Posted by: Memorizing Nature | April 24, 2010

Tenacious Tents

"I am sure they will have moments of joy in their flight." Photo by E. Medline

The caterpillars rest, digest, rain down fecal pellets – readying their bodies for the eventual metamorphosis. A mass of white fiber shelters them. They feed and return to the tent, laying down a pheromone trail for their buddies to follow. 

“You need to blowtorch them,” a friend says, making a sizzling sound with her tongue and teeth. “I swear, they’ll decimate your trees in a week.” 

I want to observe them for awhile, because these are the caterpillars of our childhood, the ones with purple diamonds covering their soft backs. Back then, we would gently place them in shoeboxes with knife slits for breathing holes, letting them go when they were no longer fascinating.  

“Kiss your maples goodbye then,” my friend says.

I touch the tent. It is taut, feels like candy floss. 

Tents. I remember our soaked tent from the Temagami trip. It was made of canvas, with a broken zipper and a missing peg. Unluckily, a storm began just an hour after the canoe adventure began. We were a group of 14-year-old girls, out to prove ourselves in the wilderness. The torrent descended sideways, obscuring our sight, tearing at our T-shirts, causing our blotched knees to shiver.  

"I have never witnessed a moth – or a butterfly for that matter – exit its cocoon. Does it happen gradually, or all at once?" (Photo by E. Medline)

With the blessing of our tripper, we set up camp long before our supposed destination.  We slid the boats onto the sand, and pitched the tents efficiently, crawling into our sleeping bags. Our tennis shoes dried out next to our pillows, away from the gathering puddles. Not able to build a decent fire, the tripper brought us each a can of tuna and a hunk of orange cheddar for supper. The marshmallows, we ate them raw after stretching them out in our fingers for entertainment.

“It’s not like they’re butterflies. If they were butterflies, I could understand keeping them alive. But they’re moths.”

I have never witnessed a moth – or a butterfly for that matter – exit its cocoon. Does it happen gradually, or all at once?

The tripper decided that we could camp at the beach for the duration, instead of canoeing around the mapped-out circle. This way, we could sleep in, she explained. We could suntan. She asked us to swear that we wouldn’t tell anyone about this, or she’d be fired. At that time, it was the laziest thing I had ever agreed to. It was the most rebellious act from an adult I had yet experienced.

Our canvas tent had grown mould, see. Our socks stunk. The bread loaves had been packed in paper bags at the top of the packs, and were wet as dishcloths. One paddle snapped during the chaos of landing on the beach, and we had forgotten to bring a replacement. We swore enthusiastically that we wouldn’t betray the secret. We were in league with this awesome tripper lady.

The sun finally appeared, and we lay on slabs of rock that warmed our backs. We swam short distances; we picked blueberries, smudging them on our eyelids for make-up; we climbed trees and balanced ourselves on floppy branches, releasing silk from our kneecaps.   

In time, I will notice that the tent caterpillar nest is deserted and torn, long past its use. Cocoons will later appear. Remarkably, these beings will transform their little legs into wings. I am sure they will have moments of joy in their flight. They will also inherit a blah hue, desperately search for warmth in all the wrong places, and get squished for showing up in a bag of flour.

Still, it is alright to be a moth. Not that much is demanded of a moth.

"At that time, it was the laziest thing I had ever agreed to. It was the most rebellious act from an adult I had yet experienced." (Photo by E. Medline)



  1. I wasn’t that kind as a tripper. We paddled harder and canoed longer for two days so that we could have a full final day of the trip to be lazy. it was awesome. a day playing and relaxing on the rocks at the end of a five day trip. No caterpillars or rain that day.

    This post brings memories of years at summer camp as a camper and staff. I remember the years of the tent caterpillar infestations in the trees around the camp, the canoe trips in rain and in sun, long days and short days on the water and jumping off 60 ft. cliffs into the river with our counselors in their acts of adult rebellion. And always the moths….

    • If only we could canoe trip every day of our lives, but that might get uncomfortable after awhile. Seven days is the max, I think. Today, the tent caterpillars are migrating from their nests. A risky venture for them.

  2. Hi Elaine!
    Just found your blog…….somehow it got into my junk mail (!), and I found it as I finally got around to cleaning up my computer.

    Your writing is just as creative and evocative as ever. Keep it up and I look forward to reading it.

    your loving Auntie Marilyn

    • Great to hear from you, Marilyn. (I refuse to say ‘Auntie.’) I wish there was another name for junk mail. Maybe lost gems? Except for the spam, of course. Thought you might enjoy the frog post, because I know you and your sisters were experts at frog ‘observation.’ Take care, love your niece Elaine

  3. […] Snopes. It was a little bit inspired by the very first post of Memorizing Nature from April, 2010, Tenacious Tents. At least, that’s when I researched tent caterpillars because they were swarming our land. […]

  4. I just discovered this wonderful site, thanks to you, Elaine! I really enjoyed your story. I, too, am a writer as well as a musician and poet.
    Several of my poems are about animals, and many involve animals and plants as symbols.
    If you or others are interested in finding out more, you can click on Meanwhile, I would like to subscribe to this site, and discover more great writing from others!

  5. […] Nature has previously published posts related to insects. Here are links to two oldies – Tenacious Tents (April, 2010) and The Happening Hive (July, […]

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