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The infestation blues

| 29 May 2024 | 11:55

It’s perfect out: high 70s and sunny. This, moreover, is the treasured day a week I work from home. The time not spent commuting is my time to meander the forest with my big white dog like Circe with her lion on Aeaea.

Instead, I’m looking out the window, scratching my arms like a dope fiend, and staying put inside.

My neck and arms are a mess. My forearms are covered with spots, a new constellation erupting near my wrist as I type. Under my shirt I can feel the skin of my upper back bubbling up now, too.

At first, I’d assumed it was poison ivy. What else could it be? I’d never heard of “spongy moths” until this spring’s dramatic introduction. (I’d cluck-clucked about gypsy moths, their outdated moniker, but only in an academic way.) Now, I couldn’t shut up about them.

Measuring in at a quarter-inch, these nearly weightless hatchlings ballooning in on the wind had infiltrated my subconscious, turning me into a paranoiac and, gasp, an inside person.

I’d gotten jumpy, imagining every blade of grass that brushed me was a caterpillar. I’d feel them on me when they weren’t there – or were they? You could never be sure, except when totally submerged in the bathtub. Once, after changing out of sweaty clothes, my rash clusters started to flare. Peeling off my “clean” shirt, fresh out of the dryer, what did I find but a dead half-caterpillar clinging to the inside, its prickly hairs still possessed of enough histamine to put my immune system into overdrive.

Night after night, new itchy patches bloomed on my skin, disrupting my most sacrosanct activity: dreaming in a king-size bed, the sweet-smelling hair of my five-year-old tickling my face. Instead of waking refreshed as the first light filtered through the window, I found myself jolting upright at 2 a.m., clawing my flesh. The itching only angered the bumps, which reared into welts that eventually sent me stumbling upstairs for anti-itch cream and an ice pack, in weaker moments a Benadryl – which brought quick relief inevitably followed by a day of feeling like a slug.

The itching was worse than futile, I knew, and I tried to restrain my hands by pinning them under my chest. But the shadow of a purple bruise emerging along the tendon of my forearm, the scratch marks striating my back, bore witness to my nocturnal Jekyll vs. Hyde showdowns.

It took a few nights of reenacting this nightmare to realize what’s now obvious: at some point that day, I’d brushed against a caterpillar... somewhere out there. That was the paranoia-inducing part. So tiny as to be all but indetectable, these poison-tipped caterpillars dangle by a silken thread ‘til they catch a breeze, which they might ride for miles until they brush against your neck or come to rest on your sweatshirt string. You’ll probably never feel it all, unless you’re one of us maladaptive types who turn out to be way oversensitive to the histamine on the caterpillars’ hairs, in which case you won’t feel it until sometime later – an hour? Five? When all of a sudden your skin erupts.

Embrace the itch, my neighbor advised, turning over his own forearms, which (to my secret gratification) were also scarified by bumps. Mansplaining aside, he might just have a point, I thought.

Perhaps I could change my thinking. What if instead of rolling my car windows up and cranking the AC, I dabbed calamine lotion on the spots and shrugged them off, along with a little sleep deprivation, as battle wounds incurred alongside my photosynthesizing compatriots, whose leaves were by now munched to lace?

Embrace the itch.

Once I resolved to get a grip, the itching did, miraculously, calm down. Though that mercy probably had less to do with my strength of character than with my immune system’s independent process of getting its act together. Because here’s the thing. A couple days later, jumping on the trampoline with the kids, I flicked a caterpillar off my arm. Suppressing a groan, I assumed I’d be embracing the itch at 2 a.m. But the itch never came. Not so much as a tingle. At the risk of jinxing my good fortune, I can’t help but wonder: Had I successfully adapted to my environment? The thought that I might still be capable of rolling with the punches was unexpectedly reassuring.

My skin healed as fast as it had broken out, and in the weeks that followed I watched the caterpillars grow fat, pulsing up tree trunks in squadrons of hundreds upon hundreds, leaving tattered branches in their wake. The soundtrack of the woods now was the incessant snap-crackle-poop (sorry) of their falling droppings, which melded with shredded leaf pieces to cover the world with an endless, depressing carpet.

This latest horror to emerge from Pandora’s box was not going to be sated until it had devoured the forest canopy, it appeared. The kids and I went on a killing spree, crushing, squishing and slashing with a gooey vengeance. But the enemy, like the many-headed hydra, only multiplied.

Then a strange thing happened. Husband Joe, initially impervious, came down with the rash from hell: clusters on neck and chest, stated desire to tear off flesh – the classic symptoms. Then came an even rarer occurence: instead of rolling my eyes and suggesting that he had acquired a terrible ‘man’ case of an ailment that I’d already managed to live through, I felt, could it be, empathy?

Just looking at those welts, my own skin threatened to start crawling again. I arrayed anti-itch creams and Benadryl, made sure Joe had an ice pack and scurried down to the basement to hide.

If that’s not love, what is?