Mayfly larva on underside of river rockSeveral years ago, I wrote a story about an applesauce processor. My guide took me through the entire process, beginning with the orchard –  – so far, science hasn’t come up with a way to make apples without the trees. Huge bins of apples were hauled to the processing plant, where the apples were washed, sorted, cored, chopped and mashed into mush, er, sauce, and poured into jars.

My guide was especially proud of the part of the process that killed off stuff that wasn’t apple. He was proud that, in his words, his sauce “would not support life.”

Funny thing, until then, I thought the purpose of the applesauce was to support life – mine, if I was the buyer.

I thought of that story while recently poking around a section of the Monocacy River. My partner-in-poking started picking rocks out of the water. He turned each one over, exposing its underside, and pointed to something moving in the thin skin of water.

“There’s a Mayfly larva,” he said, almost gleefully. “See the three tails?!”.

Unlike store-bought applesauce, good water, it turns out, does support life.

I was raised on a lake, so I am familiar with fish, beaver, loons and other wild critters that live in and on the water, and I’d seen all manner of bugs on the surface – such as those four-legged “water boatmen” that walk around daring fish to eat them. But as a kid I’d never given any thought to looking under the rocks.

Turns out, those bugs are a sign of good water. Water that supports life, with nutrients, but not too many, and oxygen. The little critters are called “macroinvertebrates” – invertebrates because they have no bone skeleton, and macro indicating they are visible (though possibly barely) to the naked eye. They are classified according to how well they withstand polluted water. Higher populations of “sensitive” critters means higher quality water.

So one could expect that part of the Monocacy River can support life. And that’s a good sign for Marsh Creek, where I spend a lot of time hanging out. The beginnings of the Monocacy are collected from about 700 square miles of Adams County rain and spring water. The two creeks join at the Pennsylvania-Maryland state line to form the Monocacy, which in turn flows to the Potomac, which dumps into the Chesapeake Bay, thence to the Atlantic Ocean.

I like the idea that the existence of bugs can be a sign of good water. We’re obsessed with killing germs, bacteria, viruses. We keep those hand soap companies in profits with our purchases of bottles of triclosan-laced hand soap to stand by the kitchen sink, or hang off our key rings. Many of us take a couple squirts from a wall-mounted bottle at the grocery store entrance, rub our hands together and use a disinfectant-impregnated towel to wipe down the shopping cart handle.

Never mind we have no idea how where the cans of beans and boxes of mashed potatoes have been handled before we pull them off the store shelves. Or that the chemicals that kills the bugs may be killing us.

On that latter point, the Food and Drug administration, has given makers of anti-bacterial soap – the triclosan ban includes 18 other “anti-bacterial” chemicals – a year to get the stuff off store shelves, and another year to prove that any replacement chemicals are any more effective and less harmful. Otherwise, washing with plain soap and water seems effective, and less disruptive to human life and physiology.

And also friendlier to the bugs that help us keep our supporting life.