Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Kind of God Creates Tent Caterpillars?

Tent caterpillars (KOMO)
‘Tis the season to ask the ultimate questions about divine design when the tent caterpillars swarm, the carpenter ants emerge, the mosquitoes buzz and the slugs begin chomping down in the garden.

If your world view requires there be some kind of purpose or point to all this swarming, emerging, buzzing and chomping this time of year, you might be hard-pressed when the trees in the yard are covered in webs and out of those webs emerge those wriggling, squirming caterpillars leaving black flecks of poop all over the branches and leaves they’ve denuded.

Why are there tent caterpillars? Because they show up in annual cycles and we’re in one of those cycles this late spring. Editors sent reporters out before and during the long weekend and everyone was writing and showing caterpillar stories. See? “Tent caterpillars: What's their story, what do the moths look like?” by Jessi Loerch and “Pesky Western caterpillars are back and busily munching on Whatcom County trees” by Kie Relyea. You can even see what KING reporter Gary Chittim looked like in 2002 in his story, “Tent caterpillars set up camp in Western Washington.”

But really, if you were to look for purpose, it would be hard to find one in tent caterpillars or mosquitoes. You will need to show me a bird eating one of those hairy things is you want me to believe they actually provide sustenance for others. That’s like saying the purpose of the plague of locusts was to provide something for Utah seagulls to eat. Oh, some say that— and go on to say the whole point was about the divine and the Mormans.

With tent caterpillars, like with much of the natural and human-wrought disasters in the world, the default regarding divine purpose is that it cannot be understood by mortals. A simpler explanation is because there is no purpose, no point. Did it just happen, thrown together, random, chance? No, there are circumstances out of which everything arises and most of the time we can try to understand the circumstances out of which tent caterpillars and the moths appear: There’s an environment that’s not too hot or cold or wet or dry, food that’s available, no predators. Change some or one of those circumstances and maybe the tent caterpillars will be gone and we’d have yellow-bottom stink beetles falling on our heads instead.

Looked at this way, we humans can be seen to occupy an ecological niche no different than niches occupied by all the rest of the flora and fauna around us. Except we happen to be able to adapt and modify our circumstances and prevail through our short history— thus far— and create world views that include a purpose or a point to existing.

Some might take this the wrong way and get angry or despondent thinking about being just like a tent caterpillar, a bedbug, a mosquito, a yellow jacket wasp. Don’t. It’s still about you but it’s just not all about you. I find it both humbling and comforting to look around and see that we-- me and the tent caterpillars-- are sharing this world.

--Mike Sato


  1. Infestation of one is an infestation of all: I've spared our foliage this year but saw the webs around us. Last winter finding and removing the egg casings you can reach on the tree branches seems to have helped. First you have to find the brown casings cemented onto the brown branches, not fall off the ladder poised in the soft sinking soil, then you can remove them-- gently.

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