Hamptons Letter It began two weeks ago with a chance meeting on the beach. My friend Hilary suddenly turned up. She was covering herself obsessively in insect repellent.
"Bikers renting next door to you?" I replied. She shook her head sadly. Then she launched into her story. She was talking, as few people do, about reality?in this case, real moths. It seems there's a plague of real gypsy moths that, rightly or wrongly, have settled on the woods of East Hampton. Their caterpillars have eaten virtually every leaf in the North West Woods and they are heading west.
"I went over to visit my blind father," Hilary said, "and the trees looked like winter on the way to his house. When I got there, I glanced at the weeping birch over his porch and realized that every strand was writhing with black caterpillars. It was horrifying. He had no idea."
She went on to say that tree men in the area had recounted stories of having to spray paths through undulating hordes of caterpillars to houses completely covered in more undulating hordes.
"It's just a cycle," said Jeff of Trees by Jeff in East Hampton when I called him. "The moths were here 10 or 12 years ago. They were bad for two years and went away. These will cocoon and multiply and, sure, they'll be back next year unless the winter is very cold and has lots of snow. But most of the trees will survive. Just do some organic spraying and go with the flow."
I thought back 10 or 12 years and realized that the last time the moths attacked was the beginning of the Corporate Period?the 90s. If it was ushered in by moths, perhaps it's being ushered out by them, too. One could only hope.
In the meantime, the little gray flutterers were increasing around Sag Harbor. They were almost as ubiquitous as Razor scooters. Hilary had prophesied this. "They are coming to Sag Harbor," she whispered. "We are next."
I called Nardy Pest Control, my own personal pest people. I told them I had a lot of moths in my house, way more than usual. They told me to catch one and leave it in a baggie on the porch. They're coming by for the dead moth specimen today. Then they'll tell me if I have to spray.
The problem is, Jeff said, that not everyone sprays. That's why it takes two years for the moths to go.
I'm too nervous to wait for Nardy, so I called Bill Clarke of Hampton Tree Expert, Inc. Bill was recommended by Michael of Treescape as "the ultimate expert on the gypsy moths."
Bill had new information. He said that gypsy moths hatch from an egg in May. "When you see the shadbush bloom, you know they are hatching," he told me.
It seems they let down a silken thread and then fly and are blown by the wind all over the place. They settle on trees and eat for seven weeks. "Each caterpillar eats a square foot of leaves a day," Bill said, "and you've got about a million caterpillars in your yard."
Bill says the only way to get rid of them is to tape your trees with double-sided tape. "As the summer wears on and it gets hotter up in the canopy, the caterpillars let themselves down to the ground during the heat of the day. When it gets cooler in the late afternoon, they crawl back up and get stuck on the tape."
Bill says he doesn't spray much. "Pesticide trespass is a serious crime," he told me. That means if he's spraying pesticide at moths in a tree and it wafts over into my garden, I can call the police and have him arrested. So he and others who are licensed to spray the killer stuff aren't doing so.
"Too risky," said Bill. "We live in a lawyer-oriented society. By the time people call," he sighed, "it's usually too late to get good control anyway." How true.
Bill expects "tremendous masses" of moths in the North West Woods in August. Evidently it's going to look like the Congo where, a backpacker once told me, there are clouds of butterflies as far as you can see.
Strangely, only the gray males fly?"mindless flapping," as Bill describes it. The females sit in the "armpits" of trees and wait to mate and lay eggs there. Whether the moths will come here next year depends on the wind. If they are blown west, they will come. If not, they will hit the woods again.
Bill describes the worst thing he ever saw. "Once when I went over to Noyac I got out of the car and I thought it was Christmas. Whole house was covered in silken strands, like angel hair. But that was inchworms. But as for the moths," he continues, "God watches over us. Because the bulge is over. From now on the huge numbers will naturally diminish."
That's what Bill says, but according to Larry Penny, natural resource director for East Hampton, since there were more eggs laid this year than last year, next year should be worse than this one.
"We're looking at 20,000 acres," he said. "Half the town chewed up." The truth is it's an environmental disaster out here in the Hamptons. As the farmlands go, and more and more humans move in, and more and more neo-old houses are built, the entire ecological system falls apart. There's a tick that carries a strain of Lyme disease. And as if this weren't enough, the tuna have disappeared.
There was an article in the paper about it that said that several days ago there was?I'm quoting?"nonstop tuna action." And now nothing. The tuna have totally disappeared and the sharks have moved in to feed on the mackerel that the tuna aren't eating. As if we weren't suffering enough, now there will be a sushi shortage, too.