Sunday, April 7, 2013

Something I love about my time in Italy—unusual interludes and crazy foreigners on otherwise ordinary days

Sunday, April 07, 2013
By some fortunate circumstances and coincidences, I make it to church on time in Lucca, despite a partial sciopero dei treni. My first indication of the strike is when the loudspeaker at the San Salvatore station announces that my 10 a.m. train to Lucca is annulato. I decide to take the 10 a.m. train going the opposite direction. After five minutes, I get off at Pescia and 10 minutes later I am on another train bound for Lucca. It is a more direct train that doesn’t stop at the small stations like San Salvatore. I am still unaware at this time why my first train was canceled.

This is what I first encountered. Notice
that the first eight have stopped to wait
for the other 50 or so.
After church, I have pranzo with friends from Germany, but when I go to catch the next train home, I find that almost every departing train is scheduled on track “SOP,” which I soon figure out is an abbreviation for sciopero. The only one running my way leaves at 3:39 p.m., so I have an hour and a half to kill. I ride my bike on a leisurely pace toward Esselunga to get some groceries, but something I see on the bike path stops me in my tracks. It is a string of about 60 caterpillars lined up head-to-tail and marching in a single-file chain. Well, no, they were in a chain, but a car exiting a driveway very recently ran over them in two different places, and now they are in disarray.

I get off my bike and take out my camera to document the scene. The lead eight caterpillars are unharmed, but they have stopped—somehow the leader knew something had happened down the line. Caterpillars 9 through 13 are squished, and farther back, another group met the same fate. I watch for five minutes while healthy caterpillars 14 through 25 thrash around in a tight bunch, all trying to follow each other with nobody emerging as a leader. A few get behind dead or dying caterpillars and try to push them ahead, urging them to lead the way.

Little number 9 has found the lead 8.
Meanwhile, 1 through 8 have tired of waiting and forge off ahead, while another little one strikes off on his own, though within a couple of minutes he finds the others and joins at the end of the line and the nine continue in the original direction. A few minutes later, a leader has emerged from the rest of the group, and they march on in a string of about 30. Accidenti! I have been so intent on watching and taking photos that I don’t notice a lady bicyclist nearly upon us, and she cuts right across the chain again, resulting in more deaths and confusion.

By the time the caterpillars re-form, they are in three small chains, one of three, one of eight and one of about 18. The new leaders, though, seem to have no idea where they are going. They change directions several times, but now I leave them to check on the first group of nine, and I realize that another disasters is about to take place. The original leader plans to take them on a suicide mission across a busy city arterial. I see there is a large vacant lot on the other side with lots of trees and bushes, so I can agree that it would be a good destination, but they don’t stand a chance of making it. Maybe one or two might get lucky if they streaked directly across, but not the way they stop and fumble around for five minutes every time there is an accident.

Behind the lead 9, this large group had just about finished re-forming. Thirty seconds later, a second tragedy occurred.
This is what happens when a leading
caterpillar is crushed. The others mill
around in a bunch and follow each other,
not one wanting to take the lead.
I briefly consider stopping traffic, but that’s a little too crazy even for a nature-lover like me—especially when I realize that the leader is approaching the road diagonally. It’s going to take them 15 minutes to cross the road if he keeps going at this angle. I stand on the edge of the road with my camera so cars will swing out, but I can’t keep this up. One car comes so close that the wind from the tires makes the caterpillars tumble over each other, so I use their confusion and act quickly while there is a short break in the traffic. I pull a tissue from my backpack and push and lift them on top of it. I hope these caterpillars aren’t poisonous, because I don’t have time to wait for them to crawl aboard. I run across the road and deposit them on the other side. At least nine will survive.

Back to the other groups, who are still looking somewhat aimless, but at least they are off the bike trail and closer to the lawn. They are on their own, now, as I have to get to the store and then the train station to catch the one and only train going my way that is not on strike.

Go straight and use the crosswalk! You'll never make
it at this crazy angle. But they didn't listen to me.
I blame my mom and my sister for this crazy half hour I have spent photographing and rescuing caterpillars. My mom was an unofficial animal rescue hospital, saving injured birds, chipmunks and squirrels brought to her by neighbors and friends, and Linda has the same soft-hearted streak.

Back in my apartment, I find out that I have helped a group of pine processionary caterpillars. I also read that the French naturalist Jean Henri Fabre “arranged a group of these caterpillars into a complete circle around the edge of a flowerpot to test out their urge to follow each other in a single-file head-to-tail line, and they followed each other round in a circle for seven days!”

Believe it or not, some pazzo foreigner came along, scooped
these pests up and carried them across the road to safety.
I also find out they are pests that ravage pine trees, and many people try to kill them instead of save them. Otherwise, they have few natural enemies because they “have fine hairs on their backs containing a protein which causes severe irritation and dermatitis, and in some cases an allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock) to both humans and animals.” Excuse me, but I can’t write any more because I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to scratch my hands, and several other places my hands have touched. Not really, but I did wash my hands the minute I got home, just in case. And for you pine tree lovers out there, sorry for the nine I saved, but I don’t have high hopes for the others.


  1. I now feel the sudden urge to scratch as well!


  2. BTY; Your brother also saves hapless animals. I remember him keeping a young, injured crow, in a box, until it healed enough to be set free. He doesn't even like crows.

  3. I didn't like crows much either, but they do a great job of warning our chickens when an eagle is overhead, so I have changed my opinion. Now I want a pet crow!


Comments welcome.