June 23, 2013

North Cairn: Blessed be the meekest of moths

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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