” I said. “Why don’t we move the tomato garden to the pepper patch and the peppers to where the tomatoes were? That way, maybe the stink bugs will be confused and move into the garage for the winter.” In the end, though, I valued the hot afternoon sun on my hot pepper plants more than I did a stink bug-free bathroom. So we continued to raise tomatoes, peppers, and stink bugs in their preferred habitats.

***

The stink bug stink reminds many people of cilantro, and for me, a little cilantro goes a long way.

***

Time rolled on. Winters with stink bugs, summers with tomatoes and peppers, spring and fall either preparing for or recovering from stink bugs, tomatoes and peppers. And then, a major change. In the fall of 2012, more than ten years after my initial stink bug sighting, I got a job teaching at a college in rural West Virginia. Because my husband’s job and family—including our three grandsons—are in Pittsburgh, we decided to start out with a commuter marriage as we made the bigger decisions about permanent relocation.

It was simultaneously an adventure and an omen. When I started my job search, my husband promised to follow me anywhere. When I had a close call, almost getting a job near Atlanta, he was planning the move while we waited for the final word, and he was genuinely disappointed that I didn’t get the job. What had changed in the intervening year?

Perhaps it was this. We were life-long city dwellers. When I moved, I moved to a ranch house sitting on several acres complete with woods and a creek, five miles out from the small town that was home to the college. I traded concerts and repertory film houses for Netflix; Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s for a Kroger store an hour away; Banana Republic for Tractor Supply. I got two big dogs and settled in—all I needed was a tweed jacket and sensible shoes and I could be the Dog Girl of a Wodehouse novel. I somehow managed to forget that Wodehouse’s dog girls were never married at the start of the books, and they never got married before the endings.

It wasn’t a bad life, but it was lonely. At first, the house was a model of minimalism, furnished by leftovers from what we now called “The Pittsburgh House.” I enjoyed the fruits of the previous tenants’ garden: corn, tomatoes, even pumpkins. But the second year, I began nest-building in the house, buying furniture to show off its late mid-century character. I also planted my own garden: peppers, kale, eggplant, herbs, and even tomatoes. And yet, and in spite of the West Virginia University Extension Service’s report that stink bugs were observed in West Virginia as early as 2004, I had nary a stink bug. None.

I marked the seasons in my country kitchen: Spring, ants. Summer, fruit flies. Fall, mice. But not a stink bug to my name. Always a party animal, I hosted the regular gatherings of the English department, and began having parties that were a mix of my new friends from the college and the community. Often my husband was there; sometimes he couldn’t be.

***

The first recorded scientific collection of the brown marmorated stink bug in the eastern hemisphere was in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. Bet you didn’t know that, did you, Billy Joel?

***

What I did have, and still have, are Asian lady beetles. Fortunately, they live in my shed and not my bathroom, although they do occasionally wander into the house.

I stored the cover for my grill in the shed that second summer. As winter set in and it began to snow, I got it out—it was hard to tell that the cover had ever been solid black instead of a small orange polka dot pattern. I shook it out, I brushed it off, and the live beetles swarmed my screen door. I was swarmed as well. I ran, shrieking and batting the bugs away while hoping to lure them away from the house and its imperfect screen door. The rust-colored bugs looked like drops of blood in the snow.

I was, I realized, a single person. In the past, my husband had been in charge of the grill. He battled spiders when necessary. Now it was me. Grills, invasive bugs, garden care—all me.

It was likely one member of this swarm that taught me an important difference between the stink bug and the Asian lady beetle, and the difference is: that’s no lady!

But it was good to feel independent. It seemed to make my time with my husband more valuable—if he wasn’t confronted with a chore list, we could enjoy ourselves more. He saw it differently: had he been replaced by two dogs for a companionship and a competent woman who didn’t need a visiting handyman?

One weekend morning, my husband awoke with a large bloodstain on the back of his tee shirt and a matching one on the sheet where he had been sleeping. He suggested that I had bed bugs.

We’ll just skip over the rest of that conversation, but it included things like, Well, I think I would have known . . . And, If anyone had bed bugs, it wouldn’t be me . . . And, For heaven’s sake, that looks nothing like a bed bug bite.

In fact, he might have had some satisfaction from a bed bug bite—proof that I was not managing as well as I claimed. But what the bite looked like, and what it was in fact, was the bite of an Asian lady beetle. I know, because I immediately suspected those little orange imposters and looked it up on the internet, where everything is true. My students later confirmed: their bites hurt, sting, and bleed, but have no long-term effects.

No long-term effects other than stained sheets and a domestic disturbance about bed bugs.

***

It was shortly after the beetle-bite incident that I found one of my former friends on my toothbrush in that small, warm bathroom in Pittsburgh. That might have been what pushed me over the edge, but as of that moment I’d had it with invasive species. They’re annoying at best and a financial disaster for farmers and eaters of fruits and vegetables at worst. When I searched for stink bugs on the internet, I got two screens of advertising for a variety of traps and insecticides guaranteed to rid your house of the little buggers. I suspect frustrated homeowners are lured by these traps at a greater rate than stink bugs. Scientific articles debate the efficacy of various chemicals, most of which sound more dangerous than the stink bugs or Asian lady beetles themselves.

***

In 2012, Michigan was considering importing the Trissolcus wasp to destroy the stink bug. The stink bug may have been imported to destroy the Asian lady beetle. The Asian lady beetle may have been imported to destroy the aphid. There was an old lady who swallowed an aphid . . .

Meanwhile, the divorce rate remained steady. Still that 50% risk.

***

In my third year in West Virginia, I lived the rural lifestyle: much larger garden, raising zucchini, summer squash, spaghetti squash and five varieties of kale in the plot I call the Back 40. There is a small fenced-in area where I planted my herb garden, and eggplant, peas, tomatoes, and peppers fill the beds between the house and the patio. I buy fresh eggs from the farmers’ market and continue to drive an hour to find a decent grocery store. I traded my convertible for an all-wheel drive car big enough for my two big dogs to travel in. Like any invasive species, I continue to adapt to my environment.

After a year and a half of commuting, however, my husband chose to remain in his native habitat.

He stayed in the land of stink bugs and cats, resisting the lure of Asian lady beetles and dogs—and me. Months of an on-and-off, push-me-pull-you marriage seemed to be leading to an inevitable divorce. Some of the negotiations were peaceful and respectful; others stung like the bite of the Asian lady beetle.

Somehow, he had become the equivalent of a stink bug—an invasive species in the home and life I had created. Ironically, as I furnished and decorated my house in West Virginia, I imagined myself nest building—creating a new home where the two of us could start over. He was wary—was I setting a trap? Would poison follow?

And had I somehow become an Asian lady beetle? A predator, a stinking insect, a stinging insect—how many metamorphoses have there been, or will there be?

For almost a year we lived separated, contemplating divorce, filing for divorce. For a while, I wondered if we needed a marriage counselor or an exterminator. Things are better now, though (we chose the counselor).

The Asian lady beetles destroyed my squash this year, and a friend nearby had her tomato garden ravished by stink bugs. Eventually, perhaps, invasive species feel at home, and the invaded territory adapts to their presence.

Or absence. I diligently study the migration patterns to understand what might become of my marriage.

 

Marjorie Stewart teaches composition and creative writing in rural West Virginia, and paints, reads Tarot cards, and hangs out on social media under the name Max Stewart.

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