The Voice of The Caterpillar

I walked with our old brindle boxer along the single lane road curving through the Cape Cod National Seashore. We circled around the puddles from a downpour earlier in the day; the dog doesn't like water. As we descended the next hill, my eye caught the different coloring on the trunks of the oaks – a mosaic pattern almost as if there was a thick growth of brown lichen. It made me think of the African Kuba cloth, fuzzy raised dark brown patterns on a background of raffia. But this wasn’t textile art; this unusual raised patterning was thousands of two-inch long caterpillars, affixed vertically to the oak bark.

Caterpillars and Kuba Cloth

Caterpillars and Kuba Cloth

I heard the falling bodies of other caterpillars from branches high above, the sound like leftover rain drops from still wet leaves. I looked up and saw that the oaks had no leaves; the only green in the sky belonged to the scrub pines. I had never before seen such an assembly of caterpillars, nor so many bare-branched trees.

Later, when my husband, Blase, arrived, I told him about the caterpillars as we stood on the porch of the cabin. He pointed out the line of damage. Like the frontlines of war, he could distinctly see the line between the denuded trees and the green leafy ones. I wondered what causes such specific demarcation and whether the trees near the cabin have more access to water and are healthier. Or was it just the slow movement, the adagio, as the caterpillars make their way eastward, traveling slowly, moving deliberately, ravaging completely.

I touched a few and was surprised; there was no squirming. Were they dead? Dying? Tired of growing? I wanted to know more about their life cycle. I knew these were Gypsy Moth caterpillars and that at some point they would become pupae, but would they move into this next stage in this position, clinging to the trunk, all of them head down, or would they burrow in the ground, or go elsewhere? I wanted to know about their particular life cycle.

In this small cabin in the woods, there is no internet.  But there is a bookshelf, and I picked out an orange hardcover book, one of a series called “How-to Know” —  this one “How to Know the Insects,” with a copyright of 1947. In the chapter on Lepidoptera, the order of butterflies and moths, there were descriptions of quite a few moths: the Little Wood Satyr, the Squash Borer, the Luna Moth, even the Casemaking Clothes Moth, which constructs a cloth case around itself from chewing up cloth. The book suggests, as an experiment, to put the moth in a metal box with only one color of cloth. Then change the color of cloth from time to time, and see how the moth constructs a variegated colored case. All of this was interesting, but not helpful in my understanding of the life cycle of the Gypsy Moth.

I returned the book to the shelf, slipping it back between How to Know the Trees and How to Know the Wildflowers, and looked for a more current book. On the same shelf I found, A Pocket Guide to Insects, with a section on moths. This book mentioned sixteen interesting moths, among them the lovely White Ermine, all white with a few black dots, and a fur ‘ermine’ stole covering her neck and head. She could be a princess in a fairytale, who was changed into a moth while awaiting her flame. She even had orange spots on her belly, announcing to the world that she is not to be eaten. There was also a photo of the lovely, bright red and black patterned, Cinnabar Moth, original to Europe and Asia, but brought to America to control ragweed, a plant that is toxic to cattle. The Cinnabar Moth eats ragweed like I eat popcorn at the movies — rapidly and non-stop. Caterpillars multiply their body size two or three thousand times in only a few weeks before they transform to the pupa stage.  Alas, there was no mention of the Gypsy Moth. I’m beginning to wonder why no one writes about it. If only could look it up on the internet, or like Alice, ask the Caterpillar.

I returned A Pocket Guide to the Insects to the shelf, and looked quickly to see if I had missed another lead. I noticed biologist David George Haskell’s book, The Forest Unseen. In this book, Haskell visits every few days for a year a meter square of old growth forest in the mountains of Tennessee. In one day’s entry, he describes how a moth alights on his finger, and stays, unfurling its delicate proboscis as it draws up a minuscule amount of salt from the sweat in between two finger print lines. Caterpillars get everything they need from eating leaves, except salt, which they must find elsewhere. When a male moth mates with a female, he passes a packet of sperm as well as a packet of food, which, most importantly for the yet-to-be-born caterpillars, contains salt. The female passes on the salt to her eggs and thus to the caterpillars. Nowhere in his book does Haskell mention the Gypsy Moth.

When I had had enough of the horrific sight of so many caterpillars, I guided the dog towards a fresh water pond. Our dog, who is terrified of water, was so hot that he gingerly put his paws into the pond. He even began wading up to his belly, nosing around under the bayberry. He seemed mesmerized by the shifting patterns of plant shadows, the water sliders, and watched along with me, small sunfish.

Bruschi in Horseleach Pond

Bruschi in Horseleach Pond

We saw four sunfish hanging out over their own collection of small pebbles, each one ringed by a dike of sand. The sunfish were clearly protecting their eggs, but how did the eggs get to be under the stones? I could imagine the sunfish moving sand with a tail fin, but not pushing pebbles. There’s so much I don’t know!

Books are helpful; even the oldest ones add to our braided rope of knowledge. But I know that the only way I will truly learn will be by watching. I will need to see the sunfish earlier in the year when she is preparing her nest. And I will have to check back on the caterpillars in a few days, and a few days later still. That’s why I am so slow to truly learn about all the insects in the apple orchard. It takes years of repeated observation.

On our last walk on the Cape, the dog and I strolled down to the pond again. While he poked his head into the reeds, I watched a sunfish hovering over her eggs, open her mouth, pick up a three-inch stick, and swim it out of the nest. Spring cleaning! Then she came back, lowered herself almost to the pebbly bottom, and began twitching, rhythmically wriggling her fins and tail, clearing fine debris off the nest. Over my shoulder I heard a voice I thought I recognized as Alice’s Caterpillar, “There’s only this — your experience.”

And I had to agree.