Bug Zappers and Thoreau

Enjoying the stale air and torturous chairs of modern air travel is only slightly compensated by the sociological joys of studying the in-flight magazine.

My first observation as I skip the vacuous article about three perfect days in some predictable destination is that there are a lot of ads focused on men’s hair.

At the other end of the jetway, out in the “real” world, there is an obsession with women’s hair that is unhealthy and pervasive, like sugar in American bread. Always there in the background, so we hardly notice it anymore. Although the idea is much older, Marshall McLuhan quipped: “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m sure it wasn’t a fish.” Which is to say, though I find the media coverage of female hair styles odd, I don’t double-take when there’s an ad promising better hair for women.

The in-flight magazine throws all that into relief. The frequent-flyer demographic being dominated by ambitious men witnessing their prime years slide into the rearview mirror, the obsessions stand out. Can there really be such a huge business for hair transplantation and products that stimulate hair growth? Apparently, male pattern baldness is a crisis among frequent flyers.

I don’t mean to judge. All of us are vain in our own ways. I merely find it interesting that, whereas the obsession with female hair is everywhere around me, the obsession with male hair, or rather male hair loss, is limited to the in-flight magazine. I suppose if I read different magazines in my non-flight life, this might not be so strange.

While I find the male hair loss obsession amusing, perhaps instructive, one of the other ads was downright troubling. I started the flight reading Thoreau’s essay On Walking, in which he proclaims his love of swamps. For example:

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.


When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place,— a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature.

Taking a break from Thoreau, I thumbed the in-flight magazine and stumbled across and ad for a mosquito zapper. The ad included a testimonial from a woman who lived near a pond and proclaimed her love of this miracle bug zapper, bragging that she had used it at two different homes and, both times, within two months all the bugs were gone.

The troubling part is that before disgust, despair and judgement set in, my first thought was: “I want one of those.” So much for Thoreau.

I recently read an article that argued that with every generation we reset our understanding of what nature is. Therefore, one problem with “improving” natural spaces is that the spaces that we met as natural and left as “improved,” our children meet as natural and then go on to “improve” them. And so with each generation there is a ratcheting away of nature as bug zappers and DEET neutralize the swamps and we come to think of mosquito-free yards with a view of the pond as natural spaces.

First someone walks a cross-country route. Then we follow that route, guided by rough descriptions and our maps. Then we follow it with detailed descriptions and GPS map overlays. Over time, the cross-country route becomes a use trail. As the years pass, the use trail becomes an official, maintained trail and it gets put on the map. Finally it becomes a road with a hotel. All the while, it remains “nature.” That is, roughly speaking, the history of Yosemite, a World Heritage site and natural wonder. Except for the cars, the hotels, the DEET and the bug zappers.

Now if only I can figure out where to buy one of those zappers.

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