The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

after cycles incalculable

with 3 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Romans had one of their very practical holidays scheduled for this week of the year, a mostly forgotten rite called the Lemuralia.

from wikipedia

In Roman religion, the Lemuralia or Lemuria was a feast during which the ancient Romans performed rites to exorcise the malevolent and fearful ghosts of the dead from their homes. The unwholesome spectres of the restless dead, the lemures or larvae were propitiated with offerings of beans. On those days, the Vestals would prepare sacred mola salsa, a salted flour cake, from the first ears of wheat of the season.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The notion of vengeful ghosts, whom the Romans would call- in hushed whispers- the Larvae is ancient and seems to be bred into the human specie.


Those who celebrated the Lemuralia, walked barefooted, washed their hands three times, and threw nine times black beans behind their backs, believing by this ceremony to secure themselves against the Lemures (Varro, Vita pop. Rom. Fragm. p241, ed. Bipont.; Servius, ad Aen. I.276).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Egyptians had their Khu, and China has the Hungry Ghosts, even the Inuit tradition carries a haunting cadre of supernormal entities.

from wikipedia

In Roman mythology, lemures (singular lemur) were shades or spirits of the restless or malignant dead, and are probably cognate with an extended sense of larvae (sing. larva = mask) as disturbing or frightening. Lemures is the more common literary term but even this is rare: it is used by Horace, and by Ovid in his Fasti. Lemures may represent the wandering and vengeful spirits of those not afforded proper burial, funeral rites or affectionate cult by the living: they are not attested by tomb or votive inscriptions. Ovid interprets them as vagrant, unsatiated and potentially vengeful di manes or di parentes (ancestral gods of the underworld). To him, the rites of their cult suggest an incomprehensibly archaic, quasi-magical and probably very ancient rural tradition. Much later, St. Augustine describes both the lemures and the larvae as evil and restless manes that torment and terrify the living: lares, on the other hand, are good manes.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, our life here in the Newtown Pentacle is defined by more mundane concepts and material realizations. The Larvae we experience in early May, like these enigmatic critters found near the Hunters Point Ave. Station on Skillman Avenue, are decidedly “normal” and also happen to be native New Yorkers.

Your humble narrator has stumbled before, but with extensive comparison to extant critter speciation via the google… I’m going to go out on a limb here and proclaim these squirming masses of endless hunger Malacosoma Americanum!!!  That’s the Eastern Tent Caterpillar to you, Lords and Ladies!!!

and apologies for the “out on a limb” pun- couldn’t resist…

(and also, I could be totally wrong- but these guys look like Malacosoma Americanum to me- if you can confirm or deny, please leave a comment)

from wikipedia

The newly hatched caterpillars initiate the construction of a silk tent soon after emerging. They typically aggregate at the tent site for the whole of their larval life, expanding the tent each day to accommodate their increasing size. Under field conditions, the caterpillars feed three times each day, just before dawn, at mid-afternoon, and in the evening after sunset. During each bout of feeding the caterpillars emerge from the tent, add silk to the structure, move to distant feeding sites en masse, feed, then return immediately to the tent where they rest until the next activity period. The exception to this pattern occurs in the last instar when the caterpillars feed only at night. The caterpillars lay down pheromone trails to guide their movements between the tent and feeding sites. The insect has six larval instars. When fully grown, the caterpillars disperse and construct cocoons in protected places. The adult moths (imago) emerge about two weeks later. They are rather strictly nocturnal and start flying after nightfall, then possibly stop some hours before dawn. Mating and oviposition typically occur on the same day as the moths emerge from their cocoons; the females die soon thereafter.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Positively raining down from the trees, vast chaotics of these crawlers were observed the other day trying to cross Skillman Avenue, heading eastward.


The Eastern Tent Caterpillar, Malacosoma americanum (Fabricius) is reported to have been present in the United States since the 1600’s, and is responsible for forming unsightly silk-webbed nests at branch forks. Their population peaks every 8 to 10 years, when large infestations can completely defoliate trees in late spring/early summer.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Virtually impossible to find footing which did not render a horrible and crushing extermination, I nevertheless scuttled forth and picked my way amongst them. In the back of my mind, I wondered what evolutionary adaptations they might have developed to accommodate the environmental hostility of this section of Long Island City. There is a High School across the street, of course- surrounded by the tunnels, trains, highways, bridges, and the cemented reality of an area defined by the junction of the main waterway of the Newtown Creek with its bubbly tributary- the canalized Dutch Kills. Just a block away is the Empty Corridor.


These caterpillars produce the conspicuous silken tents commonly seen in the spring on branches of favored host trees. The tents consist of numerous layers of dense silk webbing which contain much excrement and numerous molted skins.

The female moths are dull reddish-brown with a wing expanse of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Males are smaller. The front wings of each are crossed by two whitish, oblique, parallel lines.

Mature larvae, or caterpillars, are 2 to 2 1/2 inches long. The head and body are generally deep black. There is a white stripe along the back of the body and a row of oval, pale blue spots on each side. There are many short, irregular brownish markings on the side of each body segment. Long, fine, brown hairs sparsely clothe the body.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These wriggling americans were pursuing some unknown goal in the direction of that High School, and the actions of automotive traffic along Skillman Avenue upon their migration is a detail best left unheralded. Vast hatcheries of avian predators swirled above.


Manual destruction of egg masses and tents is an excellent way to control populations. Be advised that the hairs on caterpillars may be irritating to skin.

Twigs encased by egg masses should be pruned out. Tents can also be pruned out or be destroyed by winding around a stick or with a strong jet of water (the best time to destroy tents is before caterpillars leave to feed). Do not attempt to burn tents as this can cause more harm than good.

Tent destruction has another benefit in that it exposes caterpillars to birds and other natural enemies which can help keep populations in check. Eastern tent caterpillars are parasitized by braconid, ichneumonid, and chalcid wasps.

Other control options are available: Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki is useful in the early spring when applied to young larvae, as is insecticidal soap which should be used when caterpillars are out of tents and feeding on leaves. Take care to avoid applying soaps in unsuitable weather conditions (like hot temperatures) as this can lead to phytotoxicity and leaf damage.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The univoltine holocaust playing out all around me forced me to rumination, a meditative practice whose purpose is to ward off the periodic moments of panic and fainting which have so afflicted me in the past. Feckless quisling and physical coward both, your humble narrator revels in heroic tales of the past, for the future is a paralysis of logical progressions and dire portent.

from wikipedia

The origin of the festival of All Saints celebrated in the West dates to May 13, 609 or 610, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs; the feast of the dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since. The chosen day, May 13, was a pagan observation of great antiquity, the culmination of three days of the Feast of the Lemures, in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated. Liturgiologists of the Middle Ages based the idea that this Lemuria festival was the origin of that of All Saints on their identical dates and on the similar theme of “all the dead”.

The feast of All Saints, on its current date, is traced to the foundation by Pope Gregory III (731–741) of an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”, with the day moved to November 1.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Negative thoughts, though, on a sunny warm day in the City of Greater New York will only attract attention to you. Best to throw open the psychic windows and air the mental house out, clean up and organize for the coming summer. Perhaps the Romans had something after all, the Lemuralia was always accompanied by a general cleaning of the home, a spring cleaning.

from wikipedia

On Sunday, 13 May 1917, ten year old Lúcia Santos and her younger cousins, siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were tending sheep at a location known as the Cova da Iria near their home village of Fátima in Portugal. Lúcia described seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” Further appearances are reported to have taken place on the thirteenth day of the month in June and July. In these, the woman exhorted the children to do penance and to make sacrifices to save sinners. The children subsequently wore tight cords around their waists to cause pain, abstained from drinking water on hot days, and performed other works of penance. Most importantly, Lúcia said that the lady had asked them to pray the rosary every day, repeating many times that the rosary was the key to personal and world peace. This had particular resonance since many Portuguese men, including relatives of the visionaries, were then fighting in World War I.

According to Lúcia’s account, in the course of her appearances, the woman confided to the children three secrets, now known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Lemures are always with us, after all, and they’ll always be back.

Have a good day on the 13th of May, eat something bad for you with someone you love- and fellows- wash your hands and throw some black beans around the neighborhood later. You never know.

I really have to recommend against walking bare footed, however.

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 12, 2010 at 3:16 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] absent minded, and an unreliable physical coward- the feckless quisling who serves as your humble narrator once more offers devotions and attention […]

  2. […] “After cycles incalculable” is another one of those perfect posts, from a personal perspective. Wandering around with a friend, which is a disturbing trend which developed over the course of 2010, at Skillman Avenue’s start we observed the Lemuria hatching in concordance with the anniversary of the Roman festival of Lemuralia in Long Island City. […]

  3. […] ancient calendrical milestones (November 1st for instance), February 2nd seems to be one of those special dates on which things just seem to […]

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