Texas A&M University houses the nation’s largest repository of kissing bugs, small creatures that carry Chagas illness and have a tendency to bite you on the mouth. Each and every of the four,000 or so insects in the collection met its end at the hands of a “citizen scientist,” one of 500 or so volunteers who scoop up scuttling insects and mail them to the university. Most of these folks are quite ordinary. But not Hugh Brown.
Brown lives in self-imposed exile in Lexington, Texas, about an hour east of Austin, on 153 acres of wooded land where the insects thrive. He’s a genius—no, actually, he’s a member of Mensa—who cuts his personal hair, spouts trivia about bats, and thinks nothing of stripping to his birthday suit and diving into a pond in front an individual he just met.
The 69-year-old started collecting kissing bugs in 2013 after reading a pamphlet urging people to contribute to the university’s investigation project. Why not, he figured. Contributing 100 hours to the project earns a nice break on your home taxes, and the bugs are bountiful. “I’ve gotten really a handful of literally in my house,” Brown says. “I’ve been lying in bed reading and located one of these guys crawling across my leg.”
Ilana Panich-Linsman met Brown in July when Stat sent her to photograph him for a story about the citizen scientist system. She rapidly located Brown far more fascinating than the program and the creepy-crawlies he captures. “He’s like a modern-day John Muir or some thing,” she says. “He believes that cutting himself off from society aids induce new thought.”
Brown studied physics at Rice University but never ever pursued a career in science. Rather, he spent the early 1970s in a treehouse on a Honduran beach before moving to Lexington. Given that then he’s made his land a sanctuary for armadillos, skunks, bobcats, feral hogs and unwanted rodents the city of Austin brings by. Brown offers refuge to all wildlife. Except kissing bugs.
You can see why. Kissing bugs—also known as vampire bugs, assassin bugs, and other equally unpleasant names—carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, a vector for Chagas disease. As if that’s not gross adequate, the parasites are carried in the insects’ feces, which they have a tendency to deposit after biting you, usually near the mouth.
Brown possesses a talent for catching the bugs, which are most usually identified among May and October. He likes to hunt for them from a perch atop his ham radio tower, stuff them into medication bottles, and kill them in his freezer. They join their brethren at A&M’s “kissing bug lab,” where researchers dissect them and extract their DNA for evaluation. “We now know that kissing bugs are found close to people’s properties in the summer season,” says researcher Rachel Curtis, “and that 60 percent of [kissing] bugs in Texas are infected with the parasite that causes Chagas disease.”
When Panich-Linsman arrived, she identified Brown sitting on his porch, tying shoestrings around his socks to hold them up. He invited her in, pulled an huge watermelon from the fridge, and cut her a slice. Brown explained his choice to let his land go wild, and to live an essentialist lifestyle. When he isn’t catching kissing bugs or logging birds for the Audubon Society, Brown spends his days reading, writing and wandering his property. “I have a quiet, thoughtful life,” Brown says. “It’s wonderful.”
Once Stat reporter Eric Boodman arrived, Brown led them on a hike through sweltering heat to a tiny pond, exactly where he stripped off his garments and dove in. Panich-Linsman paused, not quite confident how to respond, just before deciding that, yes, it was really hot and she’d enjoy a swim, too. She stripped to her underwear and dove in. “You’re in his globe,” she says. “I really feel like photographers can perform on long term projects for ages and by no means enter a self-contained planet like that, exactly where there’s no larger context to place him in, absolutely nothing to juxtapose him against, since he’s in his planet,” she says.
When the sun set, Brown set to work catching bugs. His visitors followed him up the tower to a modest platform, 55 feet up and splattered with bird guano. Brown seemed immune to the stench as he strung up a white sheet and a bulb to attract his quarry. Inside minutes, he’d caught his very first kissing bug of the evening.
While some may take into account Brown odd, Panich-Linsman located him inspiring. He seemed completely in touch with himself and with nature, focused only on the present moment and possessed of great insights. “At a single point he turned to us and asked, ‘Have you ever had an original thought in your whole life?’” she says.
She located herself pondering that query hours later as she recounted what was by any measure a most unusual day spent with a most uncommon man.
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