Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Pitter Patter of... Oh, That's Just Disgusting

A little postcard from the vacation Ron and I recently took in Boyne City, Michigan

We've hiked in the Rocky Mountains, we've hiked in the Yorkshire Moors, we've hiked in Zion Canyon. So you would think that hiking in the northern Michigan woods might seem dull and unremarkable by comparison. But if you think that, as we foolishly did, you would not have counted on...

Night of the Living Caterpillars... mwah ha ha ha ha!

Actually, it was the afternoon. We hopped out of the car at the trailhead to hike the Jordan River Pathway, a pleasant little wind through the East Jordan River watershed that was recommended to us by the nice lady behind the desk at the lodge. As we started down the trail, we heard an odd popping noise. "I wonder what that is?" I remarked cheerfully to Ron, our junior naturalist curiosity fully engaged. Then, we saw a charming little caterpillar on the trail. Awwww... isn't that cute?

Then we saw more, hanging out on some low-growing leaves. Well, there sure are some caterpillars around! And look at all those caterpillar tents in the trees! Golly!

We hiked on.

Then we realized, as we hiked deeper in, that caterpillars were everywhere. On the leaves, on the trail, even hanging over the trail from little silken threads. They were writhing in large moving groups on branches crossing the trail. They were congregating slimily on certain trees, heading from one place to another on a caterpillar parkway. And from up above they were... they were dropping on us! Gross! Could that be what that plopping noise is?! Caterpillars falling onto the forest floor? Eeeuuuw!

We hiked faster. We hiked very very fast. I kept my hooded sweatshirt over my head in order to prevent ploppage in my hair. When we stopped for lunch, I did not sit down. I would have sat on caterpillars. I would have had them in my shorts.

We managed to survive about a seven-mile, extremely brisk hike. Before we got into the car, we performed one last inspection for unwelcome stowaways.

When we got back to the condo, we showered thoroughly (eesh!) and then, in true junior naturalist style, we googled "tent caterpillars" on the web.

Guess what. Yeah, apparently northern Michigan is in the midst of a huge forest tent caterpillar infestation. These outbreaks occur every 10-15 years and last 2-5 seasons. Not only that, but we hit the woods (of course) just as the little buggers were finishing their eating cycle, just as they were about as big and busy and numerous as they could possibly be. Next week will be better as all 3.5 trillion caterpillars--that's my personal estimate on the population--will be turning into moths. (Note to self: no hiking at night with flashlights until the first frost.)

There's more. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that plopping sound we heard was not what we thought it was...

"Anyone who has been in the woods during a FTC [forest tent caterpillar] outbreak knows not to eat an open faced peanut butter sandwich there. It might sound like rain but it's really insect frass."

You don't know what the word "frass" means? Neither did we. You know, English is an amazing language. We have a special word for caterpillar excrement!

That's right. We spent our afternoon hiking through the woods during a once-in-a-decade caterpillar poop storm.

The good news: "This frass serves as fertilizer just like any other manure." Oh yay. Caterpillar poop helps the ecosystem. It's the circle of life. That totally makes up for the nightmares I'm going to have this week.

We spent the rest of our vacation lounging by the condo pool. We decided we like our nature better on TV.

UPDATE: A little entymological etymology on the word "frass."

Monday, June 08, 2009


Ah, the month of June. When the raging rapids of the school year's end give way to calm pools of summer serenity ... or something like that. We did manage to make it, as a family, through exams and final grading and all those end-of-year extra things like trips to Cedar Point (Jacob) and soccer team parties (Mia) and exasperated math teachers who want that homework NOW (Philip).

But this year we've also been coping with some bigger-than-normal transitions. Jacob has successively graduated from middle school and seems poised gracefully for the start of high school in the fall.

As parents, we've learned that this transition is easier on the parents the second time around. We don't feel quite so instantly aged this time. (But no, that's not us - that's Ron's parents and Jacob, looking sharp in a colorful tie)

Mia has been transitioning into a girl with a driver's license. This transition, we've discovered, is scarier and more awkward than we imagined.

So we'll move on to another transition: moving to a different house. When we moved into our house in 1996, we were a couple with a three-year-old and a baby. Now that we are a family of larger people with more stuff, we all dream of a little more space. So we spent the winter working hard to make our house market-ready--so hard, in fact, that I now have a chronic case of tennis elbow from scrubbing and painting. Our charming, sparkling Alger Heights home officially went on the market in April. And now, we wait, and hope, and more than anything else: clean. Over and over.

Meanwhile, my department is moving this week out of the Fine Arts Center at Calvin, which will be undergoing major reconstruction over the next 16 months. So last week I packed my books into boxes and said goodbye to the little office where I have labored for 12 years. This was a happy moment, I must say, because even in our temporary digs I will have a much nicer space: much more room and a window (finally!). We will be waaaaaay across the Beltline from campus, though. Theme for the year: hiking.

So it feels as if we are living out of boxes for the moment, camping out right in the midst of our regular lives. I struggle to be comfortable with transitions, but I'm trying to think of a time in my life that wasn't full of them. Well, it's been a long time, let's just say that. These are all transitions full of hopeful possibility, though, and for that we are grateful.