A metric for measuring bugs like the falling of rain: precipitation, a new sort of climate. entomologist, entology: bug weather.
(--This is 6 ABC Action News, I’m Jim Gardener. We’re tracking a heavy rain front coming out of the Midwest this Tuesday, here’s how that could affect your holiday plans. In local news, spotted lanternflies have flown into Center City, and it’s looking like they’re here to stay.)
Wooly summer, thick and scratchy as a sweater starched hard, suffocating, sweltering, the type of heat that invades down to the cell and sticks, sticks, sticks, even at the point where stickiness is a nonapplicable metric. It is 2020. There are many things from which there is no escape.
Whoever said the weather wasn’t alive?
In their native climate, spotted lanternflies, Lycorma delicatula exist within the symbiosis of predation, unthreatening. Their home is in the tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, first cultivated in the United States in 1748, in Philadelphia. In 2020, in Philadelphia, they drink the sap of seedlings, removing nutrients from the tree’s metabolism, and starving them to death. Summer is a season of endings, of sweating away time and memory until you are left a body in the humid, northeastern sprawl. I watch my neighbors wind fly paper around their front yard oaks and magnolias. My father glares at the tulip poplar through the window, our sentry. Our air conditioner combusts. It is 2020. The world is ending, and the new buggy climate becomes the end of my childhood somehow.
Weather and climate tinge each other now, watercolors bleeding together. I start to learn their haunted hymns, and begin to notice the patterns of their nature as it becomes monstrous. Spotted lantern flies are unlike any insect I’ve seen in Philadelphia. They ride the wind, they are becoming ubiquitous in the same way weather is now: unpredictable, unabashed.
The world beyond my parents' red brick house becomes a war zone. It is the summer of 2020. Lantern flies perch on every surface, dropping on your bare shoulders and knees with naive fearlessness. The thermostat reaches higher, higher, higher. The stores around the block press plywood against the windows. Your neighbor’s gingko is gone. A lantern fly scutters up the inside of your arm as you reach for a Solo cup half full of peppermint tea. The humidity reaches 97% without relief from rain. A lantern fly creeps its way onto the bristles of your tooth brush. Red bricks sear the soft part of your back as you lean against them, watching your mother hack away at your brother’s hair. Lantern fly corpses blow down Broad Street, piling in the corners between buildings. One million and counting. One million and many more.
I remember hurricane season. I could use a good hurricane. I remember lightning and peach fumes and kerosene lamps. I remember being ten on my grandfather’s porch, the white paint scaly, breathing fast as lightning cuts through violet clouds above the ocean. A storm is a catharsis. Without them the heat is endless, buggy, time slows sticky as molasses. Bits of my body condense and drip, drip, drip away.
I become intimate with dampness, but not in the way I want to. I sweat. My skin revolts under denim and linen and dirt. My window unit secured with painters tape can only accomplish so much, it can not cut through the humidity, the swamp that my life has become. Before the steel frames of skyscrapers, before the decomposing, New York City was a swamp. Philadelphia was a woodland. I am sinking into the muck beneath the steel: drunk, damp, struggling for breath. There is no escape from the heavy hand of my body's processes on overdrive, I am all saturated: red faced, red zits, and pink with longing.
I am close to discomfort. It is generational. I do not wear pajamas beyond your door because that is the way of my fathers. You are my mother and my grandmother in your little rituals: unease is safety. Silence is safety. For a house which speaks three languages there is so much you’ll never say. This is a very Philadelphia way of being. I should be used to the summer, the way the weather smothers me in an unfamilial way. This is the weather I was born into, the vicious humidity that my mother still bemoans, a brief era before central air. You are a lion of August, and you should relish in fiery heat. But I am only human, and I know blizzards too. There is only so much I can do. There is only so much I can take.
I love Philadelphia in the way you love someone who has wronged you deeply, in that you almost respect how the hurt was the only thing they had to give you. In the way that you admit that you are better for all your bruises and burns. In the way that you thank the one who poured poison into your mouth.
The oddest things make me want for Philadelphia with deep seated, primal longing: red brick townhouses, exposed piping, the barnside stars of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Covered bridges. Magnolia trees. Highway ramps. I don't eat red meat anymore, but I will make an exception for a Philly cheese steak, a real one with onions and peppers, grease soaking through an Amoroso roll. One late August, I stood by the Liberty Bell just to feel cool air on my sticky face, stared at the face of the history under my feet. Invasion, colonization, emancipation. That's tourist culture now.
I Facetime my mother. She tells me the Phillies have two games left in the World Series, and the Eagles are doing damn well. "And you know, no one is talking about it. We won't have parties. Everyone has to stay home and watch the games in the exact same spot they always do."
"Like the dad in Silver Linings Playbook? With the remotes?" My mother laughs.
There is a curious cultural phenomenon about Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs in which families can trace their ancestral roots back to Philadelphia for generations. Your mother lived and died here, as did her mother, and her mother before, and often, so will you. For many, the furthest they move from the burbs is downtown for college, then the slow trickle back to the neighborhoods with better schools and backyards after they start families of their own. The long Philadelphian lineage which permeates its people creates a rabid fanaticism, no, a phanaticism for the city that outsiders view as occasionally violent madness. It is violent madness. It is the angriest sort of love. And from that love comes the reaction to lanternflies. Since its Quaker genesis Philadelphia has always been a crossroads of all kinds, and now is so for more than humans.
In my Letterboxed review of Silver Linings Playbook, released in 2012, I write: "The moral of the story is mental illness or not, being from the greater Philly area makes you clinically insane. Anyways, go Birds."
You don't search for dreams on the streets of Philadelphia. You find a restaurant, or a drug, or some god awful dive, or a beautiful person, and you go on. You live on thrills, whatever they may be. A football game. A brewery. A dance. You live. No chasing, no city of stars. Just a Gritty, gorgeous life.
This is a case for death. This work is a case for killing. I am a murderer and I am asking; gently, if you will become one too. I'll admit, it's a hard ask in an era of invasive ecology, as we begin to reckon with the repercussions of non-native organisms, the subtle yet profound changes they threaten to ecosystems that, once woven as a tapestry, are tearing thread by thread. The Anthropocene can be found at a cellular level. It's in the worms and the insects. This is a tiny cataclysm too. Perhaps my stance is too preservationist. There are some who would lay their hands in the dirt and let it all unfold, let the planet mutate into something new, and maybe dystopian. Fletcher writes of freakology: "...this is an infrastructural ecology, opportunistic and emergent, one that lives off human excess, with many of its values and functions unknown or misunderstood." He writes of the Los Angeles river, its ecosystem so polluted that it has become a new frontier, an unexplored territory coursing through a desert. The entire planet is becoming this way: globalization has triggered changes that no policy will reverse. Jellyfish. Microplastics. Petroleum. Nuclear waste immemorial. Not all of these changes will kill us. If all goes well, we may have a more beautiful Earth. But it will never be the same.
So should the lantern flies take over? Should we rest our boots and our fists, should we allow them dominance? Governments lament millions of dollars in crop damage. Agrobusiness quavers. By crushing the lanternflies, do we ignore anarchy? Do we thrash against an inevitable change, the first of many thousands? Is this the beginning of the end or the beginning of something else?
There is more I could tell you. Environmental work these days is an act of constant mourning. There is more that I could tell you but it's too hot, god, it's too hot out. I care not for big agriculture but for the fates of farmers. I care for wine. I care for rotted grape vines. I care for the trees threatened by far more than insects, I care for gardens. I care for a piece of landscape where the changes are slow and natural. Perhaps it is selfish to want my childhood to look the same for a moment. Just a little while longer.
It is summer of 2020. I'm staying in bed. I'm limp in the gray dawn and I am remembering how to breathe through humidity and hurt and god it's so hot, I am listening to Phoebe Bridgers scream at full volume and my sheets are too itchy. I'm delirious, I'm feverish, why can't I stop crying? If it isn't sweat these days, it is most definitely tears. I wish I wasn't wearing jeans in July. I wish I wasn't convinced of my own death in the fabric store, I wish my mother was proud of me, I wish for the end of this but I don't know what. It is summer of 2020. For the first time in my life, I am convinced that something is wrong with me.
(index finger held level with your head, eyebrows raised)? Do you understand? Verstehst du?
Grass is tickling my bare back. Ashy green lilac leaves wave above me, gazing down with motherly concern, child, rest. The sun speckles my skin through branches, feathery kisses of light – an embrace, not a chokehold for once. For all this talk, I'll admit that one of my great pleasures is to bask like a cat in the sun, for white summer light to coat my skin as thin, flawless wool. I miss that summer reality when the seasons change.
I will miss the walk home from the bus as pink light cuts through brick apartment blocks. I will miss the evenings I biked 15 miles on the grave of a railroad in the dusk cutting knife-like through the air in a Springsteen-esque fugue state, running away but always running back. I will miss the smell of bonfire smoke in my hair. I will miss the heat clinging to the air as I walk past the fire house in the navy blue light of August evenings, as all feels electric and the fireflies agree.
The end of the summer is the start of new time. The lantern flies become hollow bodies blowing against the buildings, and for now there is reprieve. I may walk between red brick houses without crushing shells under my leather shoes. I may step outside without squinting. I may feel at home in the sun again.
So why kill lanternflies? Out of love. Out of love for the environment, for the children of Philadelphians generations away so they may know the taste of grapes. If you ask us to defend this city, we will do so even to its destruction. We know each other to be at once salvation and threat.
(Let me stay in the tulip tree. Let me live in the boughs. Just a little while longer.)
My brother and I are walking home from Rite Aid, heat simmering against the pavement, a plastic bag holding highlighters and guanfacine capsules wilting in my hand. In front of the hospital, we come to a jilted stop, practically dancing about as we become momentary murderers, lanternflies crunching under our sandals. A man passes in a truck and slows to cheer us on. Go Philly. Go Birds.
How does one adequately say where they are from? I could tell you a city. A street. I could tell you the most haunted parts of me were born in a cornfield in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I could give you a checklist of diseases and conditions passed down, or I could give you a list of names. Let us speak binomial nomenclature together. I am from tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I am from lilac (Syringa vulgaris). I am from tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). And soon I will be from spotted lantern fly (Lycorma delicatula).
"For most of 2020, I lived in my childhood home with my parents, my brother, fear of COVID, and an army of invasive bugs. This is about that, and summer, and watching your childhood environment mutate, and Philadelphia. And probably more. I write about being from Philadelphia so much, almost torturously so. What I love about this piece is how close I feel it comes to understanding a lot of things unfolding in tandem: climate change, the pandemic, childhood ending, shifting relationships with home in a strange, ecologically novel world. Writing this helped me process much of my own solastalgia, and I am grateful for that." - notes from the artist
HANNAH EMILIUS is a writer and scholar hailing from the postindustrial sprawl of greater Philadelphia. Her research focuses include environmental humanities, ecocriticism, narrative theory, fantasy studies, and the Anthropocene. She earned her B.A. in Literature and Environmental Studies from Sarah Lawrence College in May 2023 and is intending to pursue a PhD in Literature and the Environment in due time.