Monday, August 12, 2013

Past Deadline: Harbouring a Fugitive

Here is Past Deadline from the July 4/13 issue of The Perth Courier.
Harbouring a fugitive
 You may have noticed (if you are a regular reader) that I think it’s important to get kids connected with nature.
Possibly you’ve heard me prattle on about how I spent half my childhood mucking about in swamps catching frogs, turtles, tadpoles, snakes, snails, minnows, crayfish and all manner of cool critters.
So when I landed a summer job at Murphys Point Provincial Park after my first year in university, it was pretty awesome that I got to actually help with programs that taught people about some of those cool critters, and I learned even more about them myself.
One of the things that wasn’t so cool was the gypsy moth study. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, too, but bear with me – there’s a theme here.
A kazillion years ago when I was a student (1990s), gypsy moths were a relatively new invasive species that were a huge problem. They were deforesting huge tracts. The Ministry of Natural Resources was studying the problem and was conducting aerial spraying programs and various preventive measures.
Provincial parks were logical places for studies, and students helped. That meant I had a thrilling task. Someone official had tied burlap sacks around a cluster of tree trunks in a wooded area near the park office. On designated days I got to trudge off to this area and lift up the burlap, exposing wiggly masses of gypsy moth caterpillars, which I counted and recorded for each tree.
And then, because lifting up the wiggly sack wasn’t gross enough, I had to pick up a stick or a rock and squish all those evil, nasty, dastardly forest killers.
I know it seems odd that the girl who goes seeking cool critters was squeamish about this task, but I’ve never been crazy about a) insects that hide in dark places or b) killing throngs of them. I like caterpillars per se, but not dark, squirmy, destructive masses of them.
Besides, sometimes the caterpillar guts would fly into my face.
The subject trees were located in a low area beside the road on the way to the gatehouse, so more than a few campers driving in witnessed a tall, gangly, frizzy-haired girl in a brown and beige uniform beating a tree with a rock and periodically squealing. I think the campers stayed despite that ominous sign.
Anyway, the reason I bring up these happy memories is because, ironically, Girlchild is currently nurturing a gypsy moth caterpillar. She calls “him” Poochie and he lives in a lovely little bug terrarium.
She cleans the container faithfully. Each day she collects new, fresh maple leaves and rinses them off so Poochie has some water droplets. He munches the leaves voraciously. (I should look up that study to see which flavour of trees were preferred in the 1990s. I suspect it was maple.)
We have watched Poochie shed his skin a few times and, currently, he has positioned himself in a secluded corner of the terrarium and appears ready to enter the pupae stage. She even took Poochie to school for the class to see. By the end of the summer we should have a, uh, beautiful gypsy moth in our midst.
We were at the park on the weekend and told a park naturalist about Girlchild’s little project. “Oh,” he said, grinning at me. “Well, one more gypsy moth won’t hurt.” Then he said he had never seen one pupate, so we promised to take pictures.
It has been pretty cool to watch so far, actually. In small doses, I’m all over the gypsy moth life cycle, even if it does feel a bit like harbouring a fugitive.
 (P.S. – We’re still waiting for the pupae stage. Poochie shed his skin and continued on his merry munchy way, but we expect a new phase soon!)

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