When the great outdoors isn’t so great

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 1:45pm

It’s hard to leave your house without hearing about the epidemic brown tail moth, but it takes a special community to stand comparing rashes in the grocery store while scrambling for the next great relief product. 

The insidious and invasive caterpillar is one of several that spend a large portion of their lifecycle in tree-based tents. They feast voraciously on the leaves of deciduous trees, oaks being their preference. 

For years, I have heard about the dreaded brown tail moth. My husband had a run-in when he was a child in West Gardiner and his mother recounts it as moderately horrific. As a person who reacts to neither poison ivy or poison oak, I have always considered myself fairly resolute in the face of environmental irritants. Not so when the brown tail moth is in town. 

Early this month I had a mild case; a friend working in the woods at our home let us know that some of the large, majestic oaks in our family’s 25-acre woodlot are fully infested, “dripping with caterpillars” is a term I didn’t quite wrap my head around until it was the only one that seemed apt to describe what I was seeing. 

During my first brush with the rash I took Benadryl for a few days and used a little calamine on the mildly rash-impacted part of my body (my neck) within a few days it seemed to abate and for about a week my only outdoor foe seemed to be the booming population of ticks. Tick checks are a drill that most of us Mainers likely have committed to routine. Still, I find myself galled by the number of ticks I have found thus far this year. 

As a member of the Camden Select Board I have heard a LOT about brown tail moth, rather than focus on that discussion or my feelings, I want to focus on the experience I have had as a resident with a rash. It’s notable how something so unpleasant can be a rallying cry, how it can galvanize people, how it humanizes us even within the bounds of our own tight knit community. 

A week ago today I woke up covered in the stuff, my torso, part of my face, my neck and upper arms were flaming red, dotted and itching in a way that I struggle to compare to any bite or reaction I have experienced in my lifetime (remember, I’m a no-react poison ivy person). Since it was in many of the same places my instinct was that it had returned and spread somehow. Only then did I recall our outing the previous day which involved me in a sundress and a convertible for about two hours. It had been warm and breezy, and there is no doubt in my mind that I was re-exposed during a quintessential near-summer day, merely by being outdoors. 

The rash was so unforgiving that I elected to forgo the select board meeting that night. I flew through bottles of calamine, witch hazel, Aspercreme with Lidocaine and even an alcohol-based calendula tincture. I was popping oral Benadryl as often as the recommended dosage would allow. I was itchy, sleepy and truly uncomfortable. I heard from others experiencing the same thing on a Facebook thread that garnered more than 110 comments ranging from treatment recommendations to others reaching out for advice. I was looped into several Facebook Messenger chats about eradicating the problem (something I will investigate with the aid of an arborist) and everything from herbicides (yuck) to fire (semi-intriguing with the right application and a lot of cautionary measures) seemed to be on the table for private citizens considering their options. 

My understanding is that the next time to strike is between November and April, and involves clipping their winter nests. Ongoing research at the University of Maine is focused on BTM and includes studying mechanisms of making their winter nests permeable, allowing ice and snow to kill them. 

What has been perhaps the best thing in a bad situation is the conversation, the recommendations, the solidarity. Despite conditions I would not wish on my worst enemy, I found myself laughing uproariously with several strangers and acquaintances in Fresh Off the Farm yesterday,

All of us were loading up on Bite Balm from the Maine company Indian Meadow Herbals. I went through an entire lip gloss sized canister overnight, slathering it on copious portions of my upper body, hyper-aware of every standard-issue mosquito bite, was it another patch of BTM? The thought makes me itch. 

Luckily I have not experienced respiratory symptoms, but those who have have my greatest sympathy. The few accounts I have heard are alarming to say the least. 

For many years I never had a tick on my person. I grew up frequenting coastal Cape Cod (the other preferred home of brown tail moths) and ticks were epidemic in the marsh grasses there. We always knew to stay vigilant. So when they arrived in Maine I was cautious (my dogs always receive preventatives, we do tick checks, etc.) but essentially pooh-pooed the idea that a pesky (and dangerous) bug would corral my outdoor activities. Every time I posted a photo to social media depicting an outdoor scene I waited for the first comment with baited breath: an inevitable call for a “tick check!”

But now BTM is here and I’ve experienced it first hand. Like most Midcoast residents, I have seen numerous photos depicting swaths of defoliated trees, and though the consensus seems to be that healthy trees can withstand a couple years of this, it’s a sobering image. Much of my concern is for the trees and their uncertain fate, I am waiting for more information to continue to inform my personal course of action. 

For now, I am itchy and resigned to bouts of this recurring throughout the summer. I am grateful to live in a community where this conversation is ongoing and where we feel relatively comfortable comparing swaths of blotchy, inflamed skin with veritable strangers also seeking relief. 

Even when the great outdoors isn’t so great, this community certainly is. 

Jenna Lookner is a member of the Camden Select Board and a freelance writer living in Camden. All thoughts and opinions are her own. 

Reach Jenna at jlooknercopy@gmail.com