The meaning of life?

People often talk about the miracle of birth, and if you’ve witnessed one, chances are you’d agree. Even if, like me, you believe that God begins and ends with Mother Nature, it still seems that that God can and does perform miracles. Certainly we have to bow to the magic of some cosmic pattern.

But for another example of a life cycle, on a scale that dwarfs humans both in numbers and apparent pointlessness, you need look no further round these parts than the tent caterpillars, which have infested the Catskills this spring like never before. Millions of eggs laid on leaves, giving way to thousands of tiny caterpillars hatching in spring on a whole range of trees, these caterpillars then weaving themselves a protective tent in the junctions of branches as they eat their way through entire trees and grow in size, then making for land – especially human homes – where they climb the walls by the tens of thousands, find themselves a dark corner and promptly go to sleep, their mission accomplished. It’s quite fascinating to watch cocoons forming around these caterpillars as they shrivel up and “die,” though they are in fact preparing to turn into moths. Yet when these moths hatch, they will live for only a few days, during which time they will mate and lay eggs on the leaves to repeat the cycle. It’s an incredibly impressive series of events that makes the simple birth-mate-death cycle of us humans seem rather mundane by comparison.

The caterpillars climb house walls by the thousands; then they build themselves cocoons, shrivel up and prepare for rebirth as moths.

But man, is it a pain. Searching round the web prior to my initial post about the tent caterpillars, I found the experts generally concluding that tent caterpillars are a nuisance but not a pest. I disagree. Even allowing for the fact that any animal which can be counted on your exterior walls by the tens of thousands, which is so prevalent that it moves like a sea of snakes on the sidewalks and roads, and which descends from trees at such volume that wearing them on your clothes is now but a natural by-product of living in the country… even allowing that this surely qualifies as a pest rather than a nuisance, it still does not take into effect the incredible devastation these two-inch caterpillars have delivered on the great Catskills Forest. Looking out at the mountains at what should be the onslaught of summer, one is immediately confused by the coloring. Shouldn’t the mountains be green? Why are whole sections brown instead? Surely it’s not an early onset of autumn? No, it’s not: it’s entire areas of the forest (depending on the tree) eaten entirely clear of leaves. We’re talking millions of acres stripped of their foliage – and it’s only early June.

The devastation wrought by the tent caterpillar: these trees at the foot of the forest should be green. Most have been stripped clear of foliage, giving a brown hue to much of the Catskills Forest.

So, while I believe in Mother Nature’s ultimate wisdom, its ability to protect, nourish and rehabilitate itself, I am thoroughly mystified by its fondness for the tent caterpillar. And I’m equally confused as to the cycle of its infestation. Have humans brought them on or would they be wreaking this havoc even if the forest was uninhabitated? Why are they more prevalent some years than others? Why does the only bureaucratic solution seem to be the release of black flies? Will the trees grow a second coat of leaves this summer or are we destined to look out at brown mountains for the next three months? Do caterpillars have feelings? Does it hurt when we step on them? Does the same conscience exist in the caterpillar as in the moth? And most of all, what is the meaning of (its life?

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2 Comment(s)

  1. 14 June, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Tony…. “Why does the only bureaucratic solution seem to be the release of black flies?”

    I was happy to see you discrediting this rural legend a while back. Now you seem to be reviving the myth of the “government fly”. There’s no such thing. The black flies just like to lay eggs in caterpillars. So when we have lots of caterpillars, we have lots of black flies.

    I’m dismayed to see brown mountains up here, too. But the trees do usually get new growth starting around now, as the little pests are cocooning. And I keep hearing it’s usually only fatal to trees that are already weak, or if there are a bunch of bad years in a row.

  2. 17 June, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    Good article and site Tony.

    The problem with human’s though is that the world has become their “toy”. Nature is not intended only for beauty – also for survival through the whole chain of death and rebirth.

    Remember that the caterpillars form food for another animal in the chain, the chewed up leaves allow for regrowth not only of the tree itself but also the undergrowth below.

    With such an intricate and interwoven design of “life” I can’t but wonder that there has to be more than a planet that has happened purely by chance and a series of events!


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