City Bugs

The conceit of the city dweller is that nature has been banished from the urban confines. Snow storms, floods, the pair of coyotes you glimpse while walking your dog at night, the rats in the alley, and the annual epidemic of flues and colds can all be dismissed as the final mop-up phase of an engineering problem: no nature allowed, except in parks and zoos. Guess again, pitiful humans! You will always be condemned to carry nature around with you wherever you go.
I was reminded of this fate as three different ‘bugs’ came back into my life, though indirectly. The first was a phone conversation with friends visiting their grandkids, who reported to us that once again, they were dealing with an outbreak of head lice. Our friends spent their current visit shuffling clothing in and out of hot dryers, and working various portions through the childrens’ hair. Head lice love cities. Not only are there lots of heads in close proximity to each other, but these silly human are so vain that they refuse to shave their heads to remove the preferred nesting places!
The second was the conversation at our annual condo owners’ meeting about our bed bug policy. This is a new effort at forging community ties in our complex, thanks to a ordinance the City Council passed last December requiring us to have a policy. We were able to agree on something, but only after detailed conversations about the impossibility of ever eradicating a bug so well adapted to living with humans that it spends 90% of its life hiding, and can find us from our body temperature signature and the density of CO2 gas that envelops us as we are sleeping. Still, we accepted our marching orders and submitted to the superior wisdom of the public health engineers.
The third was an New York Times article yesterday about leprosy. We don’t think of this as a urban disease, but city life gave this disease new opportunities. This bacterium is one of the oldest human infections. It is so old that it has evolved into a wimp of a bacterium: it takes weeks to reproduce; 60% of the DNA in its body has been turned off because it would produce surface proteins that are too easily recognized by our immune system; and it needs a genetically susceptible human before it can establish itself in the body. Even then, it takes years to build up enough damage to produce symptoms. The heyday of leprosy in Europe was the city building era of the Late Middle Ages. Monastery-like leprosaria were built in the new downtowns to house those infected by a reinvigorated bug. So many people were infected that rather than shunning the leper, the afflicted were embraced and integrated into urban life! The buildings were an early example of multi-investor development where charitable patrons earned religious “points” by contributing to the building fund. If you can’t conquer nature, redefine it as a condition of urbanity and leverage it as an economic development strategy. Now that’s what I call engineering. I wonder how that might work with head lice and bed bugs?

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