These days I am feeling a certain kinship with Job, who lived a couple thousand years before Christ. I’m not certain they had browntail moth caterpillars in the land of Uz, where he lived with his flocks and family, but it seems likely, given that his skin was covered with a rash so painful or itchy, he scraped his skin with a piece of pottery.
Despite our having destroyed all the caterpillar nests we found on our property early this spring, the voraciously gluttonous insects devastated an oak and an elm tree on our property. Thankfully, I thought I did not react to the toxic microscopic hairs left in their wake. So when we discovered that the caterpillars were also helping themselves to our apple tree, my husband, Dana, declared war, cutting down all the neighboring oak branches that he could reach.
Caterpillars rained down on him from the leaves above. While Dana burned the branches, I crushed the caterpillars writhing over the ground and those that had wriggled up into the leaves of our apple tree. The good news? The apple tree was saved. The bad news? Both Dana and I were covered with the ultra-itchy caterpillar rash, which speckled my face, neck and arms and much of his body.
While we haven’t yet resorted to scraping ourselves with pottery shards, we have spent the last two weeks bathing in witch hazel and a variety of concoctions purported to relieve the rash. I’ve also done a lot of reading about the invasive critters, trying to figure out how to prevent an outbreak next year. Interestingly, the caterpillars—like so many irksome insects—are not native. They were accidentally introduced to Massachusetts in the late 1800s, most likely attached to imported roses, and quickly caused an infestation.
How like so many of the troubling vices and habits that plague us. Often, we naively introduce them into our lives, little knowing what devastation such practices may cause to ourselves or to those we love. While such habits may destroy others, we believe ourselves to be immune—as did I to the hairs left by the caterpillars—only to discover that we too are susceptible. And, try as we might to rid ourselves of the harmful effects such habits cause, we are also affected by the actions or inactions of others. If I destroy all the caterpillar nests on my property, it does little good if my neighbors do not also destroy the ones on theirs.
In light of our common vulnerability, it is best to practice caution before introducing habits that may harm us or others. Job’s is a cautionary tale written to refute the belief that the righteous will always prosper while only the wicked suffer. The truth, painful as it may be, is that we are all affected by forces beyond our understanding or control. But like Job, who called out to God in his suffering, a day of restoration and relief is coming for those who persevere.
Award-winning author, Meadow Rue Merrill, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. Her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series releases this fall with The Christmas Cradle