Caterpillar Catharsis: Only the Trees Have Recovered



It's 1987 and I am on my bike, poised at the top of Thompson Street. It's the steepest hill in town. At the bottom of the hill is the harbor and the grocery store where I am working this summer to pay for college. Thompson is also one of the prettiest streets in my town or at least it used to be. Framed by historic houses, old oaks and maples arch over the pavement from both sides of the street. However, this year, the trees are nearly bare and I can see threads glistening in the morning dew. I am bracing myself to pass through the gauntlet of spongy moth caterpillars (formerly known as gypsy moths), dangling form threads, the larger ones falling from the trees and the thousands on the road. I'll ride down the center center where the caterpillars are fewest but if there is traffic, I'll have to move to the side where their threads are thickest. At the bottom, I'll stop and brush off the ones that cling to my clothing and hope that none land in my hair or even worse on my face. By the time I reach Gristedes' grocery, most of the green slime that has encrusted my bike wheels will be gone and hopefully, I will be caterpillar free. If you grew up on the east coast, you probably have similar squeamish, memories. Perhaps you walked through the woods and remember the hearing the gentle patter of caterpillar poo falling from the trees. I feel this memory as I write it. It feels Gross. It wasn't until I began to rediscover backyard ecology as an adult that I have come to terms with the emotional fall-out of my caterpillar summers. The trees on Thompson street are still there and they have survived the Spongy moth infestation which has not reoccurred with the same ferocity as it did during that decade. However, this encounter in my youth informed my feelings about caterpillars for many years. which can be summed up as the following: 1) Caterpillars destroy trees 2) If you see one, there are probably hundreds in the vicinity and at least one is about to land in your hair. 3) Squish them. It's not easy to convince people to fill their yard with plants that will bring caterpillars to their yard. Since the birth of the suburbs, we have been spraying, weeding and replacing fauna to remove insects from our yard. The mosquito truck in my town is a more ubiquitous site than the ice-cream truck. As a society, we haven't seen nature in balance for a long time. We don't know what it looks like and even worse, we don't know that we don't know. In other words, when you tell people that certain plants will bring caterpillars to their backyard, they picture swarms of them - denuding the trees and destroying their plants. But that is NOT what happens - that is the "nature" out of balance that has become our new normal. Instead what does happen is that the caterpillars remain hidden. You may see a chewed leaf or two but you are most likely to see the butterfly the caterpillar will become. It will not destroy your plants. Most won't survive because caterpillars are first and foremost - bird food. As a society, we are just waking up to the fact that a type of insect, the pollinators are in trouble and without our help or our continued poisoning of them, they will disappear and take the earth's food with them. But the truth is, most insects are in trouble and many were once caterpillars which are the baby food for most species of birds. Since my "conversion" to native plant enthusiast, I have planted literally hundreds of plants that support caterpillars which feed birds. I never see them but because our meadow is full of various species quarreling for nesting space, I know they are there. So I intend to plant more plants - no longer based on what won't eat them but what will. I can't feed the world but I can feed my small corner of it. Baby birds, I hope you eat well.


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