New beginnings don’t often happen in the first floor men’s toilets on the north corridor of the Harborne building. That is, as far as I know. It’s possible that some significant works of science have had their genesis within those windowless, cobwebbed walls, but somehow I doubt it. Tis not a place that anybody would chose to linger long.
Unless one happens to be a moth, apparently, for that is what I disturbed from the underside of a toilet roll holder on Monday morning, ushering in the moth year proper, in that it was the first decent sized, nicely patterned macro moth (i.e. larger ones – but not always!) I’d seen in 2014. Which means, of course, that I had to know what it was, and being a still inexperienced moth-er I knew this would also mean capturing it for later observation. I gave the moth, now motionless in the middle of the tiled floor, a quick but intense look. It was a beautiful, leaf-like mottled brown beast draped with tongues of glowing orange fire across the shoulders. “Wait there!” I cried, warning the poor startled creature with a wave of my index finger. “Just wait there a minute!”
The casual observer witnessing what happened next might be forgiven for thinking a Eureka moment had indeed occurred in the gents’ that morning. I burst out the door and flailed my way down the corridor at a brisk trot, a nervous but triumphant smile beginning to break on my face. I could hardly fumble for the lab key or snatch a suitable collecting vessel fast enough. “Out of my way,” I might have said, “I’ve found a moth!” – but the corridors were empty for it was still only half past seven. Probably just as well that I went unobserved.
Skating back into the gloom of the toilets, I found the moth sat warily where I had left it, still evidently in a state of shock. I ushered it carefully into a three-inch glass tube, and carried my prize back to the office. Whilst I had absolutely no idea what it was, a few surprisingly short page turns in an appropriate book identified the moth in question as The Herald. A common, widespread thing but very much an uncommon delight. I hoped it represented the herald of spring, a herald of moths and other wonders to come. It absolutely made my Monday and I spent the day carrying it about, showing it off to anybody who would look.
And then I moved house, and promptly forgot all about it. It passed Tuesday, day and night, still in its tube – with air holes in the lid, I should say – nestled in the top pocket of my backpack. On Wednesday I temporarily remembered my new friend and took it out, setting it on the window ledge in my office in hope that the warmth of the sun would tempt it to stir. Then came an afternoon’s hunting for other insects back out in the gardens, and much counting of flies. The Herald once again spent the night alone and forgotten.
Finally, this afternoon, I happened to see the tube, still on the windowsill where I left it, and noticed the moth sitting upright again. “Still alive!” I said to myself, quite pleased, for whilst much study of insects involves wreaking death on an enormous scale I get sentimental about moths, especially the bigger, furrier ones. Besides, if it isn’t absolutely necessary to kill, whether for identification, science or education, why bother? What sort of sadist would go around killing things for the sake of it? So I popped it into my pocket alongside a smaller tube that contained a plume moth we’d caught napping on a cypress hedge the day before, and made for the gardens, intending to photograph both and then release them in some suitably mild looking spot.
The air was pleasant. Cool but not cold, fresh from the day’s rain. I pottered about for a few moments, aimlessly intercepting clouds of leafhoppers and small flies from their airborne evening commutes. The horizon was filled with a tempestuous shower cloud, lit orange-pink by the setting sun. Two large V’s of gulls beat in distantly from the west and moved across it, some 150 lesser black-backs forming a dense scatter of dark, purposeful movement. Once they’d passed I looked back to my immediate surroundings, and saw that a woodpigeon had managed to get itself almost entirely plucked somewhere nearby, judging by the quantity of broken primary flight feathers littering the flower beds. Another victim of the campus peregrines, perhaps, though I couldn’t locate any other remains.
Dusk was falling. Realising I risked forgetting my passenger yet again, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the tube. Something wasn’t right. A withered triangle of dead leaf pointed down into the base. What was this dull, flat, broken thing? Where was my moth?! Where was the intense fire, the sheen, the sparkle? Forlornly, I tipped it out onto a leaf. It waved a few legs hopelessly, a shadow of the perfect specimen I’d clumsily woken from hibernation a few days before. Somehow I’d dislodged the lid from its tube whilst I walked, and the poor thing must have buzzed about in my pocket, losing the majority of its delicate, dusty scales in the process. I might as well have poisoned it first thing on Monday, and kept it as a trophy like some depraved Victorian entomologist.
At least that wouldn’t have been a total waste. The best I could hope now was that the mortal remains of this one Herald would provide nourishment for another creature or creatures unknown. How wretched I felt. We try to interact with nature gracefully, as though we belong in the wild, but mostly I just feel as though I’ve forgotten what that could ever mean. I’m probably just tired and looking for metaphors, where all there really is to see is another dead, dried-up moth. But something about how rapidly I relieved The Herald of its beauty – beauty with which I’d been so enraptured just a few days before – seems lamentably symbolic of the often fractious, contradictory relationship between nature and nature ‘lover’.
For a few minutes I’d been thinking the Herald would serve as a perfect symbol of hope for the future, just in time for moving week. Instead I’ll take as totems for our new home the image of Emmelina monodactyla in free flight – for the plume, thankfully, remained in the tube and survived its day in captivity alive and intact – along with the rainbow that stood over the roof of our new house whilst we carried furniture and boxes inside. I just hope our time here has a happier ending than the saga of our last house, or the sorry tale of the moth that fell into my pocket.