By Elizabeth Royte
How do you remove a leech? Are they dangerous?
— Todd Kushner, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Bogart may have demonized them in The African Queen, but these hermaphroditic annelids are harmless. Unlike ticks or mosquitoes, leeches don't transmit deadly diseases, and their bite is usually painless, though some species leave a scar that looks remarkably similar to the Mercedes-Benz emblem. True, leeches do have
frightening appetites: Equipped with some 300 microscopic teeth that grind away at your flesh, the average leech can slurp up two tablespoons of blood — about ten times its body mass — in under half an hour.
Since medieval times the leech has been called upon to treat everything from insanity to gout, with varying success. But for clearing up black eyes (a secret that actors have long known about) leeches can't be beat. This talent derives from the leech's impressive stores of salivary anticoagulants, which allow it to suck a meal without clotting
interruption. More recently, doctors have used leeches to restore circulation to reattached fingers, toes, even ears.
So how do you remove one? Try applying salt, moist tobacco, or a lemon wedge until it falls off. Otherwise, a brisk flick of the finger may do the trick. Don't try to peel them off, or you'll wind up with a laceration. "But fear not," insists one leech expert we called. "Leeches are your friends."
Is the sky really bigger in Montana — and if so, why?
— Jake Johns, Denver, Colorado
We called the Montana travel office and got Lana on the line. "Maybe because the state is so spread-out?" she said. "Or because the population is low?" Right on both counts, Lana. Stand on Montana's high prairies and there are no telephone poles, skyscrapers, liquor billboards, or water slides to muck up the vista. Montana has little pollution and low
humidity, which makes for less haze, fewer clouds, and a razor-sharp horizon. You actually see more of the sky.
But wait — what about the rest of the West? Can Montana truly lay claim to the "Big Sky" appellation? What about, say, Wyoming, which has about 300,000 fewer people than Montana blocking the celestial view? When we called the tourism office in Cheyenne and asked if the residents of the Equality State didn't think their sky might be just as big, or
perhaps even a little bigger, an unruffled spokeswoman clucked definitively, "Oh, I would think so."
What's a blue moon? Does it really look blue?
— Bob Busch, Kansas City, Missouri
"Blue moon" refers to the second full moon in a calendar month, which happens about every 2.73 years. No one is really sure why it's called that. Certainly it has nothing to do with color: A blue moon looks no different from any other full moon. In
medieval times, people used the expression "blue moon" to connote an absurd situation, but nowadays it signifies any event that's infrequent but unpinpointable.
A wrinkle: Sometimes the moon really does appear blue. Any natural disaster that sends large amounts of particulate matter into the atmosphere — a forest fire, say — can scatter light at the red end of the spectrum, causing the moon to take on a bruiselike tint. Perhaps the most prolonged example of this occurred
in 1883, when Indonesia's Krakatoa volcano spewed ash around the world. The moon appeared blue for months.
What did astronomers call the second full moon of the month before "blue moon" became common? "Nothing," says John Mosley of the Griffith Observatory. "What do you call the second Tuesday of the month? There's no need to name it."
By the way, the next blue moon falls in January of 1999.
As June opens, the moon will pass close enough to Saturn to occult the planet's rings in most of Africa and Asia. The new Moon falls on the fifth, leaving the sky dark for good viewing of stars. On the 22d, Venus will be five degrees south of the bright star Pollux. The Moon will be near the bright star Antares on the 18th, the anniversary of
Sally Ride's 1983 launch aboard the shuttle Challenger, making her the first American woman in space.
The full Moon will occur on the 20th. The following day is the solstice, marking the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere as the sun's projection crosses the equator. Officially, the solstice occurs at at 4:20 a.m. EDT. — David N. Schramm
Send your questions for The Wild File to Outside, 400 Market St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, or submit them here.