It's Not Just About Mosquitos
By Martha Deed
My grandmother extracts a sheaf of browning paper, folded in thirds, from a dark drawer where the essay is stored to keep it fresh.
ACADEMIC - For $10 Prize
is written on the back of the folded packet.
Ten dollars is what a child can earn if she works really hard, thinks about life around her, and waits for the opportunity.
Ten dollars is a significant amount to earn in Huntington in 1904.
You could learn to write well enough to earn $10, she says to her grand-daughter ‒ the grandchild who loves to write but has nothing to say because her life has not yet offered sufficient fodder even for a poem.
Poems are harder than essays, the grandmother says. You should begin with essays.
The mosquitoes on Long Island carried Malaria and Yellow Fever. They were nothing to be trifled with, and the need to locate and exterminate them was worthy of the effort it took to walk the paths of the village and to locate ponds and marshes and cisterns where the mosquitoes laid their eggs.
The essay does not merely locate the mosquitoes. It names names. Names villages that have since disappeared, names neighborhoods where names have changed. Names names of families on the lands where the mosquitoes flourish.
The serious teenaged writer could be a not-so-subtle activist, naming DeForest and Valentine and Prime and Townsend, Brush, Gaines, Lowndes, the Episcopal Parish House, Scudder and Dowden's Tannery as hosts to unwanted and dangerous insects.
Contamination plays a role, and the 16-year-old woman-child names them: the dumping ground that has been closed but still is being dumped upon, the tin cans holding water and encouraging insects.
She exposes political irresponsibility, the villages where a boundary crosses a marsh. Cold Spring is willing to control the bugs, but Oyster Bay is not, and so Huntington residents continue to be endangered.
Infrastructure and failure to maintain it also take a hit:
Last February the mill dam at Cold Spring broke through and left a large opening so that the water ran through and left St. John's lake entirely empty except for a mass of mud and pools of stagnant water. . . the banks of the mill race on account of the ill repair they have fallen into furnish a foothold for the mosquitoes and on account of the numerous springs, the sides of the road leading to the depot are often filled with water.
The child grew into a journalist and a poet, her future already foreshadowed in this prize essay that was about mosquitoes and people and responsibility and facts gathered through investigation.
The child has told her grand-daughter about the Town of Huntington and who was living there in 1904 if they had water on their grounds.
If a child were to write this essay today, the essay would remain inside a folder in the teacher's desk to avoid causing offense to people named in the essay. It would not win a prize. Her parents would be called in for a discussion about discretion and libel.
The grandmother, if she were here today, would pride herself on doing it again: Finding the mosquitoes and naming their human hosts. She did not want to get sick from those insects. She did not want anyone else to get sick.
And so ‒ she would do it again.
Note: The mosquito essayist was Jessie Shepard Salls, daughter of Long-Islander editor and publisher, Charles Edward Shepard. The grand-daughter is Martha Deed, author of the current essay.
Martha Deed's poetry collections Climate Change (2014) and her sixth book, Under the Rock (forthcoming), are from Foothills Publishing. Author of a half-dozen chapbooks, her most recent is “We Should Have Seen This Coming” (Locofo Chaps Moria Poetry, 2017). Deed has twice been nominated for a Pushcart prize and dozens of her poems have appeared in online and print journals as well as in anthologies published by Iowa, Red Hen, Exoxial, and others.