Friday, March 7, 2008

The Spraying

In thinking about native plants for our area recently, I dug into my library and took a new look at a book I read 15 years ago. That book, Noah's Garden by Sara Stein, was one of my quickest reads ever. Probably my quickest and I think that is because it fed something in me that I had a voracious appetite for at the time. I re-read one chapter this morning, The Aphid on the Rose, and you know it has the same resonance today. It fostered fifteen years of growth as a gardener and now with much more experience to rely on while rereading, it only makes more sense. Back then, just after graduating college it may have been passion alone that had me tear through this book, but now it is experience and sensibility that have me re-reading it.

Lately I have been thinking about whether or not I am really interested in flowering plants at all. In looking at my garden, in which everything flowers, you would ask how that could be. But since childhood I have been incredibly excited about the creatures of the yard and garden. I started thinking that maybe I plant for the insects and birds, the life which the garden attracts (myself included). I love the plants, their forms, colors, and scents. Yet I get even more excited when these attract the creatures that make the garden buzz with life. Stein's The Aphid on the Rose focuses on the complexity of "solving" garden insect problems. It turns out that we may not need to solve anything except our problem of planting the highly domesticated species that we are so attached to.

When I was a child I had an empty fish tank. I brought this tank out, into the yard and filled it with as many types of caterpillars I could find. In this tank I remember collecting what I thought was an exciting new kind with numerous hairs, charcoal grey with a reddish dots along its back. That early enthusiasm along with my young attachment to all things "wild" in our rather uncultivated yard gave me the insight to realize the negative impact of what was to come. Not long after my first encounter with the Gypsy Moth caterpillar, the population exploded and trees were being defoliated. Where I lived, on Long Island, oaks were the predominant tree and a favorite food of the caterpillar.


Tanker trucks were driven in on sunny summer afternoons where kids were playing outside, birds and squirrels doing their thing. Out of these tanker trucks came men with firehoses. Out of these hoses came a bitter smelling fluid shot upwards at high pressure. The undersides of trees, 60 or 70 feet up, where doused in this fluid which to this day still I have a scent memory. Not being fully aware of what was happening we kids stayed outside to watch.

On the ground, after the work was done, Gypsy Moth caterpillars were everywhere writhing, some laid still, some hung half connected to the tree bark. But the devastation did not limit itself to the caterpillars. All kinds of insects and crows, blue jays, sparrows and chickadees, even squirrels lay dead on the ground. It was a massacre. For a day the trees dripped this poison. In June, with less frequent rains, it was hard to imagine this poison "washing away." The spraying happened every summer for two or three years.

Eventually less and less people had sprayed. Less and less gypsy moth infestations occurred. They are always present, but in greater or lesser numbers. Yet I can say, with the skillful observation of a child, that none of our trees succumbed to the gypsy moth population. My family had not sprayed.

Last summer I was traveling through central Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 and I noticed the forest looked like it was having a very late spring. Seemed odd, but it was early June, so maybe. On my way back two weeks later, I realized that this was not the case. We stopped at a rest stop in the affected area to take a look at the trees. Gypsy caterpillars everywhere, but dead now. A state employee at the rest stop told me what I had already deduced, that they recently sprayed.

Defoliation in Allegheny Forest due to Gypsy Moth caterpillar

I don't have the knowledge to know if this was a mistake. In recent years there has been many threats to the hard and softwood forests of North America. The state may have made the decision that the caterpillars would weaken the trees to the point that other problems would wreak havoc. My instinct is to say that it was a big mistake, that the woods will recover as long as the whole of the ecosystem is intact. It seems to me that blanket spraying of chemicals ensures that the ecosystem is not fully intact.

I think people make emotional decisions when it comes to their trees being defoliated or, for that matter, their roses made limp by aphids. This emotional response gives way to chemical attack. Rachel Carson wrote about the often unannounced aerial spraying of the Gypsy Moth caterpillars in our area in the late 1950s in her book Silent Spring. Back then they used DDT mixed in fuel oil! I do not know the chemical agent used in the late 1970s and early 80s, but it is hard to believe that we were still reacting the same way to the caterpillars after two decades of experience. And, as my Pennsylvania experience attests, we are still reacting with a chemical onslaught after five decades.

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