A biological control

It all started with a couple of plants for my office. I’ve been nagging my partner, a gardener, for some internal greenery to help obviate the concrete jungle outside. ‘Anything fairly low maintenance and drought tolerant,’ I had said, aware that the designated window sill faces south-west and gets very hot. And I got what I wanted; three magnificently-fronded palms were duly placed on my window-sill.

But working at my laptop last Friday I felt oddly distracted, vaguely aware of tiny flickering movements at the edges of my vision. It became more obtrusive, and I eventually stopped for an overdue break. As I sat there, I caught a movement and spied a tiny object, faintly amber-coloured, midway between SHIFT and >. It looked a little like an ant; smaller and lighter, but with the same manic quality. As I watched, the thing sprinted over to the SPACEBAR, headed south and disappeared. In its wake came another, even more urgent compatriot, and as I stared, I realised that there were at least three more currently roaming my hardware – including a stage-struck insect making its way across the screen, illuminated by the backlight.

I looked at my desk. Yet more movement. The mouse-mat. The telephone. In the end I traced the activity back to a possible HQ; the plants on my window-sill. If it seemed busy on my desk, that part of the room resembled Oxford street in the run up to Christmas.

I raised it with my partner later that evening. He barely raised an eyebrow. “Just some mites previously introduced to control plant pests,” he said. “They won’t do you any harm.” Apparently, the only way to get rid of them was to nuke them with insecticide. Whilst my partner may be happy with conventional insecticides, I am not, and so we came to an impasse. I didn’t want to breathe in toxic fumes, and it seemed churlish to submit a plant to such treatment due to something which was basically no more than an irritation.

So I contented myself with splatting the tiny things as and when I noticed them, and over the next days and weeks I became a sort of mite General Custer, killing at least ten of them before breakfast. But no matter how much I squished and squashed, I was forced to observe that the number of insects roaming my workstation remained constant..

I want to go green, but does this have to mean hot-desking with insects? This is south London, not the Amazon rainforest! I became uneasy. It felt uncharitable, blotting out life as I chatted on the phone to family and friends. What was this doing to my karma?

Here I was, being reminded that Nature is not just about cosiness, beauty life – it’s about death as well, and killing. Packaging, sprays and supermarket processed meat – they all separate us from this truth and keep everything sanitised. And sometimes I like this sanitised simplicity.

I spoke to my partner again: “I feel like my desk is on an ant-hill.” His comment? “They’re just a biological control.” Was this supposed to reassure? And now the ‘biological control’ had been joined by bastions of fruit flies, seemingly introduced through a small rose-plant in my kitchen. Unless some of the mites had transmogrified into flies. Who knows? I’m not a biologist.

Every time I lift my telephone receiver to place a call, a flurry of black dots swarm upwards. The other day I left an answer machine message for a friend. Pausing to think about the next sentence, I opened my mouth to speak and – a fruit fly popped straight into my mouth. My partner was unconcerned; “Good protein.”

But the climax came during a yoga session. Lying on the mat in the front room in the Shavassana position, I tried hard to concentrate on simply Being. As I turned my head to get into the next position I saw a cohort of insects moving in a purposeful line across the floor. They’d colonised my entire flat! And then I noticed the palms which I’d taken into the front room for a clean. If there was any doubt before, there was none now – these plants are the Trojan Horse, and they have to go!

My window-sill looks a bit bare these days. But I’m finding it easier to work.

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