Honk If You Love Moths

I’ve endured half a lifetime of being misunderstood. As an undergraduate meteorologist I lost count of the number of people who thought I was studying rocks in space, and those that did understand the weather connection generally brought up Michael Fish’s ‘hurricane’, or asked if they would one day be seeing me on the telly*. After ending my degree disgracefully with a dismal Desmond**, and fruitlessly searching for any kind of relevant work, I eventually set the weather aside awhile for other loves which had lain dormant.

Moving from weather to birdwatching was clearly not a great choice if I was trying to pick a socially acceptable, respected hobby, though birders are so common nowadays that we’re almost hip. From Punk-birding to Packham to those Sound Approach guys down in Dorset, we’ve come a long way from the bearded, balding, anorak-clad stereotype (though I’m heading rapidly toward it). Striding out purposefully into the world with binoculars round your neck might garner the odd second glance, but rarely out-and-out derision.

No, if you want to be ridiculed you want to try getting into insects. The trouble with insects is that they’re everywhere, you see, even more so than birds: in unpromising places like the underside of leaves on an ornamental shrub, road verges, or that scruffy weed patch by the alley behind your house. So if you want to find them, you need to get down into those places with them. And on the whole we’re talking about animals whose size is best measured in millimetres, not centimetres, so standing back too much will rarely help. Look closer. Bury your face in the shrubbery. Vanish halfway into the trees. Shake random branches as you pass by just to see what falls out.

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Horse-chestnut leaf miner moths mating.

And wait for some passing idiot to honk their horn and make you jump out of your skin. That happened to me twice on a single evening yesterday, and all I had done to deserve it was lean right into a young beech tree to get a closer look at a shining swarm of delicate little moths that was whirring in busy little clouds around the branches, backlit by the sun. A scene of incredible natural beauty and a nice little entomological puzzle to complete, too, with two species of adult moth to identify and several kinds of leaf mine on the leaves.

A kidney-spot ladybird pupa. Deep in the undergrowth.

A kidney-spot ladybird pupa. Deep in the undergrowth.

But the sight of somebody actually taking an interest in the world around them was just too much for at least two drivers in the space of five minutes. Such an outrage could not stand un-protested. And it’s them I feel sorry for. Really, I do. No amount of contempt from imbeciles should force a passionate person into retreat. It’s the beeper, not the beeped who is to be pitied. The one whose life is so small, so empty, so far from comprehending what it is to be enthusiastic about something genuinely interesting that all they have to offer is mean-spirited scorn.*** Far from driving me to give up, I can only take it as a sign I should go deeper. Deeper into the undergrowth, deeper into the world, deeper into knowledge and learning and self-awareness.

I’m prompted to feel a little wistful about past loves too. I happened to see some impressively towering cumulonimbus clouds today, which eventually let forth an ear-splitting thunderclap whilst I was brewing our afternoon tea. How much have I retained of what I once knew about them? Possibly more than I think, but still shamefully little considering that on paper I’m a qualified meteorologist. Time for a self-taught refresher? I still have the textbook, Meteorology Today – OK, so it’s technically now Meteorology Yesterday, but surely the basics can’t have changed much in the last decade or so?! Once a met-head, always a met-head; once a birder, always a birder; once an entomologist, always honked at by passing traffic. And that’s the wonderful thing about being passionate about something, and knowing it: as silly as one might feel, we have something those boors at the wheels of their BMWs will never understand. We may not know entirely who we are, but we’re setting out on the road.

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* I still occasionally find myself having to patiently explain that hurricanes are a tropical weather phenomenon that rarely, if ever, by definition, occurs at this latitude. The great storm of 1987 was an unusually intense mid-latitude depression with sustained wind speeds below hurricane force. So there! And I’d be rubbish on TV – I know because I once had a go in front of the BBC TV weather green screen.

**I’m kidding. A 2:2 is a great achievement. Really!

***I have good evidence this was their intent – I wasn’t standing very close to the road at all, so posed no plausible danger to traffic, and a passenger in the second car leant out the window and shouted something unrepeatable…

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