Lizzie Rothwell had her first kill at Second and Spring Garden. It felt like a triumph.
“Having the blessing from the powers that be didn’t matter so much as feeling in my own soul that it was the right thing to do,” she said.
The blessing in this case came from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which is encouraging everyday people to kill the spotted lanternfly wherever they find it.
It’s true that spotted lanternflies, an invasive species from Asia, are harmful to the region’s trees and farms. It’s equally true that many Philadelphians will jump at the chance to beat up on outsiders who present a threat to the city. Often these perceived threats have nothing to do with the health of our ecosystem. Philadelphians allegedly killed Hitchbot, a Canadian robot that was traveling the eastern U.S. in 2015. Philadelphians routinely fight with fans of opposing sports teams. Philadelphians are sometimes known for being hostile to outsiders even if they’re just here to, like, live. The restaurateur Michael Solomonov once summed up the Philadelphia “chutzpah” like so: “If you talk s---, you’re gonna get your a-- kicked.”
The order to kill spotted lanternflies on sight would seem to give Philadelphians a legally encouraged outlet for an impulse already held deep in the psyche. Nat Lownes was walking in Center City last week when he came across a massacre of lanternfly carcasses outside an office building, and relished the vision of what must have occurred — half a dozen office workers on their lunch breaks, having a cigarette, stomping the bugs to death. To him, Pennsylvanians are doing it right. New Yorkers are encouraged to call a run-of-the-mill hotline number to report a lanternfly sighting. Pennsylvania’s hotline is 1-888-4BAD-FLY.
“The fact that New York doesn’t even have a cool hotline number tells me they’re not really committed to the cause,” Lownes said.
After Lownes posted on Twitter about killing lanternflies, Rothwell says she was inspired in a dream to draw up a logo for the “Keystone State Lanternfly Kill Squad,” featuring Gritty, the Flyers mascot and avatar of Philadelphia’s deep-seated taste for chaos.
But there’s more than bloodlust at work. Rothwell, for one, doesn’t necessarily relate to the city’s need to be fighting all the time. But she does relate to its underdog status, and to the idea that you have to keep fighting losing battles even if you know they might be hopeless. It feels as if people are up against a lot of those right now — politically, environmentally — and there are precious few ways to take concrete action against them.
“In World War II you could, like, grow a victory garden, but no one’s given us [anything] to do except stomp on lanternflies,” Rothwell said.
What possible ecological impact could the squashing of individual flies have in the context of a multistate, years-long invasion?
Tabitha Arnold isn’t sure. She killed her first lanternfly on Monday, stomping it under the soles of her Adidas Superstars on a sidewalk near 36th and Market and posting a video on Twitter with a hard-nosed eulogy. Then she killed around 20 more. When she finally looked up, she says, there were another 50 swarming in the vicinity. The campaign felt futile, she said, like trying to fight climate change one person at a time. But what else are you going to do?
“I will squash again,” Arnold said. “But I probably won’t feel like I’m making a big difference.”