Bugman's Progress

My brother is easily identified in the field by his characteristic pose: A palm is raised to within a few inches of his face, which is down-turned, studious. The index finger of the other hand is acting as a pointer and a probe. He's picked some tiny thing, some leaf or bug, from a bush or a tuft of grass, and is scrutinizing it.

two boys in snowsuits

Writer (left), Bugman (right)

He did this when he was eight years old, and he was doing it last spring when I flew down to Florida to visit him: Standing knee-deep in the Gulf of Mexico ogling at eyelash range the persistent struggles of a miniature fighting conch.

There is a corollary to this behavior, of course; and that is showing other people what he sees. Soon enough my brother pulled up a starfish and palmed it over to a fellow investigator, a British kid on holiday whose pot-bellied sunburned father stood back from the warm green water, squinting.

As a child my brother was always collecting things: Garter and black snakes in the tool shed, box turtles in the side yard. There was a 10-gallon aquarium in the den teeming with newts. My brother was the impetus for bringing back from Aunt Mary's farm, one July, the rusty incubator and the dozen brown eggs that were to become our suburban chicken ranch.

A creek, swarming with life, bisected our backyard. For me, this waterway chiefly meant summer days with my head shrouded to keep the gnats out of my ears. For my brother, however, it was an endless stream study. He spent all his time along its banks or wading with a net. Once, he led the neighborhood kids in the pursuit and capture of a snapping turtle, a creature big enough to break a pencil in its jaws. He carried it to school the next day in a bucket that had once held driveway tar. The beast was swiftly confiscated by the principal, and would have met an untimely demise had I not recognized the bucket sitting outside the janitor's closet and quietly made off with it. (It was my brother's.) We arranged for the turtle's re-release to the relative wild of a concrete storm pipe.

Later, my brother began to have trouble finding enough outdoors around the house. This condition led him at last to move to Maine, and, when Maine got too boisterous and tight, on to Alaska. He returned to Pennsylvania after a few years, however, and even worked for a while in a commercial laboratory, all bright and clean and air-conditioned. He had to wear little bags over his shoes. I knew that couldn't last.

No, it was back to Maine, where this time he started into farming. He worked on small organic farms there and in New Hampshire, and finally (the yo-yo's return) back in Pennsylvania—Hustontown, where he set up and ran a co-op among small growers in the surrounding area, hauling vegetables to Washington, D.C., and selling them to tony restaurants and diplomats.

I think this last stop is where he decided to specialize in bugs. Soon, in addition to the weekly runs across the Beltway, he was named entomologist down at the farm. He operated in this capacity with a Jeffersonian flair, designing and conducting and recording his own experiments for an audience of one, and in the process growing quite immune to the smell of overripe fruit. One winter he sent himself to the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America (for which he felt obliged to purchase a coat and tie), and shook hands with renowned ant expert E.O. Wilson himself.

Something, then, maybe Wilson, inspired him to come to graduate school at Penn State. It wasn't easy. Academia was not his preferred habitat. But he persevered. I had never known him to sketch or draw before, except once on a moose antler he subsequently shellacked, but the gigantic renderings of insects he made for taxonomic purposes were, well, they were serviceable. When I walked over to the basement of Armsby Building to visit, he would pull out trays of tiny bugs on stick pins, and it seemed like old times. But all this stuff was done with one eye firmly fixed on the window, on the out-of-doors. He seemed happiest when talking to farmers, spading samples from their fields. It puzzled him that nobody else seemed to want to be out there.

It was no surprise to me when he won the Asa Fitch memorial award for graduate student research. He has always been nematode-like in his application to work: he just keeps taking little bites and chewing, working ceaselessly on everything from statistical analyses to the timing of the jokes he would lace into his lectures to keep his audience from dozing away.

His training and experience landed him a job with a big citrus grower, down south of Lake Okeechobee. There he was to develop biological controls to replace the current chemical warfare against agricultural pests. It was really the front lines; but the first thing he said to me after taking the job was predictable: "It's a whole new flora and fauna!"

This year's emergency is the citrus leaf miner, carried inadvertently from Asia by a nursery-stock importer and spread across the state by Hurricane Andrew. Everyone is scrambling for a way to contain this new bug before it carves too big a hole in the orange crop.

My brother seems to be in his element. When I was in Florida, he drove me on his day off through groves that seemed large enough to fill a county. He pointed out alligators, otters, and sandhill cranes stepping their exaggerated mating dance. At last, he stopped the truck and we got out and walked a ways to one of his experimental plots. He plucked some new growth from a yellow-tagged sapling, checked it, and offered it, in his palm, for my inspection.

I bent to look. There, between the gauzy layers of the rounded, tender leaf, the tiniest of larvae, barely visible, was chewing ghostly spirals in the green.

Last Updated December 01, 2004