Trick or Treat? A Seasonal Tale of Pumpkins and Pests

Edward Gorey, the artist and author famous for his dark imagery, was a great advocate of animals, large and small, all over the world. The Xerces Society receives support through his legacy at the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

Please enjoy this surreal tale of conservation biological control, inspired by Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest, first published in 1957.

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THE DOUBTFUL PEST

_________________

An Allegory after Edward Gorey

By Jarrod Fowler, The Xerces Society

ACT I

SETTING: A 20-acre pumpkin farm in New England. Year after year, pumpkins have been direct-seeded in rows within tilled soils, and amended with 10-10-10 fertilizer and limestone. Yellow sticky traps were set to monitor crop pests. Weeds are being controlled with shallow cultivation and selective herbicides.

 

Scene 1

Midnight, August 8th; 66°F; clear and calm. Honey bee workers are asleep amongst 20 hives. One invertebrate predator cruises the pumpkin moonscape, hunting prey. The predator encounters striped cucumber beetle adults and larvae gorging on pumpkin flowers, foliage, and roots. The infestation is stunting pumpkin growth, reducing fruit set, and transmitting diseases. A low-rumbling noise of approaching machinery is heard. Ready to attack, the predator is suddenly painted with a highly toxic insecticide from a passing boom sprayer. The equipment was properly calibrated and the fast-acting, broad-spectrum poison will persist for days. The predator immediately seizes and dies, but a percentage of cucumber beetles resists and will resurge. Repeated treatments may be applied. A lone firefly trails off…

 

Scene 2

Noon, October 10th; 66°F; partly cloudy and breezy. Farmers harvest pumpkins. Crop-residue remains on a field without cover crops, now a favorable habitat for pests and pathogens. The wind blows, eroding soil, while a cricket chirps and a crow caws. Harvested pumpkins are stored in bins and sold wholesale to retailers. Once purchased, pumpkins are perched on porches or preserved in pantries. The jack-o’-lantern grimace is more than rind deep: the pumpkin pie is riddled with pesticide residues. Trick or treat?

Pumpkin02

 

INTERMISSION

ACT II

SETTING: A diversified 20-acre farm in New England, featuring a rotating cast of crops. Two acres of pumpkins were transplanted in hills within moist, well-drained sandy soil, amended with vermicompost. Transplants were mulched with straw and protected with row-covers until bloom. Rows of companion dill and trap-crop zucchini defend the patch. Early season weeds have been controlled with a living mulch of clover and organic straw.

 

Scene 1

Midnight, August 8th; 66°F; clear and calm. Male squash bees are asleep in pumpkin flowers. Communities of predators prowl the patch, keeping striped cucumber beetle and other pests to tolerable numbers. Wolf spiders wander from native flowering field-borders to hunt, frighten, and gobble beetles. Harvestmen and predatory mites, sheltered by mulch, munch beetle eggs and larvae. Ground and rove beetles, percolating from perennial beetle banks, devour pest beetles. Parasitoid flies and wasps, napping in neighboring hedgerows, anticipate their larvae gradually eating prey alive. Soil-dwelling fungi and nematodes, conserved without tillage, consume and kill beetle larvae. Vesper bats swoop from roosts and chomp beetles mid-flight. The farmscape is alight with fireflies.

 

Scene 2

Noon, October 10th; 66°F; partly cloudy and breezy. Farmers and farm visitors pick pumpkins. Crop-residue is cleaned from the patch, and a cover crop cocktail cultivated to control weeds, improve soil health, and support pollinators. The wind blows and maple leaves fall, while crickets chorus and songbirds sing. Harvested pumpkins are sold at farm stands and markets. Once purchased, pumpkins are perched on porches or preserved in pantries. The jack-o’-lantern warts are only rind deep: the pumpkin pie is without pesticide residues. Trick or treat?

Pumpkin01

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