Mid-July, and it’s hot in Central Massachusetts. High ’90s last week, and so humid that it felt as if you were swimming, far-too-far from the beach. What a relief when thunderstorms passed through on Friday to clear the air for the weekend.
Friends have asked me if I’m enjoying the heat. They well-know my aversion to cold. But, I tell them, even I have my limits. My happy place is mid-80s with low humidity and a light breeze. So it felt very good to take a walk around the neighborhood Monday afternoon, in precisely those weather conditions.
Only a few other people were outside—a kid on a bicycle, a lawn crew, a boy shooting baskets in his driveway. Just me and the birds and the gypsy moths. The latter seem to be reveling in their last week of life, flitting around tree trunks, plastering bark with tan egg masses that will become next year’s scourge of very hungry caterpillars.
Our city’s trees have been hard-hit, especially oaks. If we get enough rain this season, we may avoid more defoliation next summer. The caterpillars’ only natural control is a fungus that has died off in recent years, due to drought. It’s making a slow comeback, and this year’s infestation is not as bad as last, but conditions have been too dry for Mother Nature to hold the insects fully in check.
As a little kid, I used to do my part. I loved to collect caterpillars and let them crawl all over my fingers (at least until whatever they secreted made my skin peel). Then I would put them in glass jars along with twigs and leaves, poke holes in the metal cap, and imagine they were my pets. They would inevitably die of suffocation.
Walking on Monday afternoon, I wondered how something so beautiful could be so destructive. There’s a marvelous felicity about these moths, how their papery wings glow golden in the sunlight. They brush your skin like a dainty feather. When they first hatched from their pupae last week, fluttering outside my office window, I mistook them for butterflies.
Well, butterflies they are not, and I am hard-pressed to understand what possible positive role they fill in the ecosystem. Same goes for mosquitos. Ditto for rare and chronic diseases, plant-borne and human.
Regardless, nature’s balance deserves—no, demands—our respect. Our lives depend on it. On Tuesday, the temperature creeps back up near 90. I hope we get some rain.
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