No place to sit down

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I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of a primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said two things that always put me off a little. First, she would Uganda and Congo as “Africa” (which is technically correct, but I’ve yet to hear of someone saying “I’ll spend Spring Break in North America” on their way to Cancun) and she’d always say “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.”


It turns out that there are plenty of chairs and benches and other things to sit on in “Africa” though if you go into the deep forest to hang out with the Efe Pygmies siting down can get a little dicey. But what she really meant is that there is no place to sit where there will not be a bug or a spider or something either where you want to sit, under where you want to sit, or flying around where you want to sit.

It isn’t really true though. When I first went to the Ituri some people quite thoughtlessly (i.e., they did not put any thought into what they were saying) advised me to bring bug spray, because the place would be thick with mosquitoes and such. So I brought a couple of small jars of bug spray, an after I arrived, I found the big basket hanging from the roof of the supply hut that contained all the other containers of bug spray that various researchers has brought there over the previous five years or so, only to discover that there was no use for such a thing. “Maybe we’ll have a garage sale someday” I thought as I added my bug spray to the rest.

So, an Efe camp is usually in the middle of the forest, and that is a good place to sample the invertebrate life in that habitat. There are not clouds of mosquitoes or flies in the rain forest, or at least not in this rain forest. Why? There are too many bugs! If any insect tried out the strategy of being in a horde some other insect would come up with the strategy of eating the entire horde, and said strategist would simply wait round, in numbers, under wet leaves somewhere, for the next horde to come along. Really, clouds of insects, like the mosquitoes or lake flies or black flies we get in the norther states and provinces of North America exist because there is a winter, from which the landscape emerges, and into which swarm hordes of insects, one horde after another, until deadly winter returns again. A set of evolutionary stable strategies resulting in this pattern have developed in this region. If you got rid of the winters (though you could not get rid of seasonality) there would be few swarms of flying insects in a highly species rich forest environments. Swarming insects are more likely to be found in habitats with a winter, in low species diversity forests, and grasslands (including marshes and swamps). Not so much in tropical rain forests.

But that does not mean there are not a lot of insects. There are plenty, and even sitting in a camp is a great way to discover new ones. One day as I sat on my Efe Chair a whopping big slow moving thingie came along and started to climb up the chair leg. I managed to guess that it was some kind of cricket … bear in mind, though, that crickets in the African rain forest are as much like our temperate crickets as an elephant is like a hyrax. I asked the nearest Efe what it was.

He looked. Shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”

I was surprised. Normally the Efe knew the name of anything I pointed to (and yes, I did verify their knowledge using various techniques … they weren’t usually making stuff up, though that could happen now and then). We kept an eye on the slow moving creature as it explored around on my chair and the nearby ground, and everybody who came along got asked.

“What is that thing?”

“Huh. No idea. Strange looking.”

Eventually, an older man picked the thing up with a stick and moved it several hundred feet into the rain forest and let it go. Why do that instead of ignore it or squish it? Well, the Efe don’t squish an insect or other invertebrate unless they know what it is. With good reason.


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18 thoughts on “No place to sit down

  1. “Well, the Efe don’t squish an insect or other invertebrate unless they know what it is. With good reason. ”

    What is that reason? I can think of several, with varying degrees of abstract principle and raw pragmatism involved. Curious to know what the prevailing reasoning is behind that decision in their culture, though.

  2. If some of the bugs that you do know bite or sting or emit toxins when provoked, then it’d be prudent not to provoke any bugs that you don’t know.

    Or maybe that’s just my cultural bias.

  3. HP, I would think that at first, but then you think, “I could hit the bug with a big stick” and the worry goes away. Anyway, that’s not it.

    I don’t know how long I want to taunt people, but the reason is so damn interesting it would be really cool to try to think it up…

  4. The abstract ones would be anything along the spectrum of animism, cross-species reincarnation, shape-shifting humans (and other sentient, powerful creatures), Jain-esque abjuration of (unnecessary) harm to living things in general, and so on.

    Pragmatic: the release of scents that could attract or repel other animals in a disadvantageous way is a fun concept, but seems pretty unlikely (how many unfamiliar critters have such a profound effect as to inspire such a policy?). Maybe a concern that it’s a new and potentially valuable creature, so the initial population should be protected? Previous experience with entomologists willing to pay top dollar-equivalent for rare specimens? All of these suffer the same problem of “not remotely common or dramatic enough to create a persistent cultural meme”.

    Smarter people speculate, please?

  5. My thought is that if it is toxic, and they squish it in camp, then a child might pick it up and eat it. There are a lot of very toxic small organisms.

    If it is not toxic, then it will start to decay and grow mold which will make it toxic and shorten the time before they have to move to a new camp.

    Something dead will attract insect that lay eggs on dead things. Some of those insects also lay eggs on living things and when they hatch it is not good for the living thing. (I have a hypothesis that this is the origin of the sacrifice of the first born on an alter followed by burning it, to attract and then destroy by heat eggs from live-flesh eating insects, it also tends to reduce the dispersion in time of giving birth in a herd of animals).

  6. Raka: Good, very good! Your first set of suggestions on the right track, but to narrow it down one probably has to know about Efe belief systems (“animism” is not really a very useful concept, but yes, in that area)

    Anne! That could be part of it.

    Daedalus2u, they would definitely be careful about leaving toxic insects around in a camp.

    For now let me just say: Nothing happens without a reason. If you’re an Efe.

  7. Provence of North America

    An appropriate typo, since some parts of Provence (especially swamp-ish Camargue) get infested with swarms of mosquitoes and midges as soon as summer sets in.

  8. OK, I’m properly teased, and about to click on the “tell” post, but I have a great memory of an old Irish woman commenting on the humble midge, tiny insect nemesis of Irish summers. She liked to say, “a midge is a thing, that if it was the size of a horse, it would eat the world.” And follow with, “Mind you don’t slap them, though, or they’ll all be along for the funeral.”

    Clicking now.

  9. You are missing the point. It is not about bugs but rather the discomfort of not having something to lean against. Some people can sit on the ground and some can’t. I have destroyed both of my feet in mountain climbing and construction accidents and canĂ¢??t. In the jungle I invariably make camp based on three factors, the proximity of water, flat ground for a tent, and a log to sit on or lean against. You want bugs? (and scorpions and centipedes?) Just find a friendly big log in Belize or some other such place and lean against it for a few hours every night while reading War and Peace (Which I did in its entirety under such circumstances). You become one with the log and the resident big and little monsters accept your neck as part of the furniture. It is actually a lot of fun. Much worse is the situation in Thailand, Laos, and elsewhere where sitting on the floor is considered the norm and anyone who sits above anyone else, or who leans against something with their legs stretched out, thus pointing the bottoms of your feet at someone else, has committed a grave breach of propriety. In remote villages you are expected to sit Buddha style for hours during welcoming ceremonies and while eating and socializing. The only solution I have found is accept my role as an ugly American while in villages by refusing to sit on the floor, and to carry a thermarest pad with chair kit in the jungle.

  10. You are missing the point. It is not about bugs but rather the discomfort of not having something to lean against.

    Well, maybe you have a point about leaning on things, but the conversation is not subject to interpretation. This is a person I knew quite well for years, was related to, and who often told the same stories again and again, so I’m pretty sure I got the original message right!

    Some people can sit on the ground and some can’t. .. and a log to sit on or lean against.

    I’d be careful about the log, there’s probably a snake under it!

    Much worse is the situation in Thailand, Laos, and elsewhere where sitting on the floor is considered the norm

    Tell me about it. I’m not a big sitter-on-the-floorer either and I had a hard time in that region.

    In remote villages you are expected to sit Buddha style for hours during welcoming ceremonies

    That would be especially impossible for me now since that time my leg almost fell off.

  11. “I’d be careful about the log, there’s probably a snake under it!”

    Oddly enough that has only happened once. I’m a herper and my favorite thing to do is to roll over logs looking for snakes so I like to think I have an eye for such things. Nevertheless I had been sitting on a small log in Tennessee for the better part of an hour when I looked between my legs to discover a copperhead with its head cocked so as to best evaluate the infrared signature of my testicles. It had to have been there the whole time just tucked under the edge of the log.

    Snakes I can take, but back in Belize what bothers me are the Eurycotis roaches which are the size of a breadbox(thus slightly larger than the ones here in north Florida). Yes, I know they are perfectly harmless, as are the giant katydids, but what does that have to do with anything? I fear them even more than the enormous black scorpions and foot long centipedes. The smell of the Eurycotis is so loathsome that I cannot bear to be in the same room with someone eating liquorice. Their spiny legs are four inches long and I can hear their individual footsteps in the night as they come to clean my teeth while I snore with open mouth. You might think that is the product of a fevered imagination, but one time my ex wife actually pulled one of those huge spiny legs out of her butt! Relative to all that I find the Amblypygiids to be positively cute!

    All of this I learned due to my inability to sit cross legged on the ground, but I must be a slow learned cuz I’m headed back to Laos for more fun!

  12. Just came across this research which may interest people who hang out with lots of bitey bugs. Seems bugs don’t like stripes as much as no stripes.

    Now I woulda thought caking on mud, paint whatever would be worth a shot. No stripes, just all over. Maybe some mob do do that.
    Dunno about any indigionous insect repellant
    lotions but I’d be amazed if they wernt developed. I was actually wondering about traditional tick medicine in Australia a few months ago and looked it up but found zilch.
    Was thinking some sort of topical poison and some sort of tweezer tool. And maybe some antihistamine sorta thing.

    Whilst searching for the right spot to put this,
    an old baseball/softball? match report mentioned Greg covered in paint and I’m including a link for him to reminisce.

  13. There’s definitely a split in Australia between those that will comfortably sit on dirt (excluding beach, and even then some put down cloth barriers) and those that wont.
    Me and colleagues have discussed it.
    Many people seem to be, not phobic, but just very uncomfortable about it.
    I could guess it’s unfamiliarity due to minimal agricultural or gardening exposure, but it would only be a guess.
    Haha. I remember being invited to view a rose garden in Bihar and the hosts surprised face when I grabbed a handful of soil to look at more closely. Seemed to be some weird assumed caste mentality thing. Fuck that oppressive shit right off.

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