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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bears on the Move in the Valley…

Woolly Bear

I saw nine the other day crossing the Loop Road. About the same number again today, each  shuffling and huffling along the pavement from one side of the road to the other. It seems to make no difference which shoulder they start from, their destination is always a road span away. And each plods along just as resolutely as his fellow to achieve the other side.

No need to be alarmed. No need to rush to REI or to arm yourself with a couple cans of bear mace (yes—can you believe it? Bear mace is available on!) These bears are not those dangerous Ursidae that attack city councilmen without provocation (the bear must have smelled the politician on him. Come to think of it, that’s provocation enough, isn’t it?) And besides, these bears are just “cubs.” No, I’m not talking about the bear that went over the mountain: it’s woolly bears I’m talking about. Those bristly little caterpillars with the red belly bands. And since ‘pillars are insect larvae, they are “cubs,” in a sense, aren’t they?on the moveThese caterpillars are the larvae of the Isabella Tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and the road stands between them and a suitable location to pupate: under a loose stone, a crevice in a lifted piece of bark, in your woodpile…some protected place out of the weather.

Ah, yes…the weather. Folklore has it that these little black and orange critters (black and orange? Aren’t those Halloween colors?) presage the severity of the impending winter: the narrower the bands, the harsher the winter. Bugologists pooh pooh this belief: that these colorful crawlers are oracles of winter and claim that not only do “band widths” vary per ‘pillar, but also bands shrink as the larvae age. This is well and good, I suppose, but I wonder if there might be a correlation between the abundance of the bug and the severity of the winter just ahead. Last winter was a mild one here in the Valley. Not so the winter of ‘08, which was a winter of roof shoveling and pushing snow. I don’t remember seeing an abundance of woolly bears last fall, but the year before they seemed to be everywhere. The old Monroe/Snohomish Road was alive with them, a virtual Caterpillar Lane. 

The weather guys at NOAA have already begun their winter scare tactics. After looking at their Dopplers, weather satellites, and marine sensors, 2010 is a La Nina year, they say. Cooler than normal temps in the Pacific—the coolest in fifty years—do not bode well for the Pacific Northwest. El Nino, the lazy brother, of La Nina, was napping last year. But this year his sister, like a fractious child, is poised to wreak havoc in the form of excess precipitation—a considerable amount frozen—flooding (sleepless nights ahead, flashlight in hand, checking Riley Slough across the road), and nights of heavy frost (mulch your dahlias, folks). An uprising of sibling rivalry, of the meteorological kind, with us the beneficiaries. All the predictors indicate that winter 2010/11 will not be our typical “one snowman” winter here in the Valley but one of drifts, plows and shovels—and, who knows, igloos? And those woolly bears? Perhaps there is something in their haste to cross the road after all!

Many woollies never make it to the other side. I’ve already seen countless patches of black and red fur on the Loop Road. My walks in the Valley of late have turned into caterpillar rescue missions. When I see one of these banded crawlers chugging across the pavement, I scoop him up to protect him from traffic, and launch the bug into the grass on the side of the road that was his destination. Immediately after you palm a ‘pillar, it assumes a defensive pill posture, ‘possum-like—a perfect ball for a nice, soft landing in the weeds.'possum 'pillarThe author Walter Edmonds wrote a short story back in the 1920’s, a yarn, actually, about caterpillar racing among the canal men who worked the barges on the Erie Canal. “The Death of Red Peril” is the story of one of these racing ‘pillars. Because of their migratory work canallers took to caterpillar racing instead of betting on the ponies. Contestants would place their little “speedsters” in a napkin ring in the center of the racing circle. A well-placed prick of a pin urged the ‘pillars into motion. First bug to cross the chalk line won.

The narrator’s “Pa,” through a stroke of good fortune happens upon a swift red ‘pillar that literally leaped the wagon wheel ruts in the road to get to the other side. “Pa” rescues the bug, names it Red Peril, and proceeds to race the Peril against all comers. The speedy little insect wins race after race, and “Pa” rakes in the cash, until, that is, an opponent discovers Peril’s “Achilles heel” (or is it “heels” with ‘pillars?): a mortal fear of butter. This rascal drew the racing ring with yellow chalk, and when Red reached the line, he balked, and reversed course. “Pa,” cried, “Foul!” and squashed RP’s opponent before it could leave the circle. A dead bug can’t cross the finish line. Thus a grudge and imminent revenge.

Fast forward to Red Peril’s last race. The rascal owner of the squashed ‘pillar has a stand-in race a bug from his “stable,” a contestant named “The Horned Demon.” No sooner had the handlers pricked their bugs, than the aptly named Horned Demon sinks both horns into RP’s backside, injecting him with ‘pillar venom. Peril labors toward the finish line but falters and appears to be on his several last legs. But “Pa,” through a brilliant stroke of genius, cries, “Now dadgum, you’ve gone and dropped the BUTTER!” The dreaded word spurs Red into life and he struggles to the finish line where he drops dead a winner—his fuzzy chin just over the line!

And so as the Valley’s woolly bears race toward the other side of the road, is there a message in their haste? Is there something in their little caterpillar genomes that, Dopplers, satellites, and marine sensors aside, we should heed? Better make sure that woodshed is bulging, folks. Knock the rust off that snow shovel and keep it handy. If you’ve forgotten the Winter of 2008, let me jog your memory.

snow bush






winter '08






enuff already

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