An Artist Finds Inspiration in Leaves Chomped by Spongy Moth Caterpillars | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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An Artist Finds Inspiration in Leaves Chomped by Spongy Moth Caterpillars


Published June 13, 2022 at 10:24 a.m.
Updated June 15, 2022 at 10:05 a.m.

Designs the spongy moth caterpillar left behind - COURTESY OF JENN KARSON
  • Courtesy of Jenn Karson
  • Designs the spongy moth caterpillar left behind
Most people who encounter the destructive spongy moth caterpillar see it as a terrible nuisance. The invasive insect with a voracious appetite — until recently known as the gypsy moth caterpillar — is defoliating oak and maple trees in Vermont for the second year in a row, leaving excrement, silken thread and chomped-up leaves in its wake.

Jenn Karson — who works at the University of Vermont as both an art department lecturer and director of the UVM FabLab, a place where students use digital fabrication tools like 3D printers and CNC milling machines to turn their ideas into inventions — totally gets peoples’ disgust. Her property in Colchester has been hit hard by the caterpillars, too.

But Karson also sees the creepy crawlers’ presence as an opportunity to think deeply about some pretty big topics: the fine line between destruction and creation; the ephemeral nature of things; and the ways in which consumption contributes to environmental problems.
Like many Vermonters, Karson and her partner, Ken, were shocked when they first encountered the spongy moth caterpillars late last spring. But Karson also found herself fascinated by the eaten-away forms they left behind. She started sharing the leaves with others and was struck by how people found hidden images in them, much like the psychological Rorschach test.

As Karson began collecting the leaves, she realized that she was compiling a data set that had the potential to spark deep discussion about weighty issues. Scientists believe the resurgence of the spongy moth caterpillars is linked to climate change — specifically, a prolonged period of dry weather that has prevented the fungus that typically kills the moth larvae from proliferating. The feasted-on leaves provide striking visual evidence of it.
Spongy moth caterpillars - COURTESY OF JANE SCHLOSSBERG
  • Courtesy Of Jane Schlossberg
  • Spongy moth caterpillars
“The reality is that this kind of thing is not going away,” Karson said. “We’re in … a time of great concern for the relationships which we have between humans and the natural environment.”

In the past year, Karson has accumulated more than 2,000 leaves. When she finds an interesting one, she spritzes it with water, flattens it on a cloth surface using a paintbrush, sandwiches it between cut-out squares of parchment paper, then presses it under bricks or large books. She stores the leaves in her grandmother’s old hope chest.

With a grant from UVM, she’s been able to pay undergraduate students to help her preserve and photograph the leaves. She’s writing a book proposal about the endeavor, and she’s also hoping that her work can aid scientists.

Recently, Karson met with UVM entomologists who are researching the Colorado potato beetle and looking for a way to quantify leaf damage; Karson believes she may be able to use what she’s learning to help them do just that.

For Karson, the highlight of the project has been observing how — when confronted by the strange and unexpected shapes created by caterpillars — people find beauty, and even humor, in something that is, on its face, “really horrifying.”

“What really has been exciting for me,” she said, “is to be able to show someone a leaf and make them laugh.”

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