Canopy of Fire
Fires from the trees seared our throats on Long Island in the 60s when burning the nests of tent caterpillars seemed a reasonable alternative to defoliation. As a child, I did what I could to save their lives...
Even though they are not visible there is one in every room, a bug jar. In my house “grab and go” has little to do with take out unless you’re talking about the bugs.
Often indecisive and arrested by ambivalence in most things, my relationship with insects is complicated but I am committed to taking them outside where they belong.
Usually vacillating wildly, my awe and aversion coexist awkwardly; my urge to scream rapidly overridden by my compulsion to rescue. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that recent figures estimate there are more than 1.4 billion insects for each human on the planet.
Clearly I am going to need bigger jars.
Beguiled by their simplicity and complexity, I love to watch them. I respect their purpose-driven lives, their social order, and their blatant indifference to the nuances of the tedious but requisite duties of day-to day life.
I admire their sheer beauty, which I prefer to observe in The Field Guide to Insects on my coffee table. If they’re inside my house, they’re going out.
I have become adept at catching them. I can catch a fly mid-flight and have learned how to catch and carry out to the yard those gladiator-shield adorned stink bugs, their top heavy bodies struggling for balance while latched onto the lid of a bug jar.
But not all of them make it into the jar. In my eagerness to save every single bug that ventures into my home, I have sadly beheaded and amputated scores of body parts.
Many have perished or frozen to death once outside and mercy deaths have occurred. But many survived. When I was younger it was different.
Tent caterpillars were ubiquitous on Long Island in the summers in the 50s and 60s. Their gauzy white incubators, inverted silky protractors braced in the fork of a branch, swaddled sticky creatures at right angles in the crooked elbows of many trees.
Encased in the opaque stillness of their womb-like nests, they rolled around en masse, rambunctious yarn balls with hairy legs, slithering from one internal chamber to the next before parachuting down and defoliating all the beautiful trees.
As the sun heated up, a cavalcade of caterpillars descended in unison in search of tender leaves. Others dangled from invisible strands swinging recklessly from tree to tree or worse than death, landing in our hair.
The streets and sidewalks were stained with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored caterpillar innards as ten-year-old feet bedecked with PF Flyers gleefully squished them into oblivion. What fun we had discovering the brilliant, crayola-like secrets contained within their lifeless bodies.
It didn’t seem cruel. We wanted to see what color butterfly they would become and at 10, patience wasn’t optional. If we didn’t squish them, the sharp beaked robins and starlings would peck them to pieces or sometimes mercifully swallow them whole.
As the sun lost its heat, the caterpillars returned to the safety of their cocoons. Soon after, the men arrived with big, dented gas cans. Tall skinny ladders, bespeckled with dried paint and caked with chalky chlordane residue leaned uneasily on the bruised and beleaguered trees as the men set the nests on fire with torches made of rags.
The smell of scorched bark stained our throats as ghostly fibers, caterpillar- confetti, exploded in flimsy, gossamer filaments, hurling gobs of bugs to a fiery fall. Armageddon.
Contemplations about mortality and the essential eternal consequences of our earthly actions occur more frequently as we age. I have a recurring fantasy that perhaps as I eventually transition from one world to the next I will pass through a long, sacred space lined by them all, all the bugs that I’ve saved. As I pass by they will be there on either side, reassembled and beholden.
Except for the caterpillars. I had forgotten about the caterpillars...