Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hope And Tomato Season - Five-Spotted Hawk Moth

Another farmer's tomatoes passed on to me last summer        

Pupa of the Five-Spotted Hawk Moth

Five-spotted Hawk Moth

Manduca quinquemaculata

Tomato Horn Worm
"Yum! Tastes like Karl!"

     It seems that everyone I know is boasting about how many tomato plants they have already planted, or are about to. They've nursed their little sprouts along on windowsills for months.  Now, the long, limp tendrils beg to have their feet in soil. Top heavy for the peat pots binding their roots, they can't even stand up but topple over sideways with every breath of air or attempt to water them. As if to say, "Plant me, plant me now, or I'm just going to lie down and die!" The bruised flesh smells rank green, oozing their very life blood from every pore.
    But the truth is, tomatoes will virtually grow themselves unaided. In the flower gardens I grow now,  I find them sprouting having volunteered from seeds in my compost. I pull them out, but I feel guilty. There was a time when I would have been delighted to have such strong tomato plants coming on their own. I, too grew tomatoes (and lots of other things) indoors readying for the garden. I usually started flats of greens in February which was much too early. We always have snow then. The lightless days are too gray and long to really keep things going, plants or people. Slogging mentally through the end of winter, I  was always desperate to grow things. Clinging to optimism, I over sowed, too. I had every flat surface in my house covered with seed trays and ruined every windowsill in the place. I had trays on the top of the furnace, the top of the refrigerator, the TV, everywhere that generated some heat. Beyond my own amusement, my children were young and I needed a vegetable garden to feed us. I was divorced, financially destitute and desperately needed things to grow.  Every flaccid stem in a tray was to me, hope for the future. 
   My vegetable garden was fifty feet by sixty feet. It was fenced to keep deer, woodchucks, dogs and children out. I had a gate with a gargoyle glaring at would be intruders. I was big into gargoyles at the time. I had them in my bedroom and sitting in my perennial beds. They were supposed to keep evil spirits and enemies away.
     Inside the fence was a series of raised beds with neat paths between. I labored long and hard to keep it clean and orderly, far more so than the interior of my house, which was a wreck. I was always adding some sort of amendment to the soil, tilling it in, learning the good and the bad of it over each season. I worked like a dog, but I also found great meditative peace with the work. I laid newspapers in the paths to keep weeds down. I rotated crops. I composted. The first coyote I ever saw was sitting atop my compost pile.
     My ex-husband's vanity car, a swanky Buick Le Sabre I got in the divorce was turned into a farm vehicle. The plush, blue upholstery was swampy with loam, peat, and manure. I was always on the look out for free stuff to use. From a local greenhouse, I procured spun wood fiber discarded from their shipments of garden statuary. The stuff had been wrapped around concrete bird baths, garden gnomes, and solar lights. Free for the taking, it took four trips in the Le Sabre to bring it home. The pulpy fiber would break down eventually adding tilth the clay soil I was perpetually battling. It definitely brightened up the place and was dry to walk on. When the carpeting in my house finally gave out, I tore it out and laid it nap down between the paths.  Though not environmentally very sound thinking, it made my vegetable garden an elegant place. It was by invitation only to join me within the confines of the fence protected by the gargoyle.
     I had a boyfriend then. He was a bum. He lived with me briefly and I was supporting him, the folly of which I missed out of sheer desperate need for companionship.I was attracted to him because he smoked a pipe. My father had smoked a pipe and the smell of pipe tobacco was comforting. The boyfriend, who I'll call Karl, was also a great pontificator, as was my father. As armchair philosophers, both of them had big opinions about how other people should do things and what was wrong with our government, society, culture, businesses - the list was endless. Karl and my father could go on interminably about everyone else's failings. As I had learned to do with my father, I turned a deaf ear to Karl's tiresome rambling.
     In my garden, I had a sitting area, with salvaged patio chairs and a little table. Karl liked to sit there smoking while I worked. Apparently, it didn't occur to him to raise a hand to help me and I was such a mess that it didn't occur to me to expect it of him, either. But, toward the end of the summer, I was sick of his going on about politics, the injustices of our economics, and how lousy Americans were compared to Europeans. His tobacco smoke had become less alluring.
     One August day, late in the afternoon, I was weeding  while Karl sat drinking a beer from a six pack I had bought. Sweat trickled down my back and into my eyes. I was annoyed and wanted to yell at him, but kept working while he babbled. I could hear him tamping his tobacco then snapping a match to light it. Puff, puff, puff - he pulled air to the flame. "These pipes are just no good anymore," he groused. Something about poor materials, poor workmanship, couldn't get a decent draw from them. Blah, blah, blah. I didn't hear the words, just his droning complaints. I smelled the tobacco ignite. The sweet smoke drifted down the garden path to me. 
     I stood to stretch my back. With pipe in hand Karl was yammering away from the comfort of the lawn chair while reaching for a second beer. I imagined him engulfed in flames, frying from under the lawn chair like a roast pig on a barbecue. Then suddenly, with uncommon speed he leaped to his feet. "Jesus! What the hell!" He screamed while slapping his own derriere with both hands. He was on fire! He was really  on fire! I snapped out of my fantasy realizing that the spun wood fiber had ignited beneath his chair, probably from his lousy pipe. Toppling over his beer, he hopped from one foot to the other dodging flames on the ground. He slapped his own head a couple of times thinking his hair was on fire and swearing all the while. "What the hell were you thinking with this stuff anyway?" He demanded, as if I had planned it. By then, I was laughing so hard I nearly peed myself. "Don't blame me! Blame the gargoyle!"was all I could say. 
     I had already outgrown Karl by then, though he had been still hanging around because I hadn't thrown him out. After the The Ball Of Flaming Fire incident, sure that I had intentionally set him ablaze, he moved on.  Eventually, I moved on from growing tomatoes in the quantities that I used to. I still grow one or two, but not the windowsill wrecking numbers of those old days. Now, I wait until inevitably, someone who is overrun with tomatoes at the end of the summer passes them on to me. I've learned to trust the universe a little more and need gargoyles a little less. I am still a woman who loves the companionship of a man, but no longer need one that sounds, nor smells like my father. My children have moved on, too. So, I feed and nurture other beings now. I'll probably always be that woman.
      Last year, on the few tomatoes that I did grow, I had Tomato Horn Worms. They are the bane of the tomato grower as they can wipe out a crop over night. Starting out small and the same color as the tomato plants,  they are hard to see until they have gorged themselves. I was in the habit of squashing them, but for some reason, I was curious about what they would become if I let them complete their life cycle. So, I put them in a jar with tomato leaves and dirt on the bottom. At first, after eating all the tomato leaves I supplied, it looked like they had died. I was about to toss the jar's contents when I noticed under the dirt, pupae had formed. They started out as the green pupa you see above. In that same collage, you can see how they turned brown and hard in a couple of days. I knew they would become some kind of moth and thought they would do so quickly. But, oh no.
     For nine months, they sat in the jar on my kitchen counter. And, they required tending. The pupa needs a bit of moisture so as not to desiccate, but not so much that it will rot. I put a coffee  filter over the top of the jar so they could breathe.  Every evening while cooking supper, I misted the the pupae. Like a human pregnancy, it took over 270 days of misting and watching, waiting, not knowing who would come out. Then, a few days ago, suddenly, TA DA! The giant, Five-spotted Hawk moth, Manduca quinquemaculata emerged! And, a great handsome thing like its name it was, too with a wing span of 4 inches. Though according to resources it's a common moth in Maine, I had never seen one before. I had only known them as their caterpillar selves and held them in disdain as tomato decimators. It took a day for the moth to dry its wings enough to fly. Crawling on my hand, it was soft and friendly. A light breeze bore it aloft and it flew, free.
     I've planted my tomato plants and loosed the Hawk moth.  I know that it's out there laying eggs if not on my plants, on some one's. It will complete its life cycle, pollinating and mooching and destroying as it goes. Which brings me to my dilemma: when the eggs hatch into infant Tomato Horn worms, will  I be able to squash them as before? Probably not any more than I could actually set Karl on fire. I shall have to hope for the universe to restore order in the form of insect eating birds or perhaps reinstate a gargoyle.

NOTE: This essay was Editor's Pick on Open Salon, # 8 of my works to be chosen.


  1. Gorgeous photos! The tomato horn worm is just beautiful, and that upright little cardinal (with his thoughts) so expressive!

    What an epic gardening saga...gargoyles, fire, tomatoes...& a dash of poetic justice... :)
    clay ball
    June 02, 2011 05:01 PM

  2. What a wonderfully entertaining tale about "Karl"! I marvel at your storytelling skill. I used to smoke a pipe too, but I always bought my own beer, never once set my pants on fire and hardly EVER pontificated. Well, sometimes, but hey - nobody's perfect.

    El Jefe

  3. Exes and hornworms, hmmm

    Loved the cardinal. AnnieO

  4. Bravo, what a wonderful tale of woman coming of age~ lovely photos too--I beleive I set a hawkmoth free the other day as some sort of moth about that size, shape, and color was trapped inside an empty dog food bag waiting on the porch to be discard..I Sure hope he doesnt find my winter window-seal-tended babies now producing tomatoes!!

  5. El Jefe,
    Thank you! What a wonderful compliment about my work. I am a story teller by basic nature. In fact, I can hardly be stopped from running my gums about something. So, that it translates in my writing is a wonderful thing. Thank you for the read and comment.

    June 3, 2011 8:28 AM

  6. Thank you, Sondra for the read, comment and compliment. I hope your Hawk moth, or whomever it was, is thankful and doing its thing out there free and my your tomatoes be bountiful.

  7. Annie O, Yup, Ex's, Hornworms, gargoyles and fire! Sounds like a homebrewed Greek tragedy!

  8. EP... congratulations!
    I would have paid money to have seen him dance as he put himself out! Glad there was no damage to him.
    Hope the cocky looking cardinals take care of your moth's progeny.
    Beautiful pictures... worth the full term pregnancy it took for them to become moths.
    Chrissie Pissie
    June 02, 2011 09:03 PM

  9. Chrissie, Thanks for that. Glad you enjoyed it. Next time, I'll let you know in advance when I plan to set someone who has annoyed me on fire.

  10. Robin Wallace commented on your link.
    Robin wrote: "Congratulations on another great article! You are so talented!"

  11. Dawn Simmons Fine commented on your link.
    Dawn wrote: "Great story!"

  12. Congratulations Robin, and a great essay! By chance, I just finally planted my tomatoes today. Having grown them in my sunroom. And naturally, it is to go down into the 40s tonight. Hope they'll be o.k. And I will do in any hornworms that come near them, no matter how beautiful their transformation would be. I have already set out beer to drown the dear little slugs that have been feasting on my eggplants and nasturtiums. Also found and did in the first red beetle on my casa blanca lilies. They finally found me. And I am filling up a film canister of alcohol with ticks. One had the nerve to burrow into my breast and leave its head in when I pulled it out. So I am slaughtering creatures left and right. When I went into the barn to get the iron rake to smooth out the garden bed I found that since I last used it a barn swallow had made a very beautiful nest on top of it. (The rake was hooked over a beam.) I guess I should have given up the rake, but it would have to be given up for the whole summer. So I took a hoe, slipped it between the rake and the nest and pulled out the rake, hoping the nest would stay on the beam. But the nest fell down to the floor--and the one egg, just laid, the first of the lot, cracked open.... I felt terrible. It was also the neatest barn swallow nest I have seen--beautifully lined with PINE NEEDLES and then lovely soft white feathers all curling up like petals. It was a work of art compared to most of them. I thought of getting a ladder and putting it back, but it had lost some of its mud foundation and would not be stable. So I guess she and he will have to build another nest, and quick, as more eggs must be on the way. The rest of the barn swallows, which usually chatter away very happily and constantly, were very subdued and quiet. I hope they don't decide it isn't a safe place to live. There is so much to do, so much to do, so much to do. Love,Jo

  13. You must be VERY proud...what a literary achievement accompanied by such beautiful photography! This piece, I feel is one of your BEST! It brought such detailed, vivid pictures to my mind as I was reading. I can't say much for Karl other than you have to kiss a few toads before you find your prince... and you did just that. I appreciate the life cycle photos because for all my years I have ALWAYS wondered what those ravenous Horn Worms looked like after their metamorphosis...and now it has been revealed.

  14. What a story! and beautiful pictures by the way. So far I have not had to deal with those horrible tomato worms, but we sure did in Canada. Must have been the humidity. -R-
    Christine Geery
    June 03, 2011 02:15 PMW

  15. HG, Thank you so much. It is an enormous event for me to have this kind of recognition for my work, both the writing and photography.

  16. What incredible photos. I'm so happy to see this on the cover. More, please.
    Kathy Riordan
    June 03, 2011 02:21 PM

  17. I can relate to this on so many levels - the gardening level, the pest level, the men who suck just as much out of you as a tomato worm! Amazing photos!
    Beth Ingalls
    June 03, 2011 06:21 PM

  18. "I am still a woman who loves the companionship of a man, but no longer need one that sounds, nor smells like my father. My children have moved on, too. So, I feed and nurture other beings now. I'll probably always be that woman. "

    What an exquisite and relatable piece! I'm counting on the universe too for fair balance and harmony.
    June 03, 2011 08:00 PM

  19. Lovely post and photos.

    (I recently wrote a blog about some insects too. We're having a cicada invasion right now. I won't post a link here, but am just mentioning it, as I think we might be kindred spirits - getting all philosophical about bugs.)
    Jeanette DeMain
    June 03, 2011 08:23 PM

  20. checking to see if this works.

  21. now that we fixed the cookie problem,I think this is one of the best blogs you've written.Loved the photo of the cardinal with the hornworm in it's beak. Great story girlfriend.

  22. I don't know where to start with the thanks and gratitude I feel for all of the praise you've each heaped upon my writing and photography. It's very difficult to do either of those crafts well, so to have hit the mark in both regards is a wonder, indeed. Thank you all.

  23. A wonderful, well-written story and just the most incredible photos! Absolutely well done! A well-deserved EP!
    Little Kate
    June 04, 2011 12:28 AM

  24. Little Kate, Muchas gracias for the read and compliments. I'll add you to the list of folks to whom I owe bottomless thanks.

  25. Quite the photo with the cardinal! Wish I could brag about planted tomatoes but not this year so far. We have a huge groundhog or prarie dog in the back yard. We had him last year too, caught him and set him free elsewhere ... alas, he's back.

    By the way, I love that you turned your ex-husband's swanky Buick into a farm vehicle.
    Scarlett Sumac
    June 04, 2011 10:59 AM

  26. wonderful- everything
    hyblaean- Julie

  27. Post like this can be a favorites.
    The quality of photos are fantastic.
    A 50 X 60 garden is lots of canning.
    Yes. Do save neighbors tomato seed.
    We do serious (my son, now does it)-
    diversity growing. I sure related here.

    Sow me Ya garden - I can see Ya Soul.
    Cultivating a garden Cultivates a Soul.
    It's work/play. Gardening is thee Soul.

    I could go on and on. It's the topic I Love.
    Google 'Seed Savor Exchange' For Seeds.
    There's wonderful gardeners that Share.

    I just have to mention that I'm watching chickadees. The Mother sits, most all day long, in a Gift Birdhouse with a tiny hole. The male chickadee feeds the other inside the wood nesting home box. They eat bug insects all day. I was never so entertained. The male flies back and forth, perches on a landing ... and the female sticks her head out of the box hole.

    I swear they kiss/peck if the male has no insect. They sing sharply loud for a tiny lovebird couple.
    Soon, comes the big blacksnake.
    A A- frame box hangs on my porch.
    It be sad if the snake eat chickadees.
    I've seen that blacksnake craw in tree.
    I keep looking at the poor green worm.
    No wonder You and Karl split up. Good.
    Karl sound like a lawyer. Not all are Gross.
    Art James
    June 05, 2011 09:21 PM

  28. Oh Robin, I remember "Karl"- especially the time I was visiting and I was smoking cigarettes (before I reformed) and he sniffed how just mostly "low class" people still smoked them, then promptly asked for and smoked one after the other, until the pack was empty. I guess he felt only "low class" people PAID for them!!!!

  29. Our gardens always start out with great hope, but by the end of the season some plants don't make it, and some tomatoes spoil on the vine. All gardeners know how to move on and look to the next season, as you have so fittingly done with Karl.
    Pam Malone
    June 06, 2011 11:11 AM

  30. Pam, Thank you. If gardening and mates don't teach a person to move on, nothing will!

  31. Anoymous, thank you for that. But, I'm trying to figure out who you are and the problem is that ALL of my "low class" friends, including myself smoked butts! Funny you should bring that patticular thing up, because my father also smoked cigarettes, but never his own. He ALWAYS bummed them from other people and was proud of it. I had forgotten that until you brough it up.

  32. Wonderful story, terrific photos. My wife hates those damned horn worms in her tomatoes - and who wouldn't, I imagine. The cardinal eating "Karl" is classic. You should have it framed or, even better, silkscreened onto a flag for your garden. Marvelous package, and well-deserving of the EP cover.
    Matt Paust
    June 06, 2011 02:13 PM

  33. Thank you, Matt. I love the idea of a flag with the Karl gobbling cardinal. I suppose I shouldn't tell your wife that my second Five-spotted hawk moth hatched today. Na. Let's keep that to ourselves. Thanks for the congrats on the EP, too.

  34. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

  35. Nice to know the cardinals are functional as well as beautiful!

  36. Those things give me the willeys.

  37. Marisa, thanks for the comment. Ya, they are a little creepy. But, fascinating I think. I have a Monarch chrysalis in my kitchen as I write having morphed from a caterpillar. I can't wait for it to hatch!

  38. I Loved your article! I'm a little late posting a message but I too am raising a couple of hornworms in a jar and one of them hatched the other day! It's been 2 days and he does not seem to want to fly away. Am I suppose to be feeding it something or putting the jar in a specific place while he is "drying out"?

  39. Robin, you may never see this, who knows, but I have to comment anyway. I was totally entertained by your story...laughed out loud....AND I learned what my tomato hornworm would become, which is how I ended up finding this in the first place! Thank you! :) Joan in IL