Tuesday, 3 April 2012


I have had a lifelong fascination with moths.  Some of my earliest memories are of driving home in the dark along country roads from our weekly Sunday visit to grandparents, with a constant barrage of moths strafing the car like tracer bullets.  Occasionally, a huge one would be sucked into the mighty vortex of our Austin A40 fighter-bomber's propellers, with eyes that gleamed briefly as bright as the cat's eyes embedded in the centre of the road.

Like all things which emerge from the dark of night, the moths which settled on our kitchen window, trembling with some unknowable ecstasy, seemed like envoys from another dimension.  Let us in, please let us in!  We have tidings of great strangeness to impart!  Needless to say, we went to great lengths to keep them out.

If they did get inside, though, that ecstasy would be unleashed as fury.  there is something profoundly disturbing to the human mind in the way a large moth will hurl itself around a room, in the same frenzy as a fish landed on a riverbank or a cat in a sack, knocking itself to pieces in the blindness of its desire to escape or transcend its spellbound condition.  Eventually, exhausted and broken, the moth would vanish from sight, and the next day the smouldering wreckage would turn up under a chair or inside a shoe; message undelivered, mission impossible.

I became fascinated by these dead husks, that -- looked at closely -- resembled alien spacecraft made of intricately-engineered parts, decorated with a pagan, earthy camouflage that had a satisfying harmony of colour and shape.  A magnifying glass did not dispel, but enhanced the mystery.  Your gently exhaled breath would cause the defunct antennae and landing gear to tremble fearfully, and the hairy thorax would ripple like a field of sun-browned grass.

The next step after wonder, of course, is knowledge.  I still own the copy of The Observer's Book of Larger Moths and the two volume Moths of the British Isles I was given in primary school.  I studied them the way some children now study Pokemon or Top Trumps; I spent hours bent over these catalogues of marvels, feasting on taxonomies of similarity and difference.  It was like mainlining Gilbert White and Charles Darwin.

The names alone invoked enchanted Edwardian summer nights spent "sugaring", sweeping kite-shaped nets, and finessing captive moths into round cardboard pill-boxes:  Angle Shades, Clifden Nonpareil, Burnished Brass, Brindled Beauty, Silver Y, Hebrew Character, Snout, Toadflax Brocade, Foxglove Pug, Brown Rustic, Pebble Prominent, Coxcomb Prominent, Silver Ground Carpet, Autumn Green Carpet, Blue-Bordered Carpet, Lunar Marbled Brown, Feathered Gothic, Feathered Thorn, Jubilee Fan-Foot...  On and on and on...  There are many hundreds of native moth species with "common" names alone (and about 2,500 in all), compared to the 60 or so native butterflies.  This hidden abundance and diversity is part of their mystery.

Inevitably, collecting followed.  This is something I regret now but, like birdsnesting, back then it was regarded as a normal and instructive outdoors activity, and far better than slouching around all day with a comic.  I think you could even earn a badge in the Cubs for it. Certainly, a ten-year-old boy could walk into a chemists, demand a half-crown bottle of ether or ammonia ("for my killing bottle, please, mister"), and leave with his deadly purchase in a paper bag.

I would mystify the neighbours by pegging a bed-sheet to the washing line at night, together with a high-wattage lightbulb on an extension cable.  Our street was backed by a wood, so the nocturnal visitors came thick and fast.  I won't go into the details of what happened next, as I have no desire to attract hate-mail.  Suffice it to say I made my own [whisper] killing jar, relaxing box, and setting boards out of household materials, and achieved a pleasing level of skill in the business of miniature taxidermy.

Unfortunately, we then moved to a new-build estate of housing scraped out of the middle of some muddy fields, and the species count there was very low.  I began to lose interest.  We then moved again to a fourth-floor flat, well above the moth zone, and -- being by then thirteen and it being 1967 -- other interests came to the fore.

But I still get a little charge of excitement when I see the Humming-Bird Hawk moths working our Buddleia bushes on late summer evenings, or come across a Red Underwing sheltering in the eaves of the garden shed.  And my family sounded the true depths of my moth-madness when, a few summers ago, I stood entranced in a  Brittany car-park at dusk, where twelve individuals of three species of large hawk moth -- Privet, Convolvulus, and (I think) Striped Hawk -- were feeding in a blur of wings on the municipal Hydrangeas.  Very nice, they said, But we're hungry, and left me standing there, as they went to claim our reservation at the creperie on the other side of the square.

The thing is, unlike Pokemon or Top Trumps, moths are real.  And it appears they think they have an urgent message for us.  What can it be?

The Elephant Hawk moth that appeared in our garden,
2004, wearing the livery of Elvis' first album
(or London Calling, if you prefer).

By the way, if you want to see a photo-book that really understands the mystery of moths, then you should try to find a copy of Attracted to Light, by Mike and Doug Starn, or at least look at a gallery of the images on their website.  It's outstanding work, worthy of its fascinating subject.


Huw said...


I collected butterflies when I was about 9 and look back on it with similarly mixed feelings. In Roger Deakin's Wildwood there's a marvellous chapter where he goes on a moth - catching? cataloguing? - expedition.

My contribution to moth photography.


Mike C. said...


I have "Wildwood" on my Kindle, as yet unread (my Kindle has started to resemble my house, full of piles of unread books). Must read it soon.

A Poplar Hawk -- what a (battered) beauty! Sometimes, I feel I should invest in a light trap and happily spend my retirement enumerating moth species...


Tony_C said...

Wotcha! Just been having a flick-through, trying to catch up on what I've been missing (hopeless endeavour). This post spooked me a bit, as a friend (introduced to me by Bruce a few years back) developed schizophrenia (said the doctors) in his mid-twenties and spent a fair while frightened to death by the fact that moths were communicating with him and, as I recall, trying to control him. I'll have to tell him now he wasn't imagining it at all!

Mike C. said...


Welcome back, glad you found a shilling for the internet meter!

Interesting about Moth Man -- mental illness often seems to hinge on the loss of the ability to understand those words "seems like", "appears to be", etc. I had a disturbing experience when a house-mate developed a classic "tin foil hat" obsession around the TV -- they were trying to control his mind, etc., etc. Of course, on one level, that's exactly what they might *seem* to be trying to do, but...


Tony_C said...

You think I PAY to read this stuff!? LO-effin-L!

The good news for you, Slave of Mothra, is that the Work Program people, Ingeus ("less than ingenuous") have given up trying to bar access to anything "unclassified", so your fiendish plot to wrest control of my mind is on again.

Best of luck. Better men have tried and failed.