Wednesday, July 15 2020

garbage, flies, and zombie fungus

page banner

Dear Journal,

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to Wednesday morning. I hope you've brought a fresh cup of coffee to this journal entry. Where are you keeping the garbage in your life?

This morning, I've been finally relieved of the building garbage stress in my life. My brand new empty garbage can is sitting on the curb, and I'm chomping at the bit to fill it up.

Last week, while picking up my can off the curb, the garbage truck accidentally snapped the lid off. With my lid lying in the grass, I found a little flier taped to my can instructing me to request a repair.

I put it off a week. We had parties to get ready for, and the lid seemed to do it's job just fine resting on top of the can. But this proved to be an oversight on the following garbage day - yesterday morning - when the same truck picked up my can off the curb and dumped the free sitting lid into the back with the other garbage.

"Leave your can empty on the curb, and the truck will come by in the morning to repair the can," said the guy on the phone.

I hung up the phone and sighed. After two parties, we had what seemed like a towering pile of black garbage bags stacked in the driveway. The kitchen garbage, bathroom garbage, and the little diaper garbage can we keep by the changer were already busting at the seems. I was feeling the onset of garbage stress - that constant, vexing sensation you get when something stands in your way from removing garbage from your house.

"I think the garbage is starting to attract flies," I sighed, looking out in the yard. "Does it feel like there are more flies?"

Marissa, who was moving our herb garden back onto the deck, stopped and began combing through the leaves of our tomato plant with concern.

"Speaking of flies - look at this," she said. "I keep finding dead flies stuck to the plant." I leaned in close to have a look. "See? It's like they're frozen onto the leaves or something."

"Well great," I sighed. "Who knew that a broken garbage can could bring about all this pestilence. It's like a miniature plague back here."

Heading out onto the driveway, I lifted the fence latch and slipped through the swinging wood doors. A thin, boyish voice pierced the air.

"WAIT-A-ME WAIT-A-ME," yelled Rodney running after me. He had a stir crazy look on his face, like he just wanted something to do.

"Want to help me hose off the garbage can?" I asked.

"Yes. Let's do it," grunted Rodney, without even hearing the question. Rodney followed me out to the end of the driveway in his bare feet. I kicked our can right side up - a swift motion that sent a pungent smell of garbage right up my nose. My face wrinkled in discomfort.

"Oof," I said, turning away. "I really hope they just give us a new can. This one is gross."

As I hosed the can off in the street, I saw a UHAUL truck approach our shared driveway and slow to a stop. I gave a wave, kicking the hose and can out of the way. Our neighbor leapt out of the driver side.

"Hey, does Rodney want this?" she said walking over to us. "I found this in our stuff while we were packing up. I think it just needs batteries."

In her hand, she held a remote control monster truck. It was still in the packaging.

"What do you think, dude?" I asked, turning to him. Rodney stood beside me slack jawed, moving his mouth just barely enough to utter a quiet thank you. Our neighbor disappeared into her house, leaving me and Rodney to examine the new monster truck.

"Dude, as if you didn't get enough presents already. I don't even think she knew it was your birthday," I laughed. With the box in hand, we slipped through the fence and made our way into the backyard.

Marissa returned with the truck a few minutes later. "It only took..." she paused, pretending to count in her head. "The rest of our AA batteries." She handed Rodney the controller, and he danced away after the whirring toy car. Marissa poured a cup of coffee. I brushed the dirt off of our deck chair and took a seat.

"So the fly thing is really weird," she said, pulling out her laptop. "It's a fungus."

"A fungus?" I asked.

"It's called Entomophthora muscae - or the 'Zombie Fungus'," she read off her screen. "I found a little article about it." She readjusted in the seat beside me and began to read aloud.

Entomophthora muscae is a fungus that effectively turns house flies into zombies. When their spores land on a fly’s body, the fungus burrows inside and quickly takes over the fly’s cardiovascular system and brain, which allows it to control the fly’s movements. The fungus eats the fly from the inside out for sustenance, and shortly before the fly’s death, it navigates the body to a high point where it can more easily spread spores to the next target.

I sat there listening in disbelief. "So this has nothing to do with the tomato plants?" I asked.

"Right," nodded Marissa. "I was worried because I thought they were eating it or something. But I think they're just landing there after they get infected."

"And you're pretty sure this is it?" I asked.

Marissa flipped through other tabs on her computer. "They've specifically found this in a lot of places in Wisconsin," she said. "They're even studying the fungus as a means of naturally controlling the fly population."

Our discovery of the "Zombie Fungus" may have been the highlight of my month. I assumed our tomato plants were in trouble, and I was ready to blame our growing garbage problem. But it was just the mysterious, brutal checks and balances of nature at work.

"So really, we should be collecting these dead flies and leaving them around the yard," I laughed. "Maybe we can even drop them in a spray bottle with water and spray our garbage with it."

Marissa pretended to dry heave.

"The more I learn about fungi, the more I think they might be the smartest animal on earth," I said. "Who currently holds that title again? Dolphins?"

"I think they're the smartest mammals," said Marissa.

"Wait," I interrupted. "How come humans aren't the smartest mammal?"

Thanks for stopping by today. Hope you have a wonderful day today.