The other day, as I was driving home from work, I accidentally hit a swallowtail butterfly as it looped into the path of my car’s grill.
The subtraction of a single butterfly would have been no big deal to most people, I know, even though the big black and yellow butterfly with tear drops at the ends of its hind wings is one of the most striking of colorful commonplace insects in North America. I have always thought them competitors for first place in the butterfly class, up there with skippers and monarchs, relinquishing the top spot, I suppose, only to their relatives, the midnight blue, yellow and black Eastern swallowtails.
Oddly, I remember quite clearly the details of most of the collisions I have had — or witnessed — involving large insects, especially butterflies and moths. I could bring you back to the exact spot in a gas station on West Main Street in Hyannis, Mass., where I encountered my first otherwordly luna moth, dazed by a car bumper or windshield and dropped on the concrete step to the cashier’s window.
It was midnight and I felt, discovering it there, that I had found an angel. It might have had something to do with the eerie way that the big lights over the gas pumps illuminated a limited patch of the night stuck with me because of the intermittent buzz of large bug-zapping screens at the corners of the service station, issuing an electric, erratic tick-tock in the dark.
But the large, luminous green, almost velvety moth, flailing though it was in its final try toward life and escape, seemed in every way a creature from somewhere else, too intricate in its loveliness to be discovered on the oil-spotted platform on which all our speedy transactions were taking place.
I can remember all the way back to childhood to the first monarch I managed to snare by hand as it hovered in the grass in the yard, and how criminal I felt even after releasing it, seeing the powdery color of its wings staining my fingertips. I recall wondering with the simple worry of a child if I unwittingly had robbed it of something necessary for its flight by rubbing some of the orange and black dust from its wings.
Holding on to such inconsequential memories, I could easily enough conclude that I had been a child with a melancholic turn of mind or an adult with a depressive sensibility about the distant past, but that would be an inaccurate impression. The fact is that even at the age of 6 or 7, I was inordinately moved not by sadness but by beauty — especially in the details of nature.
Sometimes that realization made me mourn a bit as I grew older and realized the fleeting eternity of beauty in material form, but I have always been a person who could be snapped to attention or stopped mid-stride by the sound of a bird’s lilting or plaintive call, by the intense labor of a beetle or the stillness of a tiny grasshopper clinging to camouflaging vegetation in early spring. Sometimes I think I love beetles more than any other family of creatures on earth — scarabs and weevils, fireflies and June bugs.
I probably ought to have cultivated a distaste for insects since I am prone to allergic reactions to bee stings and have always come in just below the mosquito in terms of the food chain. They find me out, no matter how far away I might be.
I do have an aversion to no-see-ums, the almost invisible biting midges of summer cottages and camps, because I always seem to be the first prey for them at picnics or patio parties, on the hiking trail or at the water’s edge.
But I remain nonetheless fascinated by insects, and entomology will be a serious avocation for me forever, I feel sure. Just when I think I have seen it all — cicadas and cecropias, ichneumon and damselflies — some tiny creature will catch me off-guard and remind me how simple-minded and singular my focus is compared to the complexity and diversity of the insect world.
Most recently I was startled by beauty in a bug late one night, when I was herding the dog out into the dark of the yard for her last pass over her territory for the day. I had just turned in the hallway to go down the stairs to the back door, had glanced out of the screen and saw there a pink and yellow furry moth — a Dryocampa rubicunda — a rosy maple moth, with wings like the petals of a perennial.
You have to see one to appreciate it, to take in the natural fact of how exquisite a creature of the dark can be. In large numbers it may become a pest, of course, as almost everything can — including, most obviously, us.
This stunning moth feeds on maples — mainly red, silver and sugar — and is part of the Saturniidae family, which also includes the small emperor moth, giant silkmoths, royal moths and the Atlas moth of Southeast Asia, thought to be the world’s largest moth — legendary with its bright orange and yellow coloring and tapestry-like patterns, described by some entomologists as “maplike” in appearance.
But even the humblest of moths is a wonder to me, in part, I suppose, because we see them more often at night, when their colors, however subtle, seem to cast an unanticipated nuance to an evening. You don’t expect to be surprised by joy or marvel or beauty in the dark, and then suddenly, there you are, transfixed by a rosy maple moth that lingers for two or three evenings, as though rewarding your appreciation, in the same spot, on an unremarkable, dingy window screen.
Blessed are the meek, I think to myself, glimpsing them. Through them we inherit the earth.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: