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Letters Home from the 2004 International Congress of Entomology in Australia

Editor’s note: The author, Tom Sappington, attended four different International Congresses of Entomology, from 1996-2008, and sent hand-written letters home during each of them. The following, the third part of four, is unedited text from his trip to Brisbane, Australia for the 2004 Congress.

Part I: Florence, Italy, 1996Part II, Iguassu Falls, Brazil, 2000

By Tom Sappington


Before the ICE in Brisbane, I took a week’s vacation with my son and his fiancée to drive around and see a bit of Queensland. This included a whale-watching tour, snorkeling above a reef in an island lagoon (them, not me), visiting Lamington National Park, and watching the “Crocodile Hunter” (Steve Irwin) work with saltwater crocodiles at the Australia Zoo. During those several days we stayed at various hostels to save money and because, well, we liked the idea…

Tom Sappington

Brisbane, Australia, Friday 8-13-04, 11:00pm I did my laundry at the hostel this morning, so got a late start. I stopped off at the “Uniting Church” on the corner that I’ve walked past a dozen times on the way to the parking garage where I store my car. It’s old and kind of English looking. The doors are always open during the day, so I thought I’d have a look inside. A woman about 50 or so years old was puttering around and introduced herself (Bev). She found out I was here for an entomology congress, and told me about a nephew who, “goes all over the world to give papers on bugs. He’s been to America [pronounced ‘Americur’] several times. I wish I could remember his name… So what kind of bug is it that falls out when you go up to a tree and shake it hard, like this…” Gosh, it could be anything. “Well, this would be a Eucalyptus tree.” I’m afraid I don’t know much about Australian trees and their insects. But maybe some kind of beetle?… “I’ll bet it was cockroaches! They’re everywhere in Queensland, ya know.”

Bev and her husband Bill invited me to lunch and then to their home out in one of the south suburbs, Coolaroo, I think. They feed wild birds in their backyard, some of which have become pretty tame. Bev goes out and calls, “Drongo! Drongo!” or “Maggie! Maggie! [for magpie] Where are you?!” And if any are around they show themselves. I had several drongos come up and snatch bone meal off the tip of my finger. Apparently they bring people home all the time like that, usually visitors from other countries – sometimes they don’t speak any English, but they bring them home and have tea and feed the birds anyway. “I just love people, especially from other countries…” What a wonderful afternoon it was, and so unexpected.

Brisbane, Australia, Sunday 8-15-04 …[My son] was pretty keen on going to the zoo which was right on the way back to Brisbane. At the ticket counter was a chalk board saying that Steve Irwin, the famous “Crocodile Hunter”, was here today and would be giving a demonstration in the “Crocoseum.” We got a perfect front row seat and watched highlights from his TV show on the big screen of him jumping on crocodiles to rope them up, handling venomous snakes, and in general getting his khakis wet and muddy, and saying things like “Crikey! Ain’t he a beaut!” He made his appearance, ushered in like a rock star, and the big crowd was hyped to see him. Assistants lured a crocodile down from its pen through a series of pools and into the arena. “Now, to get him to come over this way all I have to do is get in the pool and splash around – it’s a territorial thing, you see…” So he’s splashing around in the pool with his feet, talking all the while, and sure enough the crocodile swims toward him. But Irwin was actually very wary and alert to stay out of its way. He dangled a dead rat from a platform, coaxing the crocodile to lunge vertically way out of the water to snatch it. “This is why you don’t go up north to the tropics and sit in a tree to fish, thinking you’re safe from the crocs…”

The author at the Australia Zoo two days before the opening of the XXII ICE in Brisbane, Australia, August 2004. Earlier that day we watched the “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin, conduct a demonstration with a saltwater crocodile in the zoo’s “Crocoseum.”

Brisbane, Australia, Tuesday 8-17-04, 1:15pm: I’m having lunch on a bench under some palm trees. I’m not playing hooky from the meetings by the way; Australians seem to take lunch from 1:00 instead of noon. I bought a CD and listened to Waltzing Matilda, a hauntingly beautiful song, about 6 times on the way to the convention center this morning…

They had a reception after the opening ceremony on Sunday where the drinks were flowing. I was still staying at the Palace Backpackers hostel that night. Earlier in the day I lay down on my cot to take a nap, but the entomologists were pouring in by that time. I was in a room with 3 beds and it filled up pretty quickly. One was a kid from Korea who had been in Australia for several months but had gone on a trip somewhere, “And when I got back my apartment was gone!”, and he threw his arms up in exasperation. I can only guess at the variety of miscommunications that must have led to his having “lost” his apartment. A young woman unlocked the door and saw us there, me looking rather rough with a beard and mussed hair and said, “Hmm… Interesting…” She was a grad student from California here for the Congress. I don’t know what she was expecting at a backpackers hostel, but she said “Would you be offended if I tried to get an all-girls room?” Of course not. So she did, and 15 minutes later another girl comes in, but she’s very talkative and grabs a bunk, and tells me all about herself. She’s been in Australia 2½ years now doing graduate work on detecting heavy metals in dog hair as an indicator of local exposure. The next morning I was up early to check out and do some birdwatching, and she was up too, wanting to talk but having to keep quiet because our roommate was still sleeping. So I’m packing my stuff, and she’s over doing yoga exercises on the floor, pretty vigorously. I whisper goodbye and good luck and she whispers back the same. She had way too much energy, but was very nice all the same. The night before, she handed me a copy of her Scientific American to show me a short article on transgenic mosquitoes. “I saw this and thought, ‘Hmmm… I’ll bet that Tom-guy would be interested in this…” I saw the first girl standing at her poster one day at the Congress, but I’d cleaned up a bit so I’m sure she didn’t recognize me.

Brisbane, Australia, Friday 8-20-04: The kind of things that have made me feel like I’m in Australia (as opposed to being on the Australian land mass as a detached onlooker):

Having a curious whale rise up out of the ocean and look me in the eye for a brief quiet moment. Crossing a busy street with a group of Australian high school kids going home in their dark blue, old-fashioned, England-style school uniforms and watching another stop suddenly and put her foot back to trip her friend behind her, just like kids have done everywhere since the beginning of time. Walking up a steep path to “Slaughter Falls” only to find the falls were dry, then looking up as I sat on a rock to see a swarm of gnats using me as an object to dance around… Listening to rock music coming up from the bar at Palace Backpackers hostel late at night while I’m fading off to sleep next to an open window with no screen. Nobody has screens on their windows or doors here. Coming down to the hostel lobby early in the morning and hearing the young woman behind the counter singing along to Landslide, one of my favorite songs, and to all the other songs on that CD by the Dixie Chicks which she knows by heart. Watching the Olympics on TV with all-Australian commentary – including watching the Australian baseball team beat Japan’s team made up of professionals, and listening to the Australian “color” announcer talk baseball strategy which sometimes made as much sense as if I tried to talk cricket or rugby strategy – and watching the Australians lead the U.S. men’s NBA-derived basketball team through the first 3 quarters and finding myself rooting for them. Leaving my boxed lunch provided by the Congress on the bench with a sleeping man wearing a suit, wondering if he was homeless or just a delegate with jet lag, but seeing him later eagerly downing it with hands that hadn’t been washed for a while. Getting disoriented while driving on the left side of the road and pulling out in front of a guy in a “round-about” because I was looking the wrong way – even though he honked, I glanced in my mirror a few seconds later and he was waving, rather than saluting me with what I expected, and I waved back. Waiting along a railing with [my son] for a chance at the Crocodile Hunter’s autograph, while he stood in wet boots and khaki shorts soaked half way up being interviewed by a bunch of media people in suits and high heels. And one of the serving ladies at the ICE who now recognized me after my 50th trip to her table to get coffee during the breaks all week, and must have seen something in my face, because she asked, “So how’s your day been today?” with a nice smile. “It’s been a pretty good day.” And it had been an especially good day…

And so I imagine myself someday, not too far off now I suppose, sitting in my easy chair with a globe in my lap while my grandchildren humor me and point to a spot and ask, “How ’bout here?” And I’ll say, “Ahh, yeah, Australia. I was there once…”

Brisbane, Australia, Sunday 8-22-04: Yesterday the Congress officially closed. The Chair of the Organizing Committee, Myron Zalucki, had been to several ESA meetings and other conferences over the last 3 years plugging the ICE and trying to catch peoples’ imaginations for coming to Australia. He always wore this beat-up floppy Australia bush hat – and of course used as many Aussie idioms as possible with his thick accent besides. The accent and the hat certainly did the trick for me! I remember at an ESA meeting he was up on stage giving his pitch, when he suddenly paused and said, “I know what you’re wondering about! You’re wondering, ‘Is that him? Is he the Crocodile Hunter?!”

I walked through the park-like area yesterday along the south bank of the Brisbane River where people set up booths on weekends to sell their crafts. I was talking to a guy selling leather book covers. “So where ya from, mate?” I’m from the U.S. “Well, obviously, with an accent loik that! But where in the States?” Iowa. Blank stare. “So ya seen a bit o’ the country while you’re ‘ere? Been to the zoo I see…” pointing at my souvenir Australia Zoo ball cap. Yeah, and we got to see Steve Irwin! “Well, that was lucky! He usually isn’t there. I guess you was lucky – most Australians don’t care that much for ‘im. Some do. But most of us who live around ‘ere think of ‘im as, well, a bit over the top, ya see? Ya know what most of us would call a bloke like ‘im? Say if he goes into a regular pub for a drink. We’d call him a ‘galah’ [pronounced guh-lah’]. Ya know what a galah is?” Yeah, a pink bird about this big (holding my hands to show him) with a white cap and forehead, and they walk around in flocks in grassy fields gleaning seeds from seed heads. Long pause while he looked at me kind of funny. “Yeah, that’s roit. So we’d call ‘im a galah, because they’re odd birds that fly around all over the place, can’t sit still ya know, and make all kinds of noise and racket.” That didn’t really fit what I’d seen galahs doing, but I didn’t correct him. Lorikeets might have been a better choice – colorful parrots, a little bigger than a parakeet, and they dash around, ram into each other in flight on purpose, and make a lot of noise. I’d watched two of them in the top of a tree, squawking and dueling each other with their beaks while dangling upside down. On the other hand, galahs are odd birds for various reasons, and Steve Irwin could reasonably be classified as an odd bird. But, boy, he’s got a brave heart…

So at the closing ceremony, the ICE Chair puts on his floppy Australian bush hat to make a few final comments. He thanked the Vice Chair “who was ready to take over if I were to step in front of a bus – which I considered doing more than a few times, by the way…” He also thanked his wife and family for their support and patience. “It’s good to have someone looking after you, and when your ego gets too big can put a pin in it. I’ve been informed that tomorrow about this time I’ll be potting roses and pooper-scooping. So I’m looking forward to that…”

A big reason I wanted to go to the closing ceremony was to find out where the next ICE will be in 2008…. South Africa – Wow! The city is tentatively Durban, where Gandhi was active before he returned to India. After the close, we all adjourned to the foyer for free drinks. I felt like I couldn’t go home without trying one Australian beer. As I faded off to a relatively quiet spot to sip the beer, an urban entomologist from Australia came up and started chatting. I asked him why they don’t have screens on their windows or doors here. “It’s just Queensland. I’m from Sydney, and we have screens on everything. I don’t know why they don’t, we’ve asked ourselves that a lot. It’s not like there are no mosquitoes. I think if I come back in another life, I want to be a mosquito screen salesman for northern Australia.” I could think of some other things it might be more interesting to come back as, but there’s worse things too I suppose.

Thomas W. Sappington is a research entomologist with the USDA-ARS and a collaborator professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Entomology. He is an insect ecologist, with a primary interest in dispersal and migratory behavior of agricultural pests. The views reflected in this article are solely Tom’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARS, the Department of Agriculture, or the United States government.

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