We have a lot of flies in our house. Visitors as J likes to call them. And they do visit, frequently, flying in through the door left open by my daughter, through the unscreened window, cracked to the early morning fog, the sweet smell of hay in the hot afternoon. They announce their presence with tickling legs on a forearm, or the mini-version of a bird flying into a window, a small plink as they hit the glass. Sometimes, if they spend the night, they are polite, sleeping on the ceiling until after we wake up. Other times they are like Simon's Cat, landing on our nose or face, an obnoxious wake up call.
Mostly the flies hang out in the kitchen, sometimes finding their way to the bedroom where they do their rounds and go back to the more enticing morsels left from breakfast. They like the table, the back of chairs where we often put our hands, and less frequently, the dishes in the sink. Occasionally, they find their way into the bathroom, where they like to keep the toilet seat warm for us, or alert us to which towels have begun to mildew.
There are three types of flies that visit the most. The greenbottle fly, a metallic green beast with a loud buzz, who prefers to fly frantically from one side of the room to the other, an annoying back and forth. Then there's the housefly with its red eyes, fancy stripes and glossy wings and its relative, the little housefly, with darker eyes and smaller composition. The houseflies are better guests, with a near silent buzz. The greenbottle almost makes up for his irritating presence with his beauty. Almost.
Suggestions on how to keep fly populations down consist primarily of 1. Having screened doors and windows and 2. Not keeping giant piles of horse manure near your home. Seeing as how we live on a horse ranch in a small converted barn that lacks screened windows, we're pretty much screwed. I guess we could go buy screens. So far it hasn't seemed like a priority.
Before moving here, it had been decades since I'd killed a fly. Living in SF for 18 years meant that we were mostly insect free, with occasional fruit fly parties, and once, a cockroach infestation. Growing up in rural Northern California, with varying farm animals over the years, I vividly remember the wars we raged on flies, from sticky paper traps hung near the doors to The Fly Trap we had outside. The fly trap was a wicked thing, a large jar with an opening on the top for the flies to get in, with no option for a round trip. At the bottom was placed a giant piece of rotting meat. Over the summer, we would watch the level in the trap slowly rise, a morgue of the damned.
Even though our visitors were only occasional at first, when my daughter swooned over the hot pink fly swatter at the local hardware store, a very logical voice in my head encouraged me to buy it. By the time June temps hit the 9os and fly population soared, I would grimly determine to "just kill 5 flies" and 20 flies later there were still 5 flies too many. At first the kid took on fly killing with a disturbing joie de vivre, and brought her brother into the game, but like all things at 4 years old, the obsession du jour soon passed. I tried passing the buck to J, handing him the swatter and mumbling instructions while I slipped outside to water the garden and escape the slaughter. But rooms in the hotel filled up, and as my temper rose, so did my zest for the hunt. I went on killing sprees, restless until I had gotten Every. Damn. One.
My desensitization began to color other experiences. I discovered cucumber beetles in my garden, and in adopted zealousness and an attempt to be A Real Organic Gardener, I did as I should: I filled a bowl with soapy water and began knocking them off leaves into a watery grave. I had collected over 7 when I looked down and saw that they were all desperately struggling to stay afloat. I brought the bowl in and showed J and his eyes grew soft as he looked up at me, "They're really beautiful". It was true. With chartreuse shells and black spots, like a dayglo ladybug, they are gorgeous and they also potentially can ruin your cucurbit crops. But I hadn't noticed any damage to my garden. After our earwig fiasco in May, where every baby seedling was obliterated by those pinchy fuckers, I was trying to be proactive in stopping another threat. In that moment however, looking down at the struggle for life in my hands, I couldn't pull the trigger. I dumped them out at the back of the house with a warning not to come back.
So far they haven't.
Houseflies have teeny tiny feet that walk around on all kinds of gross stuff and pick up teeny tiny germs. Like anthrax, tuberculosis and salmonella. They can supposedly transmit these diseases to humans, by walking on our food, or on our eyes. (I guess that trick I was teaching them to dance on my outstretched tongue is a bad idea.) You can definitely make a case for why opening frequent cans of whoop-ass on flies is totally justified. But after 41 years in this fly infested world, as far as I know, I haven't gotten sick from a fly. We keep a clean house. I wash my hands frequently. I don't tend to sleep with my mouth open. In other words, I'm not that worried about it.
I appreciate flies. I like their tenacity, their ninja moves, their kaleidoscopic vision. If they weren't so tickly, I could even appreciate their explorations on my skin. In the moments before swatting one, I could sense the hum of its life, as if its buzz extended beyond flight. It would be washing its feet, or combing its wings, or tasting something with that long tongue. And then the swatter would come crashing down and there would be silence. No hum. No curiosity. No living of life.
And for what? Supposed sanitation? Peace of mind? A sense of control? I couldn't find a reason bigger than that silence.
So I've been experimenting with different methods of removal. Instead of brushing them away in irritation when they land on me, I take the opportunity to escort them to the door. Offering a ride to freedom, I crack the lock and blow them into open space. I discovered that the little houseflies like honey, although not so much their bigger cousins. But the little fellas will take an offering of honey on an outstretched finger, and stay distracted until well outside. The greenbottles will knock at the windows and then it's easy...open one and away they go. But the big houseflies...sometimes the only thing left to do is swat. Each time it feels like a shame.
The other morning I removed 16 flies using these alternative methods. Rather than feeling like a trollish huntress, I felt clever and playful. Fly-like, if you will. Even more so, I had a sense of being in the hum of things. Communication and communion, connection and charity. With each catch and release my sense of irritation decreased, and I wanted to get Every. Damn. One. Because it was fun. Because it gave me a peaceful heart.
Because it liberated us both.
(All photos from wiki commons)