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The Summer the Army Invaded

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By Pat Mestern
July 23, 2004

When mention of an "army invasion" is made, I’m sure that you’re thinking two-legged army, and possibly a "training exercise" in Fergus during the Second World War. But I’m thinking about a tiny little creature that wiggles along the ground - the ambiguous armyworm. Those who grow crops will know whereof I write. The pests are nearly hairless caterpillars that vary in colour from green to brown. They have dark stripes, one along each side and a third broad one down the back. Their head is pale brown with a green tinge but are sometimes mottled with dark brown - just in case you wanted to know. Typically the worms are 1" to 2" in length. They feed at night - and boy do they EAT. As they have little tolerance for light and heat, they burrow into debris on the soil’s surface during the day, and blend well with the landscape.

During the early 1950's, the news that southern Ontario would experience an invasion of armyworms during the summer months, sent shivers up the spines of those who farmed, and those who lived in town and depended on a vegetable garden to feed a hungry family. Armyworms are the caterpillar stage of a beige-grey coloured moth. The moths don’t do any damage to crops but they have a life-cycle that produces thousands of worms that have voracious appetites. These worms can munch their way through a ten acre field in two days. And they love corn, small grains, grass, hay, pasturage and succulent vegetable crops. When they’ve exhausted all food sources in one area, they "march" to another, hence the name armyworm.

As a family, we depended on our garden to keep us in vegetables for the summer and winter therefore armyworms were the "enemy" When news came through on a radio station tuned to give the latest agricultural bulletins, that an infestation of worms was marching north from lower Wellington, mom, dad and grandmother threw themselves into a frenzy of activity. There was nothing that could stop the invasion. But gardens could be tidied up so that there was no debris for the worms to hide under. Of course, anything having to do with work in the gardens involved any family members that were big enough to help. And that’s how I was introduced to armyworms and dad’s inventive and unusual methods of trying to control them.

Dad’s first line of defense was to build an outdoor fireplace of concrete block and brick, a peculiar act that even mother and grandmother didn’t understand. But, they knew enough not to ask questions. He then organized "worm watches". This involved roaming the gardens and orchard with flashlights at night, and checking under plants during the day. There was a picture of an armyworm tacked up on the wall of the old woodshed so that everyone would know exactly what to look for. Mr. Anderson Sr. was dragged into the hunt. He was the one that found the first worm after which the troops were rounded up and ordered to the "battlefield" with empty coffee tins in hand. As the worms ate at night, this involved a thorough "picking" very early every morning and again beginning at dusk - read that after 9:30 p.m. and before 5:30 a.m. each day.

The worms advanced on two fronts. By the light of flashlights you could see hundreds of them wriggling across Highway #6 from Victoria Park. Our roadside ditch was green one day and laid to waste the next. They also wriggled down from the farm fields that bordered today’s Elora Street - there was no Wellington Street at this time. Worms were "picked" and dropped into the cans which were brought to the garage. For the first several days, Dad dumped the worms into a lidded container and stuck it away in a corner. We assumed that he would dispose of the worms when we weren’t around to see the "dirty deed". Not so, he was collecting them for a far more sinister fate. By the third morning, when the beggars were so thick we could hardly keep up with picking them, Dad fired up the fireplace, and began his eccentric assault. Borrowing mother’s canning kettle, he dumped the picked worms into it, stirred in a bit of water and proceeded to COOK them!

You see, Dad was an original "back-to-the-lander" and read everything he could on gardening au-natural. He’d obviously read somewhere that you could fight an invasion of insects or bugs with their own kind and that’s the excuse he used to explain his unusual behaviour. Did you know that when armyworms are heated up they turn rather brittle - and burst. The concoction in the kettle then became a peculiar green colour. After this unique mixture cooled, Dad filled his hand-pumped garden sprayer and proceeded to redistribute the worms, in liquid form, back onto the garden’s soil. His theory was that if the armyworms smelled - or tasted - their own kind - they’d go elsewhere to eat.

A few problems immediately surfaced. The first was Mother who, in today’s terms, went absolutely ballistic when she found out Dad had scavenged her canning kettle and was using it to boil worms. Second problem was that anyone who visited while Dad was "processing" his quarry either didn’t know what he was cooking and tried to taste it OR thought the man absolutely crazy in the head. The third problem was that the concoction didn’t seem to be working. In fact, the worms rather enjoyed munching on their kin.

That’s when a fellow who boarded at Grandmother’s got into the act. He worked for the Health Unit and considered himself a clever fellow. He who shall remain nameless, figured that if certain other ingredients were added to the brew, the pair just might have a great invention on their hands. Why, they might even invent something that could be patented and sold over-the-counter. Like mad scientists, the two men began to concoct the most outrageous bug slurries replete with dandelion wine dredge, curry powder, spicy chilli powder, Epsom salts - a tad of motor oil - cider vinegar . . . .

The smell of the simmering concoctions lured people in from the street. As word got around, folks arrived to see what "crazy Jimmy" was up to. One old gentleman who’d had too many drinks under his belt, swore that he could see hundred of little eyes looking at him from the bubbling slurry. I must admit that some of the concoctions did have an appealing smell about them.

Of course, all the while, the pot had to be supplied with armyworms and that became a very time-consuming job. After awhile I began to feel a bit sorry for the worms, but the thought of no food on the table in January spurred me on. Things really got interesting when Grandmother’s boarder, who was just as eccentric as Dad, decided that he could produce a palatable wine from the vegetarian worms. A crock was procured, this time snitched from Grandmother’s cold cellar, and a few ingredients were rounded up - sugar and yeast being two that I remember. He went about making his wine in the back of the garage hoping that Grandmother wouldn’t come looking for her crock. Basically the ratio was one pound of worms to one gallon of spring water.

I’m not sure if it was our aggressive worm-picking or the sinister concoctions that subdued the armyworms but two+ weeks into the invasion, the number of worms decreased to the point they were no longer considered a threat. And they didn’t make a return visit. Our worm picking days were over.

Mother’s canning kettle became a planter. The wine was strained and produced a green liquid which was funneled into glass carboys. After fermentation, I understand that the resultant wine was clear, white and sweet with a bit of a grapey flavour. Dad refused to taste it but the health unit "guy" bottled it and gave it to his friends, - perhaps not those who were his best friends though.

And I have to confess that for a long time after the invasion, every time I saw a caterpillar I had an urge to pick it up for "processing". I had to remind myself that caterpillars do morf into beautiful butterflies and moths, if they’re not made into wine or an organic garden spray.



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