Nancy and I drive in her truck down Hardscrabble Road to Hollis
Barrens. The sun casts an orangey-blue light as it sinks behind the adolescent
mountains of western Maine as if it lives there. Along the road the foliage
glows chartreuse, a heavenly illumination that makes you wish you were a landscape painter.
This will be the
darkest night of June, best for hunting moths. Nocturnal feeders, they're
attracted to light; they want to swallow the full moon whole like a flat
communion host. They'd never take our bait.
The woods of Hollis Barrens are thick with sound: gray tree frogs trilling in the distance, the chirr of crickets and other night calling insects. The last bird warbling before complete darkness is a Swainson's thrush, diva of the night. Its euphonious song--like notes from a glass flute--is an auf Wiedersehen before the next act, the whip-poor-will, who vainly repeats its name like a drunk. One hundred and seventeen times before it breaks for a second, then resumes. Now I appreciate the James Thurber story I read two decades before about the man driven to murder by the relentless plaint of the whip-poor-will.
In the woods, Nancy dips her paint brush into the bucket of bait--a mash of bananas and beer-- and slops it onto a gray birch. The mixture smells sweet and yeasty, makes me want to lick the tree, to singularly abide my desire. We bushwhack along, baiting trees that Nancy assures me she'll remember when we make rounds later. In a patch of scrub oak, Nancy sets up the light trap, a purplish florescent tube attached to a battery. The light compels moths towards a plexiglass contraption, which tricks them into a five gallon pail. Some moths love sweet things; some romance the light. Still other species fly around aimlessly. For these lost souls, she sets a malaise trap which is like a mist net for birds or a gill net for fish; it sweeps the air indiscriminately and catches all.
We sit. We slap mosquitos. We whisper. After half an hour, we check the traps. Success! We have lured Synchlora aerata, a pinky-nail sized creature with pistachio colored wings, "a tiny bead of pure life," like Virginia Woolf's famous moth. Two squiggly lines band its wings like the electrocardiogram of a faint heart. It's black eyes bulge enormously, though they're really wee dots the size of poppyseeds.
Ecpantheria scribonia is caught, too, an inch-long creature I instantly recognize as Cruella DeVille. Her big, furry thorax looks like a chic stole, which flutes into cape-like wings, ivory with black blotches. Some of the spots have a white center, artful in a monochromatic way. Cruella has an incongruously small head the size of a straight pin knob, with downward-pointing handlebar antennae. Her legs, too, are spotted, as if she chose matching stockings for her evening out. In a certain slant of light, the spots show their true colors, iridescent green.
Caripeta angustiorata reminds me of a fluffernutter sandwich, creamy peanut butter wings streaked with marshmallow. And there is no ignoring Pachysphinx modesta, a huge moth the size of a hummingbird. What Pachysphinx lacks in color, it boasts in size. He's a dull lummox crashing through the foliage in search of love and nectar: the Rodney Dangerfield of moths. Luna moths, cecropia moths, underwing moths, wasps, and fire flies--which are not flies at all but beetles--fall into our trap. It's possible to collect over a hundred different species in a night. I love the common names of moths, which promise a story: the unarmed wainscott (Leucania inermis), the brother (Rapphia frater), the blinded sphinx (Paonias exaecatus), the joyful holomelina (Holomelina laeta).
Nancy gingerly transfers the moths to killing jars, still labeled Earth Food, a brand of organic baby food, at the bottom of which she has placed cotton balls lightly soaked in ethyl acetate. It's a careful mix: too much liquid and the specimen is soaked and ruined, too little and the moth beats around in the jar battering its fragile dusty wings. In her office, Nancy will impale the moths on a straight pin, and wings spread, their beauty impounded, they are sacrificed to the gods of science. Me, I just like sitting in the woods on warm summer nights with Nancy, by the lavender light of the trap, waiting for moths to fly our way.
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