Among the abundant signs of gathering spring, shadbush flower brightly along the road and in the woods where, at ground level, the palette remains otherwise dullish. This spidery shrub, which is often called wild pear or juneberry, is only beginning to catch the eye, because, naturally enough, despite the moderate winter, the Vineyard spring is slow to mature. Shadbush is a member of the rose family, with white blossom and small dark blue fruit that may be eaten, although it's slightly bitter.
There are other, less cheerful signs. For instance, the deer, numerous and hungry, are visiting early each morning, breakfasting on the plants near the house. Later, in the evening, as I drive in the road on my way home from work, I find our three deer dependents browsing on the grass up the hill from the house, maybe 75 yards from the front porch, where Diesel, the 180-pound mastiff, reclines, nominally on guard. Diesel's imposing appearance belies a patsy's heart. I'm sure that when Diesel has a good snoring snooze in progress, those deer could slip up to the house and pull his tail before he'd know they were around.
In the mornings now, Diesel's determined to be up and out about 4:30, because in the restless, pre-dawn hours, while he luxuriates on the sofa in the living room, his poacher-nabbing legacy, now lost in the evolutionary mists, inspires in his vast cranium a dreamlike sense that he ought to go out and check the property. The other day, he got me up, then went to the door, waiting without a sound. I figured he knew something was up. I slid the door open, and he charged out. As he did, the deer who was browsing at the foot of the steps three feet in front of him, instantly headed south, 20 bounding feet at a stride, while Diesel, taking a flying leap off the porch and chugging up to top speed, headed north, probably the direction in which he'd seen deer before. Ping the pug followed, frantically yipping, and running in both directions at once, sort of the way rabbits do. Hopeless, both of them.
Cheered by the shadbush, resigned to defeat in the spring war with the deer, I have to record the emergence of one of the most troublesome agents of the wild kingdom. Besides the shadbush, the roadsides are beginning to feature the tent homes of caterpillars. Tiny now, those tents and their teeming inhabitants will grow enormous as spring comes on. I see them along the Old County Road, occasionally in the shadbush but most often in black cherry trees. They are also apparent along State Road in West Tisbury. The eastern tent caterpillars survive the winter in masses of 100 to 300 eggs that look like shiny black bands encircling twigs. Eggs hatch in spring, about now. The young caterpillars then begin to eat leaves and spin the tent nest in the crotch of a tree, usually a fruit tree. The nest grows, and when the caterpillars are mature, after about six weeks, they pupate in silken cocoons visible on trees, on the sides of buildings and on fences. Moths emerge in July to mate, lay eggs and then die.
Then there are the other caterpillars. Last year, I hadn't paid much attention to the insect life in the neighborhood until one evening, after work, I walked into the kitchen with an inchworm-like caterpillar making its way down my nose. The family shrieked in unison, and the war with the winter moth caterpillars - not the same thing as the tent caterpillar, a distant relation I'm sure, but even more ghastly - was on.
Many of you will remember the sticky webs all over the bushes and plants in the yard and the dozens of searching caterpillars dangling from the thin, spun, sticky silk-like threads. This behavior, known as ballooning, is how they get around, so that when they've polished off this they can get over to that, and polish it off.
Chuck Wiley of Vineyard Gardens treated the caterpillars to an aerosol bath of Conserve last year in July, and it did wonders, but of course the damage had been done. This year, we're going to act preventively, although no one can promise complete success.
Unhappily, the infestation is not likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But, neither is it likely to be an annual occurrence. That's encouraging, I suppose, but the winter moth caterpillars are not the only critters that are having at the foliage this year. And, of course, not everybody had the problem, and unimaginably, some had it worse than we did. But, any way you slice it, we're in a cycle of destruction that may last a bit.
Still, the news is, it's spring, the critters are hungry and restless, the time is approaching when we must engage them, and nature is giving us a heads up. You've been alerted.