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Faith in Vermont: Insects We Have Loved...and Lost

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Posted on October 4, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Our new wood stove arrives today, not a minute too soon. We no longer open our windows at night; instead, we’re sleeping in socks and pulling up the comforter. The mornings are dark and cold. The world is turning gold as every day more leaves decide to shed their chlorophyll and show their true colors. ”I think you girls are keeping us in business!” Mary at Happy Valley Orchard exclaimed when we showed up for the second day in a row, after two of my daughters put away seven apples between snack and lunch. This weekend there was a Canada Geese superhighway crisscrossing the airspace over our house.

Fall is well and truly here in Vermont.

Our family is outside more than ever, clinging to these beautiful days before freezing temperatures drive us inside. I’m putting old garden beds to sleep, and preparing new garden beds for spring. My husband is playing with his new weed whacker and brush-cutting attachment. And my daughters are just playing.

Last week, somebody asked me if we’d put up a playground in the yard of the house we’ve occupied for two months. I’m afraid I stared at him more incredulously than his question warranted before answering, “No, that’s not in the plans.” We have no need for a playground. Our daughters are in talks with their grandfather about building a tree house together, which would be great, but for the time being they have 12 acres to call their own. They dig holes and make mud bricks. They climb trees. They swing in the hammock. They roast marshmallows in the fire pit. They ride their dirt bikes up and down the back hay field, the topographic features of which they’ve named in honor of various Star Wars characters. And they catch critters.

Aside from Otis, the baby snapping turtle who spent half a day in a cardboard box being offered ants before being released back into the wild, the critters that my daughters adopt tend to be of the six-legged variety. And, without meaning to, here’s what they do: They catch and release garden pests, and they kill off all of the harmless or beneficial bugs.

First it was Japanese beetles, those beautifully iridescent but awfully destructive bugs that were laying waste to my blueberry bushes in mid-summer. Every afternoon I would go out, pick a bunch of beetles off of the blueberries, and drown them. On several occasions, one helpful daughter would follow me out, pick a beetle or two, and imprison them in her bug house.

“Great!” I said. “Your bug house is the perfect place for those beetles!”

I did not encourage her to release the Japanese beetles. I fully expected them to die in captivity; I wanted them to die in captivity.

But the next morning, those beetles were still alive, still living off the spoils of my garden. Later in the morning, when I peered into my daughter’s bug house to jeer at the beetles, they were gone!

“What happened to those Japanese beetles? Did they die?” I asked my daughter hopefully.

“No,” she replied. “I set them free.”

“You what?!?

“I set them free,” she repeated.

“But you know that they’re terrible garden pests, right?”

“I know,” she said, cool as a cucumber. “I gave them a big talking to, and sent them out to tell their friends to stop eating the blueberries.”

This exact scenario repeated itself throughout the late summer with grasshoppers.

On the other hand, I cannot even begin to count how many ladybugs and Daddy Long Legs spiders have died in that bug house. These are insects that I do encourage my daughters to free before nightfall, only to have them plead with me: “Please can we just keep them overnight, for a sleepover? I swear we’ll set them free in the morning!” The next morning, of course, there is the denial, the poking, and the tears when the insect in question turns out to be irreversibly dead.

The case of the Wooly Bear caterpillar who lived with us for several days was a morally nuanced situation, because it could theoretically overwinter in a Mason jar on our back patio until spring, when it would spin a cocoon and emerge as a Tiger Moth. Thinking that this would be a good educational experience, I allowed my daughter to keep the Wooly Bear. What happened next is that she loved that caterpillar to death.

She kept the Wooly Bear with her all day long. She made obstacle courses for it, allowed it free reign of her dollhouse. It sat next to her on the table while she ate, and she in turn provided it with copious amounts of fresh clover to eat. And then, one morning, that Wooly Bear had clearly passed over to the great clover field in the sky.

The one time that my daughters finally eliminated an actual pest was the Horned Tomato Worm they found crawling across our driveway. This one was also loved to death, and gave up the ghost shortly after journeying to my daughter’s kindergarten class as a show-and-tell.

I’ve considered why my daughters have such backwards luck with their insects, and I’ve come to this conclusion: For whatever reason, whether it’s hardwired deep in their genetic code or just happenstance, my daughters seem to have greater affection for harmless insects. They think nothing of releasing garden pests, but it’s the bugs they love that they want to keep. And keeping bugs in jars and cages, no matter how well intentioned the keeper, seldom ends well.

For the past few months I have been reading The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, which I would recommend to any parent. In brief, Louv’s book touches upon the deep effects of exposure to nature upon children’s development, and laments that children these days spend so little unstructured time in nature for a variety of reasons: because neighborhoods and towns aren’t set up to enable access to nature, because children’s lives are overscheduled and increasingly dominated by screens, and because adults are afraid. We are afraid of our children getting hurt, because we love them.

Inspired by Louv’s book, I have been trying to allow and encourage my own children to spend more unstructured time out in the natural world, in the form of their new yard. After only a couple of months, I see the benefits in abundance: in their growing confidence, their keener powers of observation, their knowledge of and respect for the plants and animals that surround them, and above all in their sense of joy and wonder when they’re outdoors.

There are costs. Sometimes the yard is littered with bikes and shovels and scrap wood. Sometimes a daughter gets hurt. Sometimes the dog runs off. And always there is dirt tracked into the house. But then I remember our insects, and I realize that I don’t want to keep my children behind glass out of fear -- or even out of love. With children, as with bugs, that seldom ends well.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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