Adventures and anecdotes from the life of Rom Whitaker
Just as the monsoons began, a couple of Health Department officials visited our farm to inspect if we were harbouring mosquitoes that could potentially spread dengue fever. Meticulously, we had always drained stagnant water from containers, covered ventilation holes of septic tanks with mosquito mesh, and stocked ponds with fish. We were confident we met all the conditions listed by the Department. But we were mistaken.
The lady pointed to the dry fronds hanging from numerous palmyra trees and directed us to cut them down. Rom explained these were habitats for colonies of palm swifts and many species of bats, of which some are insectivores that prey on mosquitoes. The lady didn’t comprehend. Rom gave up and said, “Madam, this is a jungle.” She nodded her head in agreement but was not dissuaded.
She turned her attention to the thick layer of leaf litter and directed us to get rid of it. Rake 12 acres of a wooded farm? What about the vast adjacent forest that had just as thick a layer of leaf litter?
Rom pointed to our neighbour’s flooded rice fields and asked, “What about the standing water in the rice fields, madam?”
She ignored Rom’s question and instead asked, “Shall we fumigate your farm?”
Such an operation would kill not only all insects, but also natural mosquito predators such as geckos, frogs, and dragonflies. What was the point of such a destructive exercise when rice fields remained untreated? We chorused loudly and emphatically, “No.”
Long after the officials left, the encounter still rankled, and I was reminded of another such incident in the U.S. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality accused Ryan DeVries of damming a stream that passed through his property. Since the landowner had not applied for the necessary permits, the Department acted tough, asking DeVries to “cease and desist” and un-dam the stream. Failure to comply would invite sterner action, warned the letter.
DeVries was a tenant of Stephen L. Tvedten, who in his reply said beavers were to blame for felling trees and constructing dams. He requested clarification if the rule applied only to beavers on his property. Or were all beavers required to seek permits to construct their dams? He suggested the Department take further action right away and not wait till the beavers go into hibernation, when they become unavailable for harassment.
Next, an official of a Road Commission asked Tvedten to dismantle the beaver dams as they threatened to wash away a road. The landowner replied there was no cause for alarm as long as the animals were allowed to maintain their constructions. And he rounded off with “you let the dam beavers tend to their dam business and you tend to your own”.
A few days after the incident, I was in Chennai, at a premier college where some of the country’s brightest students and their professors lived and studied. In the car park were two concrete containers filled with rainwater that seemed to serve no other purpose than breed mosquitoes. If educated citizens could be indifferent to a public health hazard, I wouldn’t blame the department for being proactive. But I draw the line at smothering a rich grove with noxious fumes.
As I write this, I’m watching a pair of flamebacks bathe in a puddle of rainwater collected in the fork of a tree, about 20 mt off the ground. No doubt it has mosquito larvae. There are probably several similar tree holes in the area that no fogging will permeate. Fumigation kills air-borne insects, not aquatic larvae. So we do what anyone should do in a forest: sleep under a mosquito net and use insect repellent.
Traditionally, villagers have trimmed palmyra fronds and made a bonfire of nutrient-rich leaf mulch. Were the Health Department officials really gunning for mosquitoes? Or did our jungli unkempt ways horrify them?