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BERNSTEIN: Squishing lanternflies brings us closer together

Column: Mind You

Squishing lanternflies is objectively disgusting, yet the collective hatred of this invasive species has brought Rutgers students closer together as a student body.  – Photo by Rhododendrites / Wikimedia.org

Back when I was living this past summer at the Livingston Apartments, on my walks between the parking lot and my building, I would often notice the presence of unusually oblong, red-winged bugs dotting the sidewalk. I had just figured that they were a species of insect not native to my hometown — their pleasant patterns engendered a sort of affection in me, and I actively avoided snuffing them out with the underside of my sneakers.

Alas, how times have changed.

The spotted lanternfly — once the object of my gentle regard, now the ever-present and ever-squashed menace of post-quarantine Rutgers campuses — has taken New Jersey and a number of other East Coast states by storm as of late. The infestation has prompted a different sort of quarantine to prevent the spread of the invasive pest, which poses a threat to local plant life. The main line of attack against these creatures is quite straightforward: kill on sight. 

And around Rutgers, there always seems to be more than enough in sight no matter where you go.

Perhaps the recent ubiquity of the spotted lanternfly in areas like New Brunswick and Piscataway elicits solemn brow-furrows and gritting of teeth in the conference rooms of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, but among Rutgers students, the miniature beasts have inspired a culture of murderous revel.

The pent-up rage of undergraduates who have been denied a year of in-person learning has been vented through zealous commitment to the destruction of these bugs, whose corpses paint sidewalks and the walls of university buildings. 

While it is unclear if our efforts are sufficient — the swarms which surround Richard Weeks Hall of Engineering on Busch campus could demoralize even the most hardened crusader — there is no doubt that the University-wide call to arms against spotted lanternflies has proven a rare instance of gleeful cooperation and solidarity during the protracted death knell (hopefully?) of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Nothing soothes the frustration of seeing fellow students forego personal protective equipment in the back of overcrowded buses quite like watching peers stomp in frenetic fashion at the ground without drawing scrutiny — nay, instead receiving encouragement, from bystanders.

So while I am sure that the advent of the lanternfly is a bane for nature, and while I hope that their spread is controlled in a timely fashion, I cannot help but feel that it is a boon for our collective campus psyche. Spotted lanternflies have offered both literal and metaphorical revelation.

In a literal sense, their plight has revealed that, even if we are terrible at cooperating and agreeing within the realm of vaccines and masks, at least we can all get behind bug murder.

On a more symbolic level, the weird and wonderful contradictions of the lanternfly —nefarious, adorable, fragile, indomitable — serve to signify our bizarre post-quarantine experience, one that can be as bacchanalian and rich as it can be unnerving, and even isolating.

Rutgers is no stranger to using animals as symbols of the times. We have had wandering bears, prowling coyotes, untamable geese and even a lobster in a tree. But while these were signs of ordinary absurdity, everyday frustration and harmless whimsy, the spotted lanternfly belongs to the seductive, the sinister and the novel.

We are living in a time of high-running emotions: Some of us are trying to catch up on a year of living, while others are simply trying to remember how to be comfortable with the everyday. There will be temptations and struggles and dangers and missteps.

But there will also be moments of camaraderie and warmth — some contextualized by the smashing of insects, sure, but others subtler and more precious — and if we do not cherish these moments, and if we do not draw power from them, then the gardens of our tranquility will themselves be overrun with locusts of the mind.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in physics and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Mondays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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