UNTIL my friend Patrick Wildgust came down from the north, everything I knew about moths was contained in the Burial Service. My beauty would consume away, like as it were a moth consuming a garment.
When I was a boy, old ladies often smelled of mothballs — and old men of tobacco. Moths were drawn to the flame, and, in a perfect essay by Virginia Woolf, “Death of the Moth”, the poor creature anticipates her own tragic end.
Patrick the naturalist, however, will have none of this. On 12 October, a date to be reckoned with, he sets up a moth-trap — or, rather ,a light-trap — in my garden, and, early next morning, what do we find? The following roll-call of moths.
Beaded Chestnut, Merveille du Jour, Red-line Quaker, Yellow Underwing, Common Rustic, Rosy Rustic, Setaceous Hebrew Character, November Moth, Feathered Thorn, Sallow, Common Marbled Carpet, Lunar Underwing Shades (just one wing, the other probably consumed by a bat) — and, wait for it, six hornets.
All these creatures here at Bottengoms! Every night? And, until Patrick arrived, invisible to my untrained eye. All I can muster is Robert Browning’s “moth’s first kiss” of Elizabeth Barrett, which goes on: “The bee’s kiss, now! Kiss me. . .” No wonder she fled Wimpole Street with him for Florence.
Kiss me as if you made believe
You were not sure, this eve,
How my face, your flower, had pursed
Its petals up; so, here and there
You brush it.
The white cat owns the wall where the moth-trap displays its amazing catch, purring into moss. Does she sleep, or does she contemplate? I meditate on moths’ life-cycle, cats’ life-cycle, my life-cycle, and how briefly they touch.
Scripture avoids natural history if it can, and, instead of all these marvellous creatures’ witnessing their existence in the dancing light of tents, they are feeding on our clothes — the ones with which we covered our naked selves. Anyway, a whole host of previously unsuspected members of God’s creation have made themselves known to me. And all because of Patrick’s light-trap.
Should you wish to meet these neighbours, or, rather, fellow-sharers of the universe, this is what you do. I have taken it straight out of Paul Waring’s and Martin Townsend’s Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, which is the Gospel of mothology: a book that will change your life.
“Light trapping exploits the commonly observed tendency of many moths to approach and become disorientated around bright lights. The types of electric lights which emit part of their output as ultra-violet light have been found to be most effective, and two types are favourites among moth-trappers: mercury vapour discharge bulbs, and fluorescent actinic tubes. Traps are designed around these, operating on the lobster-pot principle. The moths rest in the traps unharmed, and can be released again unharmed.”
The grape leaves wither round the moth-trap and come down, floating past the study window — whether with relief or reluctance, it is hard to say. The vine itself must rest until the New Year and the cold has polished its boughs.