Beyond Words
(Marshall’s column from June 2012 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine)

Have you ever seen an unusual insect in your yard and wondered what it was? Something that stopped you dead in your tracks? Something that made you yell out, Hey Myrtle, come look at this weird bug! Over there … crawling in the grass! Oh, my god, honey, would you look at that thing. What IS it?

Considering the unusually mild temperatures in Middle Tennessee this past winter, forecasters are calling for bugs to be out in full force this summer. So, if you encounter an especially weird-looking one, may I suggest a visit to the University of Tennessee Soil, Plant & Pest Center at Ellington Agricultural Center or the UT-TSU Agricultural Extension Office on Murfreesboro Pike.

My husband Chris and I have visited both places, and I can verify these people know their stuff. Our first visit was in late June 1998.

I was standing at an upstairs window, looking out over our backyard, when I noticed something weird crawling in the grass. It was about the size of a small kitten, but moving like a caterpillar. Most remarkable was its color – a bright aquamarine. Upon closer inspection, I noticed all these reddish orange horns with black tips around its head with more reddish-orange spikes along its body. It looked so foreign and big and menacing, I didn’t quite know what to think. So I ran back in the house.

“Chris!” I called out. “You’ve got to come see this thing out in the yard. You won’t believe it!

Chris has a calm and rational nature, but upon seeing this huge whatever-it-was, even he was taken aback.

Long story short. We carefully scooped it up into a large mason jar (with perforated holes in the top so it could breathe), and drove it down to the UT-TSU Agricultural Office, then located on Second Avenue North.

Our bug specimen was quite a hit. People came running out of offices, saying, Oh, my goodness! Would you look at that!  Finally an older man calmly announced that our bug was a Citheronia regalis larva, better known as a Hickory Horned Devil. “It’s the largest caterpillar in North America,” he went on to explain. “This one looks to be in its final larval stage.” Despite its ferocious apperance, we learned it was, as often happens in life, quite harmless.