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Mosquitoes and the Changing Landscape of Northern Ohio

This article first appeared in the Allen Memorial Art Museum's Bulletin, Volume LII, Number 2, 2001.

by Mary Garvin

Mary Garvin in her lab
  Mary Garvin  
JUNE 7, 2002--For most people, the modern landscape of northern Ohio is unremarkable. Generally flat, its subtle changes in elevation and associated plants and animals can be thought provoking only for those who observe it closely. Early European settlers of northern Ohio were more intimately tied to the land and its flora and fauna because of the modes of transportation and forms of agricultural technology available in the 19th century. Despite their attention to the land, however, they understood many consequences of it poorly, especially the ways in which landscape affected matters of health. As a community ecologist, I have a special interest in how individuals of different species interact with each other, and the costs and benefits associated with those interactions. I am especially intrigued by the insect-borne diseases that the early European settlers may have endured here. Given that both interactions between species and the environmental conditions that lead to them are critical components in disease transmission, the topographical features of the early Ohio landscape were the ultimate cause of one hardship for the early settlers, the disease known as malaria.

To adequately reconstruct conditions leading to disease transmission for early Ohio settlers, we must recognize that landscape is a product of a much earlier geological and climatic past. We are fortunate to have exceptions to the predominantly flat northern Ohio landscape that reveal its geological history and humble us into placing our presence here into the appropriate temporal perspective. One such exception is the confluence of the Vermilion River and Chance Creek (1), where rushing water has broken the flat topography of Lorain County by cutting 100 feet into the bedrock. The thin layers of Devonian shale, soft enough to crumble in the hand, that have been exposed in the river gorge take us back to a marine environment some 300 million years ago. At that time, the area was under approximately 50 feet of ocean, forming the Appalachian Basin, which reached up into Ontario and connected to the present Atlantic Ocean. Each thin layer of shale represents a deposit of fine sediments on the shallow ancient ocean floor. The transition from a marine to a terrestrial environment occurred as the basin drained because of gradual accumulation of sediment and the uplifting of the land associated with the formation of the Appalachian mountains to the east.

More recently, the glaciers that carved the Great Lakes also created the glacial plateau. I enjoy the expressions of surprise of my research students en route from Oberlin to my field sites in Wayne and Holmes Counties as we drive off of the glaciated plateau to look over the hills of glacial moraine. Some ten to twelve thousand years ago, the glaciers stopped their southward advancement, began to melt, and deposited the moraine collected during the southward movement over the Canadian Shield. The lake plain where Oberlin now sits was scoured by the glaciers that melted and formed a much larger Lake Erie than we know today. With each recession of the water level, the lake became smaller and a new beach ridge was formed. These ancient beaches are now the sandy ridges that cut east and west across northern Ohio. The low-lying bottoms between the ridges consist of heavy clays formed by the silts deposited in the ancient Appalachian Basin. Unlike the sandy ridges that once served as the former shores of Lake Erie, they are slow to drain and heavy with organic matter.

Although altered considerably from its pre-European settlement state, the northern Ohio landscape still exhibits key features that attracted the early European settlers and facilitated their travel. Perhaps the most important were the old beach ridges which provided high, dry land for paths for relatively easy passage. Stone artifacts still found along these routes remind us that the Native Americans were the first to travel there. Growing up in northern Ohio, I searched for these relics while cutting asparagus and weeding melons on ridge farms where heavy rains were likely to wash away the light sandy soil and expose the shiny flint arrowheads and tools. Although eventually the well-drained soil of the old beach ridges was recognized as superior for farming, some early northern Ohio farmers were lured down off the sandy beaches by the dark heavy soils of the deep woods. No doubt the striking difference in vegetation between the sparse scrubby ridges and the giant trees of the lowland forest suggested the superior quality of the darker soil below the ridges (2).

Chance Creek cuts through the shale bedrock formed 300 million years ago as layers of fine sediments were deposited on the ancient ocean floor.
  Chance Creek cuts through the shale bedrock formed 300 million years ago as layers of fine sediments were deposited on the ancient ocean floor.  

It’s not difficult for us to imagine the attraction that the settlers felt for the early landscape and to create romantic images of their lifestyle, but such images mask the difficulties of pioneer life. Apart from the obvious loneliness of isolation from family left behind in the East and the distance between new neighbors on the frontier, homesteading in the deep woods involved numerous other hardships and fears. Wolves and rattlesnakes were a constant threat, but the fever, commonly referred to as malaria, ague, or bilious or autumnal fever, was feared most. One pioneer confessed "a wholesome fear of two things: fever and ague and rattlesnakes" (3). Because the fever was often contracted around the wetlands, settlers thought it was caused by inhaling the "bad air," "miasma," or "malaria" that they associated with the rotting vegetation of swamps. Its true etiology remained unknown until the 1880s when the French army physician Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922) discovered that it was caused by a single-celled protozoan living inside human red blood cells. Its association with the odor of swamps yielded mystical views of the dark swamplands, like those of an Ohio newspaper reporter from the early 1800s who imagined the cause "whence deleterious exhalations arise...The angel of disease and death, ascending from his oozy bed, along the marsh margin of the bottom ground...floats in his mortal chariot, and in seasons favorable to his prowess, spreads mortal desolation as he flies" (4). Because early settlers assumed a similar association with the fumes that rose from the newly turned soil of the deep woods, they considered malaria a common and unavoidable condition, and like hard work, a necessary part of frontier life: "He ain’t sick, he’s only got the ague" (5). ...<more>

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