Dear Switchback Friends,
Fall has arrived. Technically, it still won’t be here until September 22. And the weeks have been hot here in the Midwest. I know firsthand from driving the Golden Eagle, the Switchback minivan that has lost its air conditioning. The van still chugs along and over Labor Day, I drove it across spectacular Iowa countryside, heading south to our concert in Keokuk.
The GPS had us whipsawing across one and two lane roads. We had just passed through a small town, when I saw one.
It was making an almost suicidal march across the asphalt roads heading from one side to the other for no reason whatsoever. I sighed, looked across the fields on the 90 degree day and sadly recognized that it was now Fall.
I am talking about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. And when it arrives on the scene, for me personally, it is the one single harbinger of Autumn. In Chicago, they are not around, and it has always been rambling across the backcountry roads when the Woolly Bears make their appearance.
I never knew what they would turn into. I mean obviously they become some sort of butterfly or moth, but all these years of seeing them, I just didn’t know. And so, this time, driving along Highway 218, erratically dodging the little beasts, I thought I should look up what it is I am trying to not run over.
For those who have not been graced by the presence of the Woolly Bear, they are, well, sort of cute. About an inch and a half long, they possess fine long hairs, with a band of burnt ochre brown in the middle, and two black bands making the front and rear. They look like a pipe-cleaner gone wild. And the speed that they progress at across the road is somewhat impressive for something so small.
So, exploring on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see its scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, and it becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth. Now, I don’t know if I have seen an Isabella Tiger Moth and so this was another revelation. But I have seen the tan, velvet pouches from which they have emerged. I just hadn’t known that it belonged to the Woolly Caterpillar.
As a kid, we would pick them up alongside the road. They felt soft and immediately they would roll up into a ball in an effort to protect themselves. (Only now, years later do I read that their fine hairs can actually cause dermatitis. Ignorance is bliss.) I would make sure they got into the field and they would unravel and head off on their business.
But what is their business? I never really understood. According to Wikipedia, they like to eat herbs and leaves, especially alkaloid bearing leaves. A poppy plant, or such will be eaten and scientists have determined that they do this to get rid of internal fly parasites.
Now, that’s depressing that even a tiny woolly bear caterpillar has to deal with the parasites, let alone one with such a disgusting name. But scientists are pretty hyped up about this as they believe this is one instance in which an insect is actually medicating itself against an insect. So, that is a pretty amazing fact.
Perhaps they are running across the road, because they are high and trying to eradicate a parasite. I guess I would probably cross a hot early fall road a bit out of it if I knew I had an internal fly parasite too.
The Woolly Bear was described by Sir James Edward Smith in 1797. He was the first European to describe them. This was of interest to me and delving into the life of Sir James Edward Smith, I found out that he was the publisher, of the Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia. Which must have been a bestseller. Did Sir James ever see a Woolly Bear? Nope, he was just describing what John Abbot saw and describing whatever Abbott looked and drew.
Wait a second, I can hear you asking, who is John Abbot? Glad you asked, for he was the guy who, was supposed to be a lawyer, but devoted his life to studying insects instead. He was a skilled engraver and his illustrations apparently became the foundation of a lot of studies on North American insects.
Now, before you write him off as some eighteenth century slacker, I’ll have you know that Abbot served in the Revolutionary War in the Third Georgia Continental Battalion. No doubt, marching down the lanes to meet the British, Abbot saw these crazed, stoned caterpillars crossing the road. Apparently, Abbot felt that Sir James needed to let the world know about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. One cannot keep such revelations to oneself.
If that wasn’t fascinating enough, folklore has it that the larger the band on the Woolly Caterpillar can indicate the severity of the winter. If the Woolly Bear has a wide band in the middle, it means that we will have mild winter. And the opposite means a severe one. Which really gets me as I always thought it was the other way around. So for nearly half a century, I have been predicting the weather wrong.
At this point, you are probably asking me, what is the point?
And the point is this. It is so easy to dismiss life. Dismiss the little things that dangle and dance their way in front of us. Brush through the spider web, half listen to the bird song or the cricket chirp. It is way easier to keep the phone open, download an app, and tune out of this amazing life.
Yes, this little critter I have been dismissing and driving around for years, but I didn’t really know what it was. And probably still wouldn’t have, except I asked Brian “did you see the caterpillars crossing the road?”
“What caterpillars?” said Brian. And I had to describe the Woolly Bear caterpillar to him.
And what this means for me, is that I need to stop at times, listen, absorb and acknowledge the moment. Marvel and appreciate the fact that others have witnessed, scrutinized, and categorized good old Pyrrharctia Isabella. And yes, it does mean that Autumn is here.
Before you think that I am the only one smitten by the crazed, high, parasite eradicating, weather predicting Woolly Bear, consider the fact that places like Vermillion, Ohio and Banner, Kentucky have Woolly Bear festivals. They are complete with costumes, races, and odes to the little critter. The winner of the race is the one to predict the winter.
I can only guess that John Abbot would be proud.
American Roots & Celtic Soul