An op-ed in the Bennington, Vermont Banner 6/2/06. I had to share this with Judy's permission:
This is the third year in a row here in southern Vermont that we have suffered the ravages of tent caterpillars. These foul creatures eat their way through leaf and limb, wreaking havoc on whatever unsuspecting plant happens to be in the way of their insatiable appetites. They gorge on our apple blossoms, our roses, our maples, and oh, our poor willow was really weeping last summer. At first we merely flicked them off and stepped on them, then when that proved too slow started drowning them in soapy water. My husband devised a contraption that allows him to reach up high and burn the tents, and we've since learned about a bacillus spray that kills the caterpillars without affecting other wildlife. After hours of battling them, tree by tree, we'll think we have things under control - at least until the next hatching.
In the throes of caterpillar combat, as I notice the telltale furry-looking branch or the tree trunk so thickly covered it appears cast in shadow, I recall that during the 2000 presidential campaign in response to a question, then-candidate George W. Bush said his favorite book was "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle. Never mind the smug anti-intellectualism - this from the fellow who once wanted to be known as the "Education President." At the time people laughed this off (things were much lighter then, weren't they?). Yet I can't help but think of how perfectly the nonstop-feeding larva serves as a metaphor for the Bush presidency.
In the picture book, a staple of the pre-school bookshelf, the caterpillar chews its way through one apple, two pears, three plums, and a host of other foods including chocolate cake, Swiss cheese, a lollipop, and, improbably, salami. In the same way, Bush has decimated the nation's budget surplus (now a record-breaking deficit), the viability and morale of the military (stretched thin in misguided, mishandled wars), our country's moral standing in the world (shrugging aside international laws against torture), and our civil rights (through the so-called Patriot Act and unchecked citizen surveillance). The book has the caterpillar building a cocoon and emerging as a beautiful butterfly, a lovely idea indeed. What I imagine speaks to Bush was not the butterfly as symbol of nature's wonder, but rather the primitive, raw appetite embodied in the voracious bug. This is also the appeal to young children, which is why Carle's book has become a classic for pre-readers.
In my worst moments - just as I sometimes despair that our trees cannot withstand any more injury - I fear that there's no stopping Bush and Co. With all the corruption scandals, presidential faux pas, and Three-Stooges-like appointees, this administration has long ago devolved into farce.
Eventually, of course, this will have to end (witness the numerous "1-20-09 Bush's Last Day" bumper stickers around town). One can only worry about the damage that will be done in the interim - and fight to reclaim the democratic integrity we seem to have lost.
The greedy, plundering regime in Washington is the backdrop to life today. But we still have our own daily challenges. And for me right now it's fending off that old Axis of Evil: the forest tent, eastern tent and gypsy moth caterpillars. Yesterday my 11-year-old son, Brendan, and I had a harrowing bike ride, as we literally had to duck and weave around Forest Tents dangling from their diaphanous threads. (They float down from upper branches in a kind of belaying fashion, unfurling silken filaments on their descent.) "There's one on my shirt! On my leg!" he yelled, horrified. Threads were all over our hair, like cobwebs.
We raced back, and Brendan immediately took a shower. I mixed up another half-gallon of bacillus thuringiensis concentrate, and hauled out my spray bottle - to take on the one scourge I could at least do something about on a sunny afternoon.
Judith D. Schwartz, a member of vermontpeacetrain, is a writer and editor who lives in Bennington, Vermont.