Saturday, August 10, 2013

Of Wasps and Half-Marathons

"Are you training?" my sister asked in a recent email. 
Last September three siblings (out of seven) walked a scenic half-marathon around Schroon Lake, in the beautiful Adirondacks. This year, we will be four. My brother from Arizona, 10 years younger and 10 inches taller than me, is joining us. And no, we are not in competition. It’s a solidarity thing. It’s a sentimental journey. We had a summer house not too far from Schroon Lake when our parents were alive.

Am I training? I was training, a little, until Friday, when I injured my toe running from a wasps’ nest I had disturbed with my weeding tool. They were probably northern paper wasps, which are downright amiable, compared to their cousins, the yellowjackets. Paper wasp colonies are small, and if you get too close (that’s assuming you actually notice that you’ve gotten too close) you will see one or two guards giving a threat display. They stand tall, spread their wings, and look menacing. It is very effective.

This is a European paper wasp, sipping dill nectar.
Wasps are omnivores, like us. They like sweet nectar but also kill caterpillars and beetle larvae to provide food for the developing larvae. This is a good thing, for gardens. The colony includes a number of females—males are not produced, or in fact needed, until the end-of-summer mating time approaches—but it is the queen who is most diligent about defending the nest. As the workers invest more time in the care and feeding of the colony, they get a little more aggressive, but they don’t mark and chase you.  

If you’ve ever disturbed a yellowjackets’ nest, you know what that means. These aggressive wasps deposit a chemical pheromone on the hapless one who disturbs their peace, communicating alarm and riling up the entire colony—of 5-10,000! The chemical persists for hours. I once watched a whole hive of yellow jackets converge on a sweatshirt that was stripped and tossed midway through a breakneck run. Remarkably, the young man who put his foot in the nest got away clean. The wasps had marked his clothing, not his person. It was a full day before he could safely retrieve the sweatshirt.

Had I been thinking logically, I would not have risked my toe to escape the paper wasps, because when they retaliate against an interloper, it is generally a one-shot deal. The sting hurts like heck, but a single infusion of venom, or maybe two, each summer seems, at least in me, to dampen the immune response; it has been years since I have swelled and itched after being stung. 

This is the offending guardrail, dressed in moss phlox last spring.
So, there I was on one side of a low guardrail, along with the wasps. Below us was a ten-foot drop. It was the guardrail that, literally, caused my downfall. All in all, northern paper wasps are friendly neighbors, as long as you give them their space—which I did not, last Friday.

This was my second digital injury of the season caused, indirectly, by an animal. A month ago, after repeated attempts, I caught a groundhog in a Havahart trap. I did not (have a heart, that is), but that’s another story. I set the empty trap down on the ground, and then, with my arms full of lettuce and scallions, tripped over it. I hit the ground—hard! The ugly thigh bruises came and went but one little finger, to all appearances uninjured, still remembers the fall every time someone shakes my hand. All in the service of an armload of greens.

Am I training? I will be. Last year I was lax, and I paid for it with aching thighs. This year, I aim to do a weekly 5-mile fast walk, starting now, so that my muscles will be ready. This means no more stupid moves in the garden.

Over the years there have been plenty of purple bruises and tender joints, and even a couple of black eyes. One I acquired the traditional way, by stepping on the business end of a hoe, the other more creatively when my pruners flew out of my hands (of their own accord) as I was wrestling a giant wisteria, and landed on my brow. I hate it when that happens.

Yes we can and we will walk 13.1 miles through a stunning fall display of leaves and lakes and mountains without embarrassing ourselves by strolling in after the food tent has been disassembled. Yes we will have 3 hours (ok, 3 ½) to talk and remember and experience the day, to create pictures and memories, to build solidarity. Last year, the young, fit sister could not deny her competitive spirit and “made the break” at mile 8. She may do it again—probably earlier this year, to improve her time. That’s all right. I will not run. 

Assuming, that is, there’s not a yellowjackets’ nest along the course.

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