The Spitter

Spare the frogs but not the scorpions


I met a small boy this afternoon who was a terrific spitter. He had all the moves. He showed me how he could hit a tree from six feet away, which is no mean feat. I tried it and came up woefully short. I tested him on accuracy, and three times out of three attempts he nailed a slim leaf from four feet away. He said he could do it from five feet but probably not six. He said he was going to spend the summer working on hitting an insect in flight. We talked about the difficulty of this for a while; you would have to pick a steady-state flier, like a bumblebee, and then you would have to learn how to anticipate flight path for maximum intersect. I actually said the words maximum intersect.

We talked about how you would have to avoid aiming at wasps and hornets because, as the young spitter said, you couldn’t predict how they would take being spat upon; they might not understand the sporting aspect of the thing, and they might get upset, and you wouldn’t want to be around a suspicious and annoyed hornet, with you standing right there looking guilty. We talked about how you could try to hit a butterfly but (a) butterflies fly in unpredictable patterns and (b) somehow it feels wrong to spit on a butterfly.

This was an excellent point, and it raised interesting questions about our feelings for certain animals and lack of feelings for others. For example you would, said the spitter, totally spit on a yellow jacket wasp if you could get away with it, and you would happily spit on a mosquito, you would be thrilled to spit on a mosquito, but, if you think about it, both yellow jackets and mosquitos are only going about their business exactly the same as the butterfly does—they are just looking for food, and we make totally unfair judgments about meat-eaters v. nectar-suckers, at least among the insect populace, isn’t that so? He actually said the words insect populace. We talked about how it’s interesting to take this idea out for a walk and think about how you would feel all weird spitting on a fox, but you would probably spit on a scorpion, even though both of those animals were carnivores, so where is the difference between them really, and why are we so wiggy about some animals and not wiggy about others? Why is that?

I said that some people would start talking right here about cultural indoctrination and anthropomorphism and things like that, and he said his uncle was totally into totem animals and the idea that everyone actually does have a mysterious relationship with a particular species of animal, even if you don’t know it, and I said that I thought this was probably true, and that it was fascinating to me how many aboriginal cultures believed that and organized themselves into clans and societies along those lines, and he asked what clan I would be in if we were in clans by animal, and I said probably otter or marten or maybe osprey. I asked him the same question, and he said oh, frogs, no question about it, frogs for sure.

Just then his mother and father and older sister came to claim the spitter and he and I shook hands and said what a pleasure it had been to chat about these interesting things, and he said he would refrain from spitting on otters and martens and ospreys in the future, though he had not done so previously, and I said that was a very kind gesture for which I was grateful, and that I would not spit on frogs ever again, not that I had ever done so in the past, and he said he was happy to hear that, and we parted. Every once in a while you have a conversation that is so unusual and refreshing that you have to write it down to make sure such an unexpected gift was given to you, and that is what I have tried to do here.

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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