Season of the Moth

One of my opening gestures to the man who would eventually become my husband was to send him a copy of Robert Frost’s “Birches,” a poem which is especially dear to me.  This year we are celebrating our 30th anniversary, and that poem remains a tender reminder of how our love began and how it continues, resilient and adapting (mostly) to what life presents. We hold this poem in our hearts not only because it represents the beginning of our life partnership but because we want to hold onto Frost’s celebration of his mastery of the art of climbing up and swinging down on the mostly resilient trees of his boyhood and the ways he complicates that seemingly innocent act, loading it with resonances. I can’t help but marvel at his description of the boy that was himself learning

…all there was 
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
The as-yet unconquered

For me there’s also the recognition of Frost’s reminders that life’s challenges sometimes leave us wishing to escape, “weary of considerations.” The past few years have left us, society, and the earth, struggling under unimaginable strain.  That weariness is everywhere, it seems. While Frost delights in the beauty of the natural world, he is never very far from acknowledging darkness, albeit with an oblique or light touch.

This year has proven to be devastating for the birches in the northeast. Gypsy moths, lymandria dispar dispar, have been here for several seasons now, decimating hardwood trees, including birches, and creating a distressed and distressing landscape that has taken on the appearance of an eerie combination of winter, spring, and summer in the otherwise abundantly green Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Healthy maple leaves in mid-summer

Usually by July, mature leaves in our mixed hardwood and evergreen forests have deepened to a thick deep-green canopy of breezy, rustling, bird-filled loveliness. But this year is hardly a normal year.

Oak leaves nearly gone, July 2022

The last time I witnessed a gypsy moth infestation this severe was in my own childhood in Connecticut during the late 60s. One summer lingers in my mind because of the lesson it taught me about the resilience and fragility of our natural world. That year gypsy moth caterpillars defoliated the trees so badly that in order to save themselves the trees leafed out for a second time in a single season.

 I remember the realization that the strange crunching sound I heard every time I went outside was the collective sound of caterpillars devouring the leaves above and around me. That summer car windshields and radiator grilles were plastered with green slime, and the ground was blanketed with dark sand-like particles of caterpillar excrement. Prickly little monsters hanging from silken strands made it impossible to walk through the woods or on a sidewalk underneath trees or to be anywhere outdoors without facing the ugly fact that they had taken over the landscape. To make it worse, chemicals were randomly sprayed, raining down on us as we played outside, with no apparent concerns for the harm direct or indirect exposure might cause. Who knew that indiscriminately spraying the entire landscape, with children and everything else in situ, could be harmful? Well, someone knew. I still remember the taste of malathion as it wafted through the air we breathed.

And yes, I was a swinger of birches at that time, without yet knowing of Robert Frost or the Truth that would eventually break in.

And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

I’ve always liked the ambiguity of that last line. Are we to think that we may “begin over” by merely finding another unconquered tree to climb (thus getting away from earth awhile) or pausing before taking on life’s lashes with renewed spirit, or otherwise despairing enough to allow ourselves to imagine leaving altogether, despite Frost’s concern about that wish of his being misunderstood and “half granted,” along with the possibility of him being snatched away, “not to return?”

New leaves against old, July 2022

Later that summer, when it dawned on me that the forest was in the process of spontaneously regenerating its leaves, I experienced this strange phenomenon with a sense of disbelief and awe; it was a sign of how far nature can and will go to preserve itself. But the following spring taught me about the cost of that effort. The forest, having used up its resources to produce the new leaves it needed to stay alive, had less energy to generate more in order to keep the cycle going. The result was a sparsely foliated spring, filigreed with the pale green of new leaves spread like thin lace throughout the woods. Still, it was enough to keep the forest alive. Remarkably, somehow the trees were able to produce what they needed to save themselves.

A couple of years later we all marched in the first Earth Day parade in town and as children thought loving the earth and seeing that adults were taking steps to protect it was enough. In 1970 it would have seemed Frost was right:

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

But since then we’ve learned that loving it is not enough, especially in the destructive and toxic political climate which we now find ourselves, as hard-won environmental protections, among others, are weakened or reversed outright and time for making the hard changes necessary to preserve the natural world and ourselves runs out.  

Last year we were visited by gypsy moths once again, and for the first time in many decades I heard that alarmingly apocalyptic crunching sound of voracious defoliators at work. This year it appears that the caterpillar population has once again completely overwhelmed the trees. Entire swaths of towering old oaks, as well as young trees, have been hit especially hard, stripped of every leaf or nearly so.

Oak trees, July 2022

Birches seem especially vulnerable, too, as are their aspen cousins, fruit trees, some maples, and many others, though for some reason the oaks appear to have been the first to be totally denuded this time. The ground in late June and early July was once again covered with dark granules of digested leaf matter, trunks of trees covered with countless black destroyers of the canopy wearing irritating fur coats to discourage predators and whose only purpose is to gorge themselves until they pupate. Which they did in droves.

Death by bittersweet

This assault comes on top of years of damage done to local trees by hard-to-control invasive plants such as bittersweet and hardy kiwi, among others.

Struggling to survive defoliation over 50%

By the Fourth of July some new leaves had already begun sprouting, and now, as August approaches, the hills are oddly mottled, as if having jumped forward or back in time to early spring, with patches of lighter newer green against dark swaths of conifer and mature leaves of deciduous trees. But the hills are also blanched by what might have otherwise appeared as the early spring browns and grays of spindly still-bare branches but are in fact trees that have been unable to generate the energy to produce new leaves, interspersed with the deep green of mature leaves belonging to the lucky or the strong ones. It’s a troublingly irreconcilable mix.

Several years ago I drove through the Carson National Forest of northern New Mexico, past miles and miles of dead piñion pines. The bark beetle, in combination with years of severe and relentless drought, had left the piñion forest brown and brittle, waiting, doomed, for a single spark from a lightning strike or a careless or malicious human to turn a vast tinderbox to ashes. We’ve seen what the catastrophic western fires of this year can do and how quickly. What we may not readily see is that pine nuts are an essential source of nutritious, high-fat food for birds, bears, and many small animals in the region, small mammals that larger carnivores depend on. The massive regional die-off of piñion forests (40-80%) has already resulted in gradual but significant reductions in populations of birds who have flourished in that habitat. For anyone who has spent time in the high desert and mountains of New Mexico or Colorado, it’s hard to imagine the western bluebird or scrub jay disappearing.

Flightless female gypsy moths depositing egg masses.

Here in the northeast, a combination of insects and fungus have nearly wiped out the once ubiquitous beech tree, the nuts of which are a major source of high-value food for our black bear and bird populations, as well as many other mammals. Across North America the emerald ash borer, a beetle transported from one state to another in cord wood, has decimated the ash tree population. The list of invasive insects and plants that are causing irreparable harm to our forests and the wildlife that depends on them continues to grow. But it’s not just invasives responsible for the assault: the vast Canadian boreal forest is being clearcut in order to sustain the toilet paper industry, just one of many ways the human footprint continues to spread into critical carbon sequestering forest lands.

Through July our ghostly gypsy moths successfully pupated and emerged. Before they completed their life cycle, the adults mated and the females deposited their sawdusty egg masses on the bark (and leaves) of the trees that the next generation will climb and likely ravage.

Cottonwood with gypsy moths depositing egg masses

As in the pandemic, the weaker have been the first to go. When next spring arrives we will have a clearer picture of the degree of tree mortality that has resulted from this particularly stressful season of the moth. There will be some miracles along the way. This cycle will eventually break. But the devastation will remain with us.

Leafless mature oak next to springlike foliage,
July 2022

What’s next? Where and when do we begin to imagine once more the Truth that Rachel Carson understood and what we seem to have so quickly forgotten in the span of my one little lifetime? When will we realize that beginning again is no longer possible? While scientists and politicians debate about whether or not we have reached the tipping point for climate change, each new source of atmospheric carbon release causes further harm, promotes more destruction by invasive species, and brings us further from the point at which reversing the process would be possible. Will we right ourselves before it’s too late or be “dragged” like ice-bound birches “to the withered bracken by the load”?

People come to the Berkshires every summer to enjoy its lush green landscape its rich and generous outdoors. A popular tourist destination and an especially beautiful place to live year round, this part of New England depends on an economy that serves many non-resident visitors each year and people with second homes. Covid has brought some difficult challenges to our economy. As in many desirable areas around the country, the real estate market has done exceptionally well because people have become more mobile, working remotely and leaving Boston and New York for the open space of the mountains, woods, meadows, lakes, and rivers that we cherish. Overall, we have managed to adapt in order to keep the area’s businesses alive, if not thriving, through the pandemic. We’ve seen a number of small businesses disappear, and surely each is a loss to someone, even if a new one has come along to replace it. It’s still a loss for those paying attention. That said, on the face of it things look pretty normal.

As for the landscape, it’s still green enough that looking out over the hills on a summer day may not reveal what is actually happening to our trees.

Leafless in Sheffield

It’s important to look more closely, take note, and bring our awareness forward in an effort to learn about the impacts of invasive species on our native flora and fauna.

Complacent as we tend to be, humans are not especially good at assessing the cost of not taking action unless the harm impacts us directly. We’re now seeing the consequences of this on a global scale, and those costs will inevitably continue to mount. Collectively we have the power to do more to reduce the impacts of climate change and hold our elected representatives accountable for taking more drastic steps to reduce carbon emissions and protect natural resources, particularly those that help buffer against those damaging emissions by storing carbon.

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